A veterinary surgeon (“vet”) is essentially an animal ‘doctor’. The official title in the UK is reserved for individuals who are registered with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (“RCVS”).
On a base level vets work with a range of animals ensuring both their overall health and welfare. The work can be both routine and varied depending upon the type of practice, clients and whether it is contract or insurance based. The majority of vets within the UK work within private practices, however, increasingly vets are tending to specialise in different areas. There are a variety of different fields to practise in from domestic pets to exotic animals. Common to all vets will be a background and detailed study of veterinary medicine. This will teach vets the fundamental skills needed and the medical and diagnostic methods required.
The type of practice will define many of the key features of the profession. For example large animal practitioners are likely to spend considerable time on farms and commercial premises whereas small animal vets may work from a single practice.
Vets will also be expected to play an active role in advising on hygiene and welfare standards for a variety of premises and businesses.
Salary is likely to depend upon both size, type and location of a specific practice. Salaries for new vets are normally around £20,000 -£25,000. With training and experience salaries are likely to increase to around £35,000. Partners with their own practices can earn substantial amounts depending upon the size of the practice; a salary of between £50,000 and £100,000 is feasible.
- Vets have responsibilities in the prevention of disease (pre-emptive), diagnosis and treatment of sick, maimed and injured animals.
- Pre-emptive measures may include administering regular vaccinations and inoculations as well as educating both owners and farmers on the care of their animals/ livestock.
- Vets will be expected to advise as well as educate and may take an active role in ensuring appropriate hygiene and welfare conditions as well as reviewing quarantine arrangements.
- Vets will be expected to be able to perform surgical operations. These may be both routine operations e.g. animal castrations/ neutering or post accidents. An important element of the job will also include procedures to ‘put down’ (euthanasia) unwanted, terminally ill or badly injured animals.
- Alongside veterinary nurses, vets will supervise and carry out a variety of scans and tests. These may include x-rays, haematology, faecal analysis, ultrasounds and biopsies.
- Vets are obliged under RCVS rules of conduct to attend to emergencies and most practices will offer a 365 day, 24 hour service.
Veterinary medicine is one of the most competitive degree courses to get on to and at present only 6 institutions offer the necessary qualification. These are:
- University of Bristol
- University of Cambridge
- University of Edinburgh
- University of Glasgow
- University of Liverpool
- The Royal Veterinary College, London.
All courses are approved by the RCVS and will take 5 years to complete (6 at Cambridge). Nottingham University has applied to the RCVS and is currently awaiting recognition.
A very strong academic background is needed to get onto one of the courses with all citing A-levels of at least AAB or better to obtain a place. An A-level in Chemistry is normally a must and it is common to complement this with physics, biology or maths.
It is also possible to start on a different course such as biology, chemistry or life sciences and apply to join the second year of the vetmed degree. This can be a very difficult means of accessing the profession. As well as a degree, anyone wishing to become a vet will also require registration with the RCVS. This is a pre-requisite to practise within the UK.
- Technical Skills – a detailed scientific background and knowledge of veterinary medicine/ science is a pre-requisite.
- Communication – strong inter-personal and communication skills are a must. There will be many difficult situations involved within the job and it will be necessary to liaise with a range of different people from high-brow pharmacologists and pathologists to those with learning difficulties. Tact is a must.
- Business skills – in order to run a successful practice vets will need a good appreciation of business and in some areas agronomics. Vets will also need a good grasp of many of the commercial elements that might adversely affect a working farm.
- Practicality – Vets are not just people who ‘love animals’. Being able to do the 'right' thing is imperative even if that does mean putting down an animal.
Working conditions can vary considerably between different types of practice. Vets need to be aware of the physical risks such as being scratched or bitten as well as those posed by working with animals with trans-specie diseases. There are also risks from laboratory testing, particularly when testing specimens. Much of this may be sent out to independent laboratories to remove some of these risks.
The working environment is equally variable. Small animal practice may involve working purely in sanitary conditions and within a controlled environment. However, all vets may be called to owners’ homes or to work outdoors in poor sanitation and bad weather. Vets may also be called on to travel and the average day can involve significant time spent on the road. The work can also be very physically demanding in terms of holding, or controlling an animal.
Many practices will work on a shift system and vets should be prepared to work nights and be on call. This may have a significant impact upon family or social life.
Most vets will join a practice once they have graduated. Work experience is essential and several universities differentiate between applicants, based upon voluntary work. It is highly advisable to spend time in a veterinary practice or in affiliated work such as with the RSPCA or a zoo. Once qualified the number of jobs currently available is greater than applicants so finding a job should be relatively easy.
Private Practice - The majority of vets work in private practice.
Charities – another source of employment are charities. These include the RSPCA, PDSA, The Dogs Trust and Blue Cross. There are also a lot of smaller charities and animal hospitals offering veterinary care.
Other – zoos, research centres, universities, large livestock and food suppliers,
It is also possible to pursue a research and/or teaching career within universities or research bodies.
Due to the levels of dedication needed to become a vet most people will stay within the field for the majority of their working life. Obvious progressions include teaching and lecturing work, although the restricted number of courses means that opportunities are limited.
Consultation work for food suppliers is becoming increasingly common. Some vets will also move into the veterinary science field, specialising in particular areas of animal pathology or behaviourism.
A Mitchell is a 25 year old Vet. He has been a Vet for 3 years.
What did you do before this job?
I was at Cambridge studying to be a vet.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
I'm a large animal vet, which means I specialise in horses, cows, sheep, swine and the like, rather than pets. My days tend to vary depending upon what is happening but I often start very early in line with farmers' requirements and some days are much more hectic than others. My day will be split between travelling to a farm and the surgery. I am called for a variety of different reasons. For example sometimes it may be a difficult animal birth, or other times when an animal has been injured or is in distress. The nature of my work and this type of veterinary practice means that I often work in unsanitary conditions.
I am often on call and as a consequence spend a lot of my evenings working, which can be frustrating.
What do you like about the job?
I have always wanted to be a vet and have been involved with the veterinary field since I was very young.
What do you dislike about the job?
Hours are very long and animals in distress are prone to bite, kick and scratch.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Being a vet is not just a job but a life commitment. As the field is so competitive you will need to spend considerable periods obtaining work experience and you need to be very focused and know this is what you want to do as veterinary science is ultimately very specialist.
What job(s) do you think you might do after this role (i.e. career progression)?
I intend to have my own practice and do not see myself doing a different job at this stage.
What other inside-information can you give to help people considering this career?
Make sure you get some work experience. Vetmed is one of the most over-subscribed areas of study and you have to have something that differentiates you.