Becoming a Veterinarian

Veterinary School

Currently there are 28 accredited colleges/schools of veterinary medicine in the United States and four in Canada. The curriculum varies from school to school but all schools offer a general background. Typically the first two years are largely class-room based and devoted to the sciences that are basic to the practice of veterinary medicine. In the clinical phase of the program, students have hands-on experiences.

Christina Swindall, Gabrielino, DVM, describes the program at Colorado State in this way: “The first two years are on campus. In the first year you study the normal anatomy and physiology of animals. In the second year you get into disease processes. In the third year you spend about half your time in class working on cases. For example, the case might be a dog that is brought in because he is vomiting. We have to answer questions, such as, What are the possible reasons for vomiting? What would you look for in the blood work? How would you work the case up? What treatments would you use? The other half of the time in the third year, you are in the hospital helping seniors with their cases [their animal patients] and learning how the hospital runs.”

“The senior year is 100 % clinical. There are no more exams. You rotate through areas, such as radiology, food animals, small animals critical care, anesthesia, and large animals, such as cows and horses. You can specialize in small animals or large animals or be general and have a look at everything. That’s what I did.”

Postgraduate Work, Including Residencies

Following graduation from veterinary school, students, typically, are urged to get some practical experience caring for animals. Some students immediately opt for postgraduate training, for example, in a 12-month long internship that provides advanced training in medicine or surgery. Successful completion of an accredited internship qualifies veterinarians for an approved residency program leading to board certification in veterinary specialties, such as anesthesiology, equine surgery, internal medicine, and zoo medicine.

Swindall elected to work in a practice after graduating from veterinary school. “I need to get comfortable and more confident with general medicine and surgery,” she says. “My ultimate goal is to do a residency program in zoo medicine. That will take an additional 3 years. I’d like to work in a zoo, preferably one that sends their vets all over the world to work with wild life conservation.”

After completing veterinary school, students interested in teaching or research can continue their education in areas such as large or small animal clinical sciences, microbiology, physiology, pharmacology, and pathobiology and diagnostic investigation.

Graduates interested in careers in public health can choose to earn a master's of public health (MPH) degree. Some institutions, such as Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, offer distance-learning MPH programs.

Advice for Getting into Veterinary School

Take courses in the sciences.
Rebekah Devins, Lumbee, DVM, urges potential applicants to focus on the sciences in school. “Grades do play a big part in getting into vet school,” she says. Swindall says that even if you decide not to go to vet school, getting an undergraduate degree in science sets you up for many good careers.

Serve as a volunteer. The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges recommends doing volunteer work. According to Swindall, “Grades play a big role. You have to do the best that you can. But the schools want well-rounded applications as opposed to students with perfect grades. They want to know what kind of experience applicants have had, what docs have they worked with, what fields have they worked in.”

Try out a variety of clinical and research jobs so that you can find out what you like to do and what doesn’t suit you. Swindall says that veterinarians welcome volunteers. “I sent out letters to vets in my area saying I wanted to go to vet school and was looking for a volunteer or work position. Many people got back to me, and I had a job in a week.” she reports.

Be aware of the big commitment. “If you want to go to vet school, you need to be dedicated,” says Devins. “They expect a lot of hard work from you. I probably put in at least 6 or 7 hours of study time a day. It’s a huge time commitment, so you need to know that it’s something you want to do.” Swindall and Charletta Begaye, Navajo, DVM, agree that becoming a veterinarian requires an enormous commitment, but for them the effort is worthwhile.

Be persistent. “Show that you want to be a vet. Don’t give up,” says Begaye. “I grew up on a reservation. It was difficult to adjust to life outside. I was in the top of my high school class but when I started college, I went into culture shock. My grades were low. An advisor told me that no way would I get into vet school. Then I pushed myself harder. I eventually got on the dean’s list. But my overall GPA was not high enough, so it helped when I went to NAU (Northern Arizona University) and got a 3.8 grade point average. Vet schools look at trends – improvement. If you fit into a disadvantaged category, be sure to put that on your application,” Begaye adds.

Advice Once You’re in School

Be sure you have a support system
. Many indigenous students speak of the importance of the support they receive from their families. “Coming to a big university from a small town or a reservation can be very overwhelming,” Devins acknowledges. “Once you’re in vet school it’s like being back in high school, though. My class has 100 people and there are 400 students total. Like high school, you see everyone every day. It’s like a family,”

Identify resources on campus. Swindall recommends, “Find out what resources are on your campus. See if there is a Native American association. Get involved.”

Some non-Indian students don’t understand why some Indian students go home for ceremonies and breaks. But some schools do have faculty who are respectful of different traditions. Begaye remembers, “At school I was asked to do something for which I didn’t have a ceremony, so they worked out something else for me to do. If you have a problem with dissecting animals or doing terminal surgeries, tell people. I did, and they understood."

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Parts of this article were originally published in the Autumn 2002 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Virginia Stroud, United Keetoowah Bank of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma.)