Careers in Veterinary Medicine

IMG_0289 Charletta Begay and classmate, Dawn, carry out a ram breeding soundness exam.

“The field of veterinary medicine is bigger than I ever imagined,” says Christina Swindall, Gabrielino, DVM. “You can practice as a dog and cat vet or a horse vet or a dairy vet. You can work for companies that make animal food or pharmaceuticals or surgical supplies or veterinary office supplies. You can work in a zoo or do wild life conservation, even internationally. You can work in aquaculture, raising fish for consumption. You can work with food animals, such as chickens and turkeys. You can be involved with the regulations for shipping food in and out of state. You can work on reservations and get help with your student loans by providing low cost care.”

Animals and people have an enormous impact on each other. Veterinarians are advocates for animals, and they educate people about ways to safeguard the health of animals. Veterinarians are also concerned about the health and safety of people. For example, working with physicians and scientists, veterinarians are addressing zoonoses - diseases that primarily affect animals but incidentally affect humans. The AIDS, SARS, avian influenza viruses and other infectious agents carried by animals have led to new and emerging human diseases.

Career Options

The field of veterinary medicine is evolving and expanding with the changing needs of society as well as new knowledge and technology. The following are some of the current career options.

Clinical Practice
Almost 70% of veterinarians care for animals in private or corporate practices. More than half of these clinicians work mainly with small animals, such as dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, rabbits and other animals that can be kept as pets. Some veterinarians have a mixed practice where, in addition to seeing pets (companion animals), they also care for such animals as pigs, goats, and sheep. A smaller number of veterinarians work with large animals, such as cows and horses.

Veterinarians diagnosis animals’ health problems, give needed vaccinations and medications, treat and dress wounds, set fractures, and perform surgery and assist with deliveries when necessary. Like their physician counterparts, veterinarians use stethoscopes, radiographic and ultrasound equipment, surgical instruments and other tools. Veterinarians also educate people who own and/or have responsibility for the care of animals.

Veterinarians treat most animals in clinics and hospitals. Vets who take care of large animals typically carry their equipment in their trucks or cars and drive to the farms or ranches where the animals are housed. Some veterinarians take mobile clinics to reservations and rural areas to provide care for dogs, cats and other animals.

Education A few veterinarians serve as faculty members in veterinary colleges and schools. Some also provide continuing education to practicing veterinarians. Most faculty members also conduct research and do community work.

Research Veterinarians do research in such places as colleges and universities, industry, and governmental agencies. Most focus on new ways to prevent and treat animal and human health problems. Working with scientists and physicians, veterinarians have contributed to such successes as solving the mystery of botulism and developing techniques for doing hip and knee joint replacement and for doing organ transplants.

Public Health Veterinarians in public health, such as Roberta Duhaime, Kahnawake Mohawk, DVM, and Dwayne Jarman, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, DVM, MPH, work in areas where public health and veterinary medicine overlap. The areas of overlap include environmental health, food security, food borne diseases, zoonotic diseases, and bioterrorism.

Public health veterinarians working in environmental health study the effects of pesticides, industrial pollutants, and other contaminants on animals and people. Veterinarians serve as epidemiologists in city, county, state, and federal agencies investigating animal and human disease outbreaks such as food-borne illnesses, influenza, rabies, Lyme disease, and West Nile viral encephalitis. At the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, veterinarians help evaluate the safety and efficacy of medicines and food additives. Veterinarians also help ensure the safety of food processing plants, restaurants, and water supplies. Veterinarians involved in homeland security help to protect the health and safety of animals and people by developing antiterrorism procedures and protocols. Public health veterinarians are also employed in colleges and universities, the food industry, the military and international public health organizations.

Need for More Vets

In July, 2007 Dr. Greg Hammer, the newly elected president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, said that there is a critical shortage of veterinarians working in public health practice, who can ensure food safety, combat bio-terrorism and oversee environmental health and regulatory medicine. He warned, "At a time when more and more emerging disease is zoonotic and the potential for bio-terrorism and food safety disasters are increasing, our capability to respond is decreasing."

Hammer thinks that the profession needs to include more minorities, and he's concerned about the shortage of veterinarians working in large animal programs involving food production. In part, he says that this might be due to the fact that many of the veterinarian students and young graduates have not been raised in or near farms. Unlike the older generation of vets, most students come to veterinary school with little or no knowledge of large animals.

Hammer says that there has been a decrease in the number of students applying to colleges of veterinary medicine. Many of the current vet students plan to care for companion animals.

Need for American Indians and Alaska Natives in Veterinary Medicine

Dr. Duhaime, who is a veterinary medical officer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says, "I’d like to see more Indian people in my agency. A lot of the prophecies say that now is the time to share Native wisdom. Indian people can enhance the ability to look at things in a different way. Native American values are important to all. An example would be when a Native person hunts deer for food there is a strong connection with that animal, and the animal is to be thanked for its life. Currently in American slaughter houses we do not have this same sort of feeling of thankfulness. Although much work has been done, much more is needed to enhance respect for the domestic animals that we eat.

Duhaime says that many reservations lack money to pay veterinarians, but veterinarians may be able to create a job doing such things as providing some clinical medicine, testing reservation dogs and other animals, and helping to bring back wild life.
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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.)