What Does an Aquatic Veterinarian Do?

Learn About the Salary, Skills, & More

Image by Emilie Dunphy © The Balance 2019 

Aquatic veterinarians are practitioners who specialize in the health management of marine animals and invertebrates. They are licensed animal health professionals who are qualified to diagnose and treat a wide variety of marine species that include fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, and other wildlife.

Veterinarians are accredited by federal agencies to diagnose illnesses, prescribe treatment, and implement programs for the prevention and control of disease in all marine animal species.

Aquatic Veterinarian Duties & Responsibilities

The typical routine for an aquatic veterinarian can vary depending on the type of marine animals they treat. General duties include:

  • Conducting basic exams and evaluations
  • Giving routine vaccinations
  • Taking samples of blood or other bodily fluids
  • Recommending and distributing prescription medications
  • Observing and evaluating behavior
  • Treating and suturing wounds
  • Handling animal emergencies
  • Performing surgical procedures when necessary
  • Conducting follow-up exams after treatment
  • Taking x-rays or sonograms
  • Giving injections to put terminally ill or old animals to sleep
  • Ensuring that electronic records of animals' treatments are correct and current

Aquatic veterinarians provide health care for different types of marine animals such as fish, sea lions, whales, dolphins and turtles, as well as invertebrate animals such as jellyfish, lobsters, and octopus. They may work in zoos aquariums, or museums, or out in the field on ships, tending to patients with a variety of needs to keep them healthy. Their work may come with challenges such as tending to animals in the water while handling medical equipment; or dealing with an animal that is frightened, irritable, or heavy.

Aquatic Veterinarian Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not provide a category for aquatic or marine veterinarians. However, it does provide classifications for veterinarians, as well as zoologists and wildlife biologists, which includes marine biology.

According to the BLS, veterinarians earned the following salary:

  • Median Annual Salary: $93,830 ($45.11/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $162,450 ($78.10/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $56,540 ($27.18/hour)

Zoologists and wildlife biologists earned the following salary:

  • Median Annual Salary: $63,420 ($30.49/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $102,830 ($49.44/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $40,290 ($19.37/hour)

Aquatic Veterinarian Education, Training, & Certification

This profession requires the following education, experience, and licensing:

  • Academia: All aquatic veterinarians must successfully graduate with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree from an accredited program, which is achieved after a rigorous course of study involving both small and large animal species.
  • Courses: Advanced coursework includes comparative anatomy, pathophysiology, pharmacology, toxicology, epidemiology, and surgery. Veterinarians should also be familiar with bio-security, disease prevention and control, and pesticides and their effects on the environment. Some schools, such as the University of Florida, offer an aquatic animal health track as a part of their DVM program. There are currently 30 accredited colleges of veterinary medicine in the United States that offer a DVM degree.
  • Licensing and certification: After completing their studies, veterinarians must pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE) to become licensed to practice veterinary medicine. Vets can also pursue board certification, which involves several additional years of practical training and testing under the supervision of top professionals in a specialty field. You may also need to obtain your scuba certification to work with animals in their environment.
  • Continuing professional education: The World Aquatic Veterinary Medicine Association (WAVMA) is a professional membership group that serves as a resource for aquatic veterinarians, technicians, students, and others with an interest in aquatic veterinary medicine. The WAVMA puts on an aquaculture biosecurity conference and provides a variety of opportunities for continuing education to its members. Veterinarians who are board certified by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in a particular specialty area (such as zoological medicine, ophthalmology, oncology, surgery) generally earn significantly higher salaries as a result of their advanced education and experience.

    Aquatic Veterinarian Skills & Competencies

    To be successful in this profession, you should have the following skills:

    • Critical thinking: The ability to make tough decisions about sick animals without emotion
    • Physical stamina: The ability to handle animals of all shapes and sizes
    • Interpersonal skills: The ability to work with others such as pet owners, zoo and aquarium personnel, and scientists
    • Technical proficiency: The ability to use medical equipment such as ultrasound machines, as well as computers to analyze medical images and access electronic databases
    • Observant: The ability to recognize symptoms that may not be readily obvious
    • Patience: The ability to keep calm in stressful situations and treat animals with care
    • Written and verbal communication skills: The ability to clearly write information on reports and patient records, as well as share information with colleagues to solve problems with animals

    Job Outlook

    The limited number of graduates from vet programs should ensure excellent job prospects in the field of veterinary medicine. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of veterinarians is projected to grow 19% until 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations.

    As a result of the rapidly expanding aquaculture industry and strong popular interest in marine parks and aquariums, the demand for aquatic veterinary services should continue to increase at a healthy rate for the foreseeable future.

    Work Environment

    Aquatic veterinarians may work in private practice, but they most frequently work for aquaculture facilities, aquariums, zoos, museums, and marine parks. They may also choose to operate a mixed practice that includes providing care for other exotic or wildlife species.

    Aquatic veterinarians may work with animals in large tanks that are outdoors, exposing the veterinarian to varying temperatures and weather conditions. Many aquatic vets have scuba certification and strong swimming skills that allow them to observe and assist animals in their habitats. They may also work with animals in shallow treatment pools and tanks with the assistance of trainers, keepers, or other personnel.

    Work Schedule

    It is common for aquatic veterinarians to work a five- to six-day week with additional “on call” hours being a possibility depending on the specific nature of their practice.

    How to Get the Job

    APPLY

    Look at resources such as Indeed and iHireVeterinary for the latest job postings.

    The World Aquatic Veterinary Medicine Association (WAVMA) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) have training and job opportunities for those who qualify.

    Veterinarians may also find employment as pharmaceutical sales representatives, college professors or educators, military personnel, researchers, or government inspectors.

    KEEP A NETWORK

    Join an association such as the WAVMA and the AVMA. These offer networking opportunities that can help you gain experience in the field.

    Also, attend scientific conferences to maintain a network of colleagues and identify job opportunities. When looking for a job, make that fact known in these informal networks of others in the industry.

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