Learn About Being Small Animal Veterinarian

Get Career Info, Including Job Duties, Salary and More

Small animal vets frequently treat dogs and cats.
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Small animal veterinarians are practitioners that specialize in the health management of dogs, cats, birds, exotics, and other companion animals.


Small animal veterinarians are licensed animal health professionals that are qualified to diagnose and treat a variety of companion species. Small animal practitioners commonly treat dogs and cats as well as other small mammals, birds, and reptiles that are kept as pets. A small animal vet can work in a variety of environments, but they will generally have routine interactions with patients and their owners by appointment in the clinic’s exam room.​

The typical routine for a small animal vet includes performing wellness exams, giving routine vaccinations, drawing blood, prescribing medications, evaluating and suturing wounds, performing surgeries (such as spay/neuter procedures), performing post-surgical follow-up exams, and cleaning teeth. Other duties may include performing health exams on young animals, monitoring the reproductive health of breeding animals, assisting with problem births, using ultrasound machines, and taking x-rays.

It is common for veterinarians to work both day and evening hours, and they are often “on call” for potential emergencies that might arise on weekends and holidays. Some veterinary offices, especially small animal clinics, are open on Saturday for a half or full day, though most are closed on Sunday. A few small animal practitioners offer mobile veterinary clinic services, traveling to visit their patients in a specially modified van equipped with the necessary medical gear.

Career Options

According to statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), more than 75% of vets work in private practice. While some vets choose to work exclusively on small animals, others may operate mixed practices that also provide equine or other large animal veterinary services.

Outside of private practice, vets also find work as college professors or educators, pharmaceutical sales representatives, military personnel, government inspectors, and researchers.

Education and Training

All small animal veterinarians graduate with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree, which is the culmination of a rigorous course of study involving both small and large animal species. There are 30 accredited colleges of veterinary medicine in the United States that offer a DVM degree to their graduates.

Upon graduation, vets must also successfully complete the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE) to become professionally licensed. Approximately 3,000 veterinarians graduate, pass the NAVLE exam and enter the veterinary field each year. At the end of 2015, the most recent AVMA employment survey available, there were 105,358 practicing U.S. veterinarians. Small animal exclusive vets make up over 66% of that total, with an additional 9% operating in small animal predominant practices.

Professional Associations

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is one of the most prominent veterinary organizations, representing over 80,000 practitioners. Another large veterinary organization is the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA), which is comprised of 80 member associations representing 75,000 small animal vets worldwide.


The median wage for veterinarians is approximately $88,490 according to the 2015 BLS salary survey statistics.  Earnings in the 2015 BLS salary survey varied from under $53,210 for the lowest 10% of all veterinarians to more than $158,260 for the top 10% of all veterinarians.

According to the AVMA, the median professional income for companion animal exclusive veterinarians (before taxes) was $97,000 in 2009. Vets in companion animal predominant practice earned a similar median income of $91,000.

In terms of average starting salary right out of veterinary school, small animal vets fared second best with an average compensation of $69,712; food animal exclusive (large animal) vets started out at an average salary of $76,740.

Veterinarians who are board certified in a particular specialty area (ophthalmology, oncology, surgery, etc) generally earn significantly higher salaries as a result of their advanced education and experience. As of 2015, AVMA data indicated there were 464 board certified canine and feline diplomates and 577 board certified small animal surgeons (nearly double the number of board-certified small animal surgeons since 2010). Some vets may hold both certifications.

Job Outlook

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the veterinary profession will expand at a faster rate than the average for all professions surveyed, about 9 percent over the decade from 2014 to 2024.  The limited number of graduates from vet programs will translate to excellent job prospects in the field.

The AVMA’s most recent employment survey (December 2015) found that there were 66,759 vets in private practice. Of that number, there were 43,851 vets in companion animal exclusive practices and an additional 6,080 in companion animal predominant practices.

With the steadily increasing numbers of animals kept as pets, as well as the steady increase in medical spending on those pets, the veterinary profession should continue to be a rewarding business over the next decade and beyond.