What Does a Veterinary Surgeon Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Vet surgeons operating on a dog
••• Monty Rakusen/Cultura/Getty Images

Although all veterinarians are qualified to perform some surgical work, veterinary surgeons are specially trained and certified to perform advanced general or orthopedic surgical procedures on a variety of animals.

Veterinary Surgeon Duties & Responsibilities

Routine duties of a veterinary surgeon in private practice include:

  • Conducting presurgical exams and diagnostic tests.
  • Evaluating X-rays and nuclear scans.
  • Using specialized equipment.
  • Performing surgical procedures.
  • Drafting case reports.
  • Supervising post-operative care.
  • Interacting with surgical veterinary technicians, primary and emergency vets, support staff, and animal owners.
  • Prescribing follow-up home care.

A veterinary surgeon must also be sensitive to the needs of the owner and help her understand the important role she plays in her animal's recovery.

Veterinary Surgeon Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't provide salary data for veterinary specialties but reports that the median salary of veterinarians was $93,830 ($45.11/hour) as of its March 2019 update. However, all else being equal, board-certified veterinary surgeons likely earn salaries that are somewhat higher than those of veterinarians:

  • Median Annual Salary: $98,000
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $173,000
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $54,000

Source: PayScale.com, updated May 2019

Education, Training, & Certification

You'll need to clear a number of educational hurdles, get hands-on experience as a resident, publish in a scientific journal, and pass a rigorous exam on your way to becoming a veterinary surgeon:

  • Education: Ideally, you'll start preparing for your career as a veterinary surgeon in high school, where you should focus on courses in math, laboratory sciences, and English composition, in addition to getting practical experience with animals in 4-H or by working part-time or volunteering at a veterinary clinic, humane society shelter, or the like. You'll sit for the SAT or ACT exam while you're in high school and gain admission to a four-year college or university, where you'll complete your studies in pre-veterinary science, biology, animal science, or a similar area. To be admitted to a four-year veterinary college, you must have met all course requirements and apply for admission through the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.
  • Training: Following successful completion of veterinary school, you'll undertake additional training in your specialty, including at least a one-year internship followed by a three-year residency that meets caseload and publishing requirements established by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS).
  • Licensing: According to the American Association of Veterinary State Boards, you must be licensed in each state where you practice; licensing requirements differ by state.
  • Certification: To become a board-certified veterinary surgeon, you must sit for a tough certification exam administered by the ACVS. Register for the exam by submitting your online application and examination fee by the deadline.

    When you pass the certification exam, you'll be granted diplomate status in the veterinary specialty of surgery. As a diplomat, you must complete continuing education each year to maintain your license and stay up-to-date on new developments in the field.

    Veterinary Surgeon Skills & Competencies

    To perform your work competently and with compassion, you need to love animals, have empathy for them and their owners, and cultivate several additional attributes and skills:

    • Communication skills: Good active listening skills, along with the ability to write and speak clearly, are crucial to effective communication with colleagues, surgical assistants, support staff, and animal owners.
    • Physical and emotional stamina: Although veterinary surgery may be deeply rewarding, it may also be physically and mentally exhausting, for example, when you must stand for hours at a time performing surgery or console a grieving animal owner.
    • Manual dexterity and excellent vision: Sharp vision and precision hand-eye coordination are needed during observation and assessment of the patient and when performing surgery.
    • Team orientation: Whether you work for a large animal hospital or you're in charge of your own mobile surgical unit, you must work well as part of a team and have the ability to lead when necessary.
    • Computer and software skills: Besides being comfortable using instant messaging, email, spreadsheet, and word processing apps, you may need the ability to use practice management, medical, or other types of software.

    Job Outlook

    The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't provide information on veterinary specialties, but it does project an excellent employment outlook for all veterinarians. In fact, employment is expected to grow 19 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is much faster than the average for all types of jobs. This is attributed, in part, to increases in pet-related spending and the availability of advanced surgical procedures and cancer treatments for animals.

    Work Environment

    You'll probably find yourself working in a climate-controlled clinic, research hospital, or laboratory setting, although there may be times when you'll travel to a client's premises or to a conference or training site. If you're in business for yourself, you may decide to work with an assistant or two out of a mobile surgical unit and visit two or three hospitals daily to perform more-complicated surgeries such as cranial cruciate repair.

    Work Schedule

    You'll often work regular weekday hours, although sometimes you may be required to work evenings, weekends, or holidays, depending on your workload and your employer's needs. You should be flexible enough to take occasional last-minute schedule changes in stride. If you're working independently, you can set your own schedule, such as Monday through Thursday mornings or any schedule that suits you and your clients.

    How to Get the Job

    GET SOME EXPERIENCE

    Try your hand at working with animals to see if a career in veterinary surgery is a possibility for you.

    APPLY

    Visit the American College of Veterinary Surgeons job board as well as the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges Career Center to find employment opportunities.

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