Zoo Veterinarian Career Profile

Their patients run the gamut of zoo animals held in captivity

Man playing with Brazilian porcupine
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Zoo veterinarians are specialists with advanced training in the treatment of exotic wildlife species, who care for animals held in captivity. They are practitioners with extensive training in the care of non-domestic animal species. Their patients may include elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebras, lions, tigers, bears, parrots, aquatic animals, small mammals, reptiles, and many other species. 

Duties of a Zoo Veterinarian

Typical duties for a zoo vet may include performing exams, administering sedation, taking samples, giving vaccinations, administering fluids, prescribing medication, performing surgery, cleaning teeth, taking ultrasounds and radiographs, treating wounds, assisting with captive breeding programs, and supervising zoo veterinary technicians. They may also be involved with research studies and interacting with the public as a part of educational events.

Veterinarians may be on call for emergencies, and hours often include some nights, weekends, and holidays. Many vets work 50 hours (or more) each week, sometimes on call when a new animal arrives at the zoo, or if there is some kind of disease outbreak that affects many animals.

Career Options for Zoo Veterinarians

Zoo veterinarians usually are employed by zoos, aquariums, museums, or research facilities. Other options for zoo veterinary practitioners include positions in academia (as professors or biology teachers), veterinary pharmaceutical sales, various government organizations, and laboratories.

Education and Training for Zoo Veterinarians

All veterinarians graduate with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree, which is achieved after completion of a demanding course of study covering both small and large animal species. There are 28 accredited colleges of veterinary medicine in the United States that offer a DVM degree program.

After graduating and passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE), a vet can be professionally licensed to practice medicine. 

There are several steps a vet must complete to achieve board certification in the specialty of zoological medicine. First, the vet must complete a one-year internship following their graduation. They must then complete a three to four-year residency in an approved zoological medicine program (under the supervision of a board-certified diplomate).

Residents must also publish five times in peer-reviewed journals, complete a credentials package, and secure letters of recommendation. The final step is to take the comprehensive two-day board examination which consists of both written and practical elements. Those who pass the exam are recognized as board certified diplomates in zoological medicine.

Zoo Veterinarians' Professional Associations

The American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV) is a leading professional association for zoo veterinarians. The AAZV has more than 1,000 members and publishes the respected Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine. 

The European Association of Zoo and Wildlife Veterinarians (EAZW) is a well known international association, with 600 members representing 48 different countries. The EAZW publishes professional papers and hosts scientific meetings each year.

Career Outlook

The lengthy and rigorous nature of specialty training programs and the difficulty of board certification exams ensure that only a limited number of professionals are able to attain board certification each year. The few who achieve board certification in zoological medicine should be readily able to find employment in the field.