Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Vets Do More Than Treat Pets

Pet Column for the week of March 7, 2005

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Services - Veterinary Profession

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

You may think of veterinarians as the folks who give your pets their "shots" once a year, but a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine degree can open up several careers paths aside from "pet medicine." The students at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine aspire to a diverse array of careers, from improving drug research to caring for homeless pets in shelters. As student Emily Wheeler puts it, "Private practice is just the beginning of what you can do with a veterinary degree."

Wheeler, a dual-degree PhD/DVM student, is pursuing a career in wildlife medicine and spent last summer performing fieldwork and lab research to study connections between wild primate health and human health in Uganda. "I began exploring veterinary medicine with the hope that I could volunteer or assist with wildlife, on the side. Little did I know that I could make an adventuresome career out of caring for wildlife and managing wildlife disease concerns."

Veterinarians also work with wild species in captivity. Zoos, aquariums, and animal parks need veterinarians to take care of collections of animals from all over the world. These professionals must be familiar with the natural history and habitats of the animals they treat. They help develop animal handling and management strategies to prevent the spread of disease in their facilities. Some zoo veterinarians work with reproductive health, especially for species that are threatened or endangered, to aid the survival of these species.

Animals that don't have homes also need veterinary care. Second-year veterinary student Heather Tegeler looks forward to treating sick and injured homeless animals as an animal shelter veterinarian. "My veterinary degree will not only allow me to provide medical care for my patients prior to adoption, but also give me a firm scientific foundation to address the difficult decisions that shelters must face on a daily basis."

Veterinarians must be involved in legislative process for laws regarding animal welfare, food production, drug use in food animals, pet vaccinations, wildlife, and animal control.

Veterinarians who work with poultry, swine, beef cattle or dairy cattle make sure that food animals are healthy and provide quality, disease-free meat, eggs, and dairy products. Fourth-year student Lianne Carr says, "Food animal medicine provides the chance to treat individual sick animals, perform surgery, and develop herd health and reproductive programs. Plus, it's great to travel to a farm as part of your work day!"

In addition to food safety, areas of public health and biosecurity that require veterinarians address zoonoses, or diseases passed from animals to humans. Veterinarians work for organizations including departments of public health, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization addressing zoonotic diseases such as rabies, monkey pox, West Nile virus, malaria, anthrax, tuberculosis, and mad cow disease. Veterinarians help trace outbreaks and develop emergency protocols.

Many of the professionals who study diseases are veterinary pathologists. Lyn Miller Wancket, a third-year student, plans to pursue board certification in veterinary pathology after graduation. "Veterinary pathology focuses on the process and mechanisms of disease. Whether they are evaluating a biopsy for a possible tumor, testing the safety of new drugs, or teaching the next generation of veterinary students, veterinary pathologists strive to improve the health of animals and humans."

Effective drugs for both humans and animals are developed through animal research, and of course, behind every animal research lab is a veterinarian. "We make sure researchers comply with the Animal Welfare Act," explains third-year student Lynn Collura, who completed a laboratory animal fellowship over the past two summers. "Lab animal veterinarians try to make the animals as comfortable as possible, which improves both the animals' lives and the research." They work closely with physicians and other researchers to compare animal health with human health to better understand disease processes and develop effective drugs, surgical procedures, and other medical treatments.

Some veterinarians are exclusively employed by the military. The US Army has its own veterinary corps that treats service dogs and horses as well as officers' pets, inspects food, conducts research, and works with public health and biosecurity.

Of course, veterinarians have advanced science training to become professors at veterinary schools or medical schools. Many veterinarians return to academia to teach after having had a career in another area. Third-year student Ryan Llera plans on a career in small animal practice, but may eventually consider teaching at a veterinary school. "Personally, I see it as a way of thanking those who helped me get started on my way, as I help others start their careers."

To learn more about the different veterinary jobs, visit the Web site of the American Veterinary Medical Association at, or visit the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine's annual Open House on Saturday, April 2, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more details, visit: