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

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It's More Than Giving Shots to Puppies and Kittens: What Do You Know About Veterinarians

Pet Column for the week of March 20, 2006

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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

Many of us feel a connection to our community veterinarians; we entrust the health and welfare of our pets to these professionals. But it is not widely known the steps one must take to become a member of the veterinary health profession. Many would also be surprised to learn that veterinary medicine is much more than giving shots to puppies and kittens.

The field of veterinary medicine is growing and has come to include such areas of science as biomedical research, epidemiology, public health and biosecurity, and environmental conservation.

The Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree program in North America is a four-year program of classroom, laboratory, and clinical coursework, with a year-long clinical experience during the fourth year. Most curricula cover at least six species: dogs, cats, horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry, and some cover camelids (camels, alpacas, llamas), reptiles, rodents, rabbits, exotic bird species, and marine or freshwater species including fish and amphibians.

Currently there are 28 accredited veterinary colleges in the United States and four in Canada. In 2005, 2,300 U.S and 300 Canadian veterinary graduates were not enough to fill the growing demand for veterinarians, especially in areas of veterinary medicine outside traditional companion animal practice. The University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, Ill., is the only one within the state.

Within the realm of companion animal medicine, veterinary specialties that did not exist 20 years ago, such as oncology, ophthalmology, and dentistry, are becoming popular amongst pet owners. Veterinary hospitals that employ specialists who are board-certified in areas such as surgery and dermatology are starting to thrive in urban and suburban areas as the human-animal bond evolves and owners desire an advanced level of medical care options for their pet.

Outside of animal clinics and hospitals, veterinarians also work for animal shelters, race tracks, zoos, and animal parks. In the government, some veterinarians lobby on behalf of animal welfare, while others work for public health departments working on public policies that involve animal health issues. Wherever there are animals or animal issues involved, there's likely a veterinarian behind the scenes.

Veterinarians are also needed in the field of biomedical research to develop new drugs or medical or surgical procedures. Veterinarians may work for drug companies, government health agencies, space programs, or universities to help develop research projects and train and supervise other researchers on proper care of animals. For example, University of Illinois veterinarians have investigated antibiotic resistance and the healing effects of broccoli.

In the agricultural realm, veterinarians oversee the health of animals that provide our meat, milk, and eggs to ensure that our food supply is safe. This includes helping manage healthy living conditions and care for the animals and developing biosecurity measures to keep contagious diseases out of herds and farms.

Veterinarians are also needed to protect public health. With increased concern about infectious disease that can pass from animals to humans (known as zoonoses), such as avian flu, mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease, rabies, Lyme disease, and West Nile virus, veterinarians are called on by the government and military for disease research. Veterinary virologists and bacteriologists help develop vaccines and medications for such diseases, and veterinary epidemiologists can determine how these diseases spread and help develop strategies to prevent future outbreaks.

With increasing concern about zoonoses, governments are also paying more attention to the health of wildlife and the environment. Consequently, more jobs are available for experts in wildlife health who have a combined knowledge of veterinary medicine, infectious disease, toxicology, and ecology. Many of the veterinarians who work with diseases and environmental issues travel internationally and work with governments and scientists from around the world.

To learn more about veterinarians and veterinary careers, visit or attend the College's annual open house at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine on Saturday, April 1, 2006. The students of the College have prepared more than 40 exhibits and demonstrations to reveal the breadth of knowledge needed for success in the veterinary field. For more information about the College of Veterinary Medicine Open House, visit