How to become a vet

Any job where you’re working with and helping animals can be hugely rewarding. We’re always proud of staff in our Pet Hospitals as they work hard to save the lives of so many pets.

A career as a veterinary surgeon is very rewarding but you’ll need to be committed. It’ll take dedication and a lot of hard study. The good news is it doesn’t matter how old you are or what stage you’re at in your life – you can choose to change career paths at any age as long as you have the passion and drive!


What do vets do?

If you’re thinking of becoming a vet, it’s always good to know what’s coming, right? Well, not all vets actually do the same thing. You might find you have a particular interest in a specific part of veterinary work and choose to do that, or you might think you will enjoy the variety of a mixed job in general practice.

If you’re considering it as a career option, the best thing to do would be to shadow a vet who does the kind of work you are interested in before you make any decisions, to see what the job involves and make sure that it’s something that you’ll enjoy doing.

At vet school, you’ll be taught to treat all kinds of animals. Once they graduate, some vets continue to work with a mix of animals, seeing a variety from farm animals to pets to horses in a single day.

However, many vets also choose to move into one area of practice to treat a certain type of animal. Small animal vets – like the ones who work in our Pet Hospitals – work with pets. They assess, diagnose and treat people’s sick cats and dogs and perform surgery on them. Some vets might work only day shifts, others might work only emergency night shifts and some may do both on a rota.

Other vets you might find work only with farm animals. They do many of the same things, just on very different animals! This job involves a lot of farm visits, driving around the countryside, and can mean working unsociable hours to cover night time emergencies. Vets who work with farm animals play an important role over calving season in helping the farmers deliver new cows and also giving them help and advice on how to take the very best care of their animals by creating management plans to help them throughout the year.

Equine vets treat horses. They take care of much bigger pets and use their knowledge to diagnose and treat horses. You may also get vets who prefer to treat more unique pets (called “exotics” by vets), such as small pets, birds or reptiles, or those who have an interest in wildlife or zoo animals.

To work in any of the above kind of general practice, a veterinary degree is usually enough. However if you think you might want to work as a specialist in a veterinary referral hospital (like a human Consultant), you might find you need to do further study after your veterinary degree.

There are also plenty of other jobs that vets can do which might not involve treating animals day to day. This includes working for the government making sure animal products are safe to eat, working for a laboratory to make sure the animals there have good welfare, or working for animal welfare charities on policy, campaigns or public education. Some of these might require other experience or education backgrounds, so always check the job requirements for the kind of work you’re interested in.

Something all vets need, alongside a passion for helping animals, is the ability to communicate with people. As a vet you will need to speak with owners or other people who are looking after animals throughout your career, so you need to be patient and understanding. You’ll need to be prepared to deal with lots of people in different situations – some happy, some sad, some frustrated or angry – and often all in the same day!

As a vet, you may also need to deal with some situations that you might find morally difficult. For example, putting animals to sleep can be very emotional, but is an important part of the job as some animals can’t be saved and sometimes this is what is best for them. So make sure you think about whether this is something you could do and try to go in with realistic expectations of what the job involves before deciding to become a vet.


What qualifications do I need to become a vet?

Probably the first question you might ask yourself after deciding to become a vet is ‘how do I get in to vet school?’

To register with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and practice as a vet, you will need a degree in veterinary medicine from an accredited university. These courses are typically very competitive and very academically challenging so have some of the highest entry requirements. Some universities may have different entry requirements for students with certain circumstances.

There are a few qualification routes you can go down to meet the entry requirements to be accepted onto a degree course that will allow you to become a vet:

A Levels/Highers and Advanced Highers

A Levels (or Highers and Advanced Highers in Scotland) are the most common route to university. You also need to have also achieved good results in a range of subjects including the sciences for your GCSEs (or National 5s in Scotland).

It’s best to check university websites or prospectuses, or have a discussion with the admissions officers to get a better understanding of what is expected.

You’ll need to check with the university you plan on studying at for entry requirements, but for a standard offer you’re usually required to have high marks in three subjects at A Level, including Biology and one or two other science-related subjects. For Scottish Highers, it again varies by university but you usually need to have achieved exceptional grades in five Highers including Chemistry and Biology and another science, as well as at least two Advanced Highers with high grades (usually in Biology and Chemistry).

Access to Higher Education

Access to Higher Education (HE) is a great way for people over the age of 19 to gain the qualifications needed to progress on to a degree. These courses are usually fairly flexible (so you continue to work if you need to) and a lot of colleges offer them.

The Access to HE qualifications are a diploma. Most universities will expect a distinction and heavy focus on science subjects. Not all vet schools accept Access to HE, so be sure to check the entry requirements first and call the admissions office if you’re not sure.

You can get loans to cover the costs, with some colleges even wiping the cost of your Access to HE diploma if you go on to successfully complete a degree course. Check your college’s website to see the funding options available.

Vocational qualifications

Some universities will accept a BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma qualifications in a subject like Applied Science or Animal Management (if there is a strong science focus). You’ll be expected to complete these with mostly distinctions and may have to complete an additional A Level alongside your BTEC course, depending on your previous qualifications and the university’s requirements.

The advantage of a BTEC is that it will involve a lot of practical work, however this may not count towards any experience in a university’s entry requirements.

Another degree

Several vet schools will accept a degree in another subject to meet the entry requirement. Historically this would have been in a science-related subject, though some universities now offer change of career programs which mean graduates of any subject can apply. Usually you will need an Honours degree with at least a 2:1 though this will vary by university.

Make sure you find out what fees and other costs might apply to you as government student loans may not be available if you are doing a veterinary degree as a second degree.

Infographic to show the qualifications that will get you onto a veterinary medicine degree

Work experience

The more animal-related experience you have before applying for a veterinary degree, the better! You’ll need this experience on top of your qualifications before applying.

You can contact your local veterinary surgeries to see if they can accommodate you. You may find that you work at more than one, but this will be good in the long run as it helps build a variety of experience.

Most will ask for significant experience volunteering in a veterinary practice, but many universities will expect even more. Ideally, along with experience within a veterinary setting, you should also show that you have lots of: experience working with animals in general. This could be work, shadowing or voluntary placements at a cattery, kennels, rehoming centre, farm, stables or any other relevant experience (e.g. at a zoo or wildlife park). Look around your local area to see what kinds of animal experience you could get – it never hurts to ask!


Veterinary medicine degrees

Once you have your qualifications, you’ll be ready to move on to your degree. These are typically five-year courses. Other courses have the option of a pre-vet foundation year for students with alternative entry requirements, or a sandwich year making them longer. Some programmes for students who already have another degree in a science subject are only four years.

To become a vet, you must get a qualification from university that runs a Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) approved course. These are:

As well as class time, you’ll be expected to complete practical placements called Extra-Mural Studies (EMS) in your holidays. Once you start the clinical years of your veterinary degree, we offer the opportunity to complete part of your clinical Extra-Mural Studies (EMS) by seeing practice at PDSA Pet Hospitals. To find out more and apply, visit our Seeing Practice page.


Funding your degree

If you’re passionate about becoming a vet, don’t let the issue of funding put you off! There are options available to help you fund your veterinary degree.

If this is your first higher education qualification, you may be eligible for a government loan to cover tuition fees and maintenance costs. There is no age limit to these loans and repayments begin once you have completed your degree and are in full-time employment (earning at least £25,000 p/a).

You can find out more about student finance and how to apply on the government’s website. You may also be eligible for government grants depending on your circumstances.

Each university may also offer its own funding packages or have a directory of bursaries available to their students. Check the university’s website or speak to their student finance advice team on an open day or by getting in touch with their office.

There may also be bank loans available to help cover the cost of a higher education qualification. This can be helpful if the other options are not available to you. Speak with your bank to see what they are able to offer.

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