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Becoming a Zoo Veterinarian: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a zoo veterinarian. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career in zoological medicine.

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Zoo Veterinarian Requirements

Zoo veterinarians provide both emergency and routine medical treatment to the many species of exotic animals kept in captivity at zoos. By observing an animal's behavior and providing a physical examination, a zoo veterinarian can diagnose illnesses, learn the extent of injuries and provide treatment.

These veterinarians perform surgery, prescribe medications and also provide preventative healthcare to the exotic creatures in their care. This job requires a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree and a state license. The table below details the core requirements for a zoo veterinarian.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Doctorate required*
Degree Field Veterinary medicine*
Licensure and Certification All states require a license and passing a national exam and some states also require passing a state test*; certification is not required, but some veterinarians seek certification from the American College of Zoological Medicine (ACZM)**
Experience Varies; can range from 2-5 years***
Key Skills Creativity and solving problems when treating exotic animals, ability to work with other staff to safely treat dangerous animals*
Computer Skills Medical Animal Records Keeping System software****, Microsoft Office and Excel*****
Technical Skills Expertise with veterinary medical equipment and tools*****

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American College of Zoological Medicine, ***Job postings by employers (August 2012), ****Association of Zoos and Aquariums, *****O*NET OnLine.

Step 1: Get an Undergraduate Education

Aspiring animal doctors need undergraduate training before entering veterinary school. They must pass all the courses needed for acceptance into veterinary school. Veterinary programs generally require students to have already completed classes in subjects including anatomy, animal science, biology, chemistry, physiology and zoology.

It's not necessary, but the majority of students have earned a bachelor's degree prior to starting veterinary school. Students may select any undergraduate major in preparation for veterinary school providing they complete all the classes necessary for admittance to a veterinary program. While no specific major is required, biology may be a good undergraduate choice for aspiring veterinarians.

Step 2: Earn a DVM degree

Future zoo veterinarians need a DVM degree from an accredited veterinary medicine college. Students typically take four years to finish veterinary school. Programs typically involve classroom studies, laboratory experience and clinical work. The coursework generally covers topics like animal anatomy, animal illnesses and physiology.

Step 3: Obtain a State License

Every state mandates that veterinarians hold a license to practice, and licensing regulations can vary by state. Aspiring veterinarians must have graduated from an accredited veterinary school and successfully completed the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam. Many states also demand that applicants pass a state exam in addition to the national test.

Step 4: Complete an Internship

Although internships are not always required, new veterinarians can obtain clinical experience in zoological medicine and postgraduate training by completing an internship typically lasting one year. In order to be a zoo veterinarian, new vets must acquire work experience with exotic animals. Many zoos have internship programs with veterinary schools that allow interns to work under the supervision of experienced zoo veterinarians in treating exotic animals.

Interns may serve rotations in various aspects of zoological medicine including surgery, dentistry and anesthesiology. Completing an internship can prepare interns to serve a residency training program in zoological medicine or to work in private practice or clinical scientific work at a university. Serving an internship can also help veterinarians who want board certification.

Step 5: Obtain Specialized Training in a Residency Program

Veterinarians planning to seek certification in zoological medicine must complete a residency program lasting 3-4 years. Residency programs are approved by the American College of Zoological Medicine (ACZM), the certifying board for zoological medicine, and are taught and supervised by board-certified zoological veterinarians. Residency programs give veterinarians in-depth training in zoological medicine and sharpen their clinical skills and research abilities while working at zoos, aquariums, wild animal parks or other sites with captive exotic animals. Residency training can lead to a Master of Specialized Veterinary Medicine degree, but some residency programs don't result in a degree.

Success Tip:

Join a professional organization. Organizations, including the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians and Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians, can provide networking opportunities. Members may also have the opportunity to discuss current issues in the field of exotic animal health.

Step 6: Get Certified in Zoological Medicine

Certification isn't mandatory for veterinarians, but getting certified in zoological medicine displays expertise and extended training in that specialty. Veterinarians need to meet work experience and education requirements to get certified.

To be eligible to take the credentialing exam in zoological medicine, applicants must be graduates of a veterinary medicine program accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association, possess a veterinarian license and have published a minimum of five articles on zoological medicine in professional journals.

Other eligibility requirements include finishing an ACZM-approved training program in zoological medicine lasting at least three years or working in zoological medicine for six years after veterinary school. If the veterinarian meets these eligibility requirements and passes the ACZM exam, the applicant receives board certification and recognition as a diplomate of the ACZM.

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