veterinary surgeon

How to become a veterinary surgeon

What does a veterinary surgeon do?

Veterinary surgeons (vets) diagnose and treat sick and injured animals, and provide preventive health care for healthy animals by conducting health checks, giving inoculations and advising owners on care and diet.

Most vets are based in general practice working with domestic pets; in rural areas they might also care for farm animals and horses. They are often sub-contracted for part-time work by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) or local authorities, inspecting hygiene and care standards in zoos, kennels, catteries, riding stables, pet shops and cattle markets.

Some work full-time for DEFRA, in either the Veterinary Field Service (VFS) or Veterinary Investigation Centres (VICs). This work involves control and eradication of animal diseases, and protecting public health interests.


What's the working environment like for a veterinary surgeon?

Practice-based vets work on a rota system to provide 24-hour cover, seven days a week.

Much of the work is carried out in a surgery, although treatment of large animals requires travel, sometimes to remote establishments, so a driving licence is generally required. Vets could work at any time of day or night, and in all weathers – often in unpleasant conditions. Protective clothing is necessary.

What does it take to become a veterinary surgeon?

To be a veterinary surgeon you should:

  • have a high level of scientific ability and the commitment to undertake lengthy and continual training
  • be prepared to work long and irregular hours
  • care about the welfare of animals without being overly sentimental
  • be physically fit, manually dexterous and have good powers of observation
  • be comfortable making difficult or unpopular decisions
  • have an assertive nature to enforce public health and hygiene laws
  • communicate with animal owners in a patient, sensitive and sympathetic way
  • have the management and business skills to run a practice
  • be IT literate
  • be prepared to work in a variety of environments
  • be comfortable advising how to prevent diseases spreading when it comes to farm animals

Working as a vet will mean that you will need a degree that is approved by the RCVS. You will also need to be registered with them too. It normally takes five years to complete a full-time degree in this area, however this may be reduced to four years if you already have a degree in a veterinary science related course.

Experience working within a veterinary practice will be valued.

Veterinary surgeon career opportunities

There are about 9,000 practising vets registered in the UK. Over half work in general practice and are usually self-employed. Most start as assistants in private practices, are promoted to senior assistants in two to three years and later buy a share in the practice or set up on their own.

Outside general practice, opportunities exist in:

  • local or central government
  • industry or research establishments
  • education
  • animal welfare organisations
  • pet food and drug companies
  • the armed forces
  • zoos and wildlife parks
  • organisations connected with agriculture.

There are increasing opportunities for work in public health.

RCVS-registered vets have the right to practise elsewhere in the European Union. There may be opportunities in other countries, but professional requirements vary. Some work in developing countries with charities such as the International Development Administration (IDA) or the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).


Further information

If you would like to learn more about becoming a veterinary surgeon that does not appear on Hotcourses, further information can be found below.

Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS)
Belgravia House
62-64 Horseferry Road
Tel: 020 7222 2001

British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA)
Wakefield House
46 High Street
Tel: 01223 836 970