6 Jobs You May Not Realise Veterinarians Do
When you think of becoming a veterinarian (or typically just “vet” in the UK), you probably think of private practice, such as caring for people’s pets. If you’re thinking of more exotic veterinary careers, you might have thought about veterinary medicine for farm or zoo animals. And it is true that the vast majority of veterinary science graduates end up in one of these careers. But if you’re thinking of becoming a vet – perhaps you’ve been inspired by our Veterinary Science Programme or Introduction to Veterinary Science – then you might like to know how many more diverse and interesting options are available to you.
1. Working for the armed forces
Working dogs and other working animals play a significant role in the assorted armies of the world. In the British army, dogs and horses are provided and cared for by the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, which trains up to 170 dogs and 60 horses each year. Horses are no longer used for military purposes by the British army, but they do have an important ceremonial function. Meanwhile in the US, horses and mules are still used for transport across difficult terrain.
Other militaries use other animals: the US Navy has used dolphins to sniff out landmines, while the French army has trained eagles to take down drones. In areas where landmines remain a problem, animals as small and light as rats have been used so that landmines can be detected and defused. Military animals have even been awarded medals for their bravery.
All of these working military animals require veterinarians to take care of them, including under challenging and even dangerous circumstances. But being a military veterinarian isn’t just about looking after working animals. In this role, you might find yourself looking after pets belonging to soldiers, or doing public health work to control and eradicate animal diseases. Military veterinarians are typically trained like any other army officer, so you’ll go through fitness, survival and weapons training on top of your veterinary qualifications. You might be able to get army bursaries to support you through university (depending on the country), and like any other soldier, you could find yourself being sent all over the world to support animals and the military forces that they work with. And while being an army veterinarian is generally speaking a safer role than most other army jobs, there is always the chance that you will be exposed to the dangers of war.
2. Working in public health
Public health isn’t just a matter for humans; the general health of animals is important too, for several different reasons. One is that outbreaks of disease among farm animals can have a widespread impact. For example, the UK has a small farming sector relative to the economy as a whole, but the last major outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 cost the country £8 billion as a result – not only on farming, but also on sectors such as tourism. In countries that are more dependent on particular animals for their food and where less food is imported, disease in livestock has the potential to lead to food shortages.
However, the most important reason that public health of animals is a priority for many governments is that animal diseases can sometimes be passed on to humans. The devastating outbreak of Ebola that happened in Western Africa from 2014, at a loss of more than 11,000 lives, probably came from animal-to-human transmission as a result of eating bushmeat. Bushmeat – which as game is hunted rather than farmed – can’t easily be controlled for diseases. But other potential sources of disease in humans can. In the 1980s and 1990s, an outbreak of BSE in the UK (colloquially called ‘mad cow disease’) led to 177 people dying after contracting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease after eating infected beef. It remains the case that people who lived in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s are barred from donating blood in the USA and Australia, and have only recently begun to be permitted to donate blood again in Ireland.
All this demonstrates the vital importance of veterinarians working for the government to safeguard public health among animals, and by extension, among humans. Veterinarians in public health carry out inspections of farms and other areas where animals are kept to ensure compliance with safety standards; they investigate any potential threats, including horizon-scanning and working with their colleagues internationally; and they act as champions of animal welfare too.
3. Working in universities and other research centres
Universities represent a significant employer of veterinarians, and it isn’t just in roles such as lecturers to train the next generation of vets. The most important area where universities and other research centres need veterinarians is in medical research – both for animals and for humans.
It remains the case that medicines cannot be licensed for use in humans before they have been tested on animals. Animals are used not only to ensure that humans aren’t harmed by testing medicines, but also as models to investigate disease, including by being genetically modified so that they can better reflect human pathology. Though the results are unfortunately not always reliable – what works in a mouse may well not work in a person – animals remain the best model that we have for testing medicines other than testing them on ourselves, something which is generally acknowledged even by those who believe animal testing is inherently unethical. And of course, animal medicines are also developed and tested using the species they are intended for.
All these animals require a high standard of care. This isn’t just an ethical concern; it could seriously affect an experiment if an animal used in testing became unwell not as a result of the experiment, but because of poor handling. Laboratory animals need all the same care and attention as pets and farm animals, and often more besides. Veterinarians can also contribute in using their expertise to explain why an animal might be responding to a particular experiment in a particular way, advancing medical science. That said, while researchers may have as their goal better understanding the disease or treatment they’re working on, the veterinarians who work beside them usually have animal welfare as their top priority – which means this can be a more rewarding job than you might initially expect.
4. Working for drug or food companies
The pet industry in the UK is growing massively, as people are increasingly prepared to spend significant amounts of money on their pets, whether that’s in the form of gourmet food, special treats, or even in treating conditions that would previously have led to the pet being put down. In total, the pet industry in the UK is worth around £4.5 billion – so it’s not surprising that it’s a major employer of veterinarians in research and development of new products.
On the drug development side, you might be using your knowledge of animal biology and biochemistry to develop new drugs. This isn’t just in terms of animal testing, but at every stage of drug discovery, from working in basic research involving test tubes and slides in a lab, through to seeking regulatory approval to get new drugs on to the market.
On the food side, pet food makes up a large portion of that £4.5 billion market. Historically, pet food has been a way of using up leftovers that aren’t suitable for human consumption. There were a handful of premium brands but they weren’t of interest to most customers. This is a situation that’s changed rapidly, including the need for specific diets (such as vegetarian dog food or hypoallergenic recipes) or medicated food that’s appropriate for pets with particular medical conditions. There are an increasing number of organic foods available too, as pet food trends echo trends in the general food market.
One particular format these jobs can take is that of ‘Technical Services Veterinarian’, where you represent the food or drug company to general practice veterinarians and other large-scale customers of your products. That role can include providing training to other vets as well as marketing your company’s products. It’s a great job for an extrovert, with lots of new people to meet and talk to, and lots of opportunities for travel as well.
5. Working in an abattoir
An abattoir is a far cry from what you might previously have imagined for your veterinary career; it isn’t much like prescribing antibiotics for guinea pigs and giving cats their vaccinations. But it’s another vital role that vets have to play in our society – while people eat meat, it’s important that the process of slaughter is carried out as safely as possible, with the greatest possible standards of animal welfare. In the UK, it’s the law that every abattoir has to have an on-site vet.
The veterinarian in this situation has several important roles to play. When animals arrive and are unloaded, the vet checks their health and wellbeing, to see if they’re fit to be slaughtered. This has a public health focus as well; the major foot and mouth outbreak in the UK in 2001 was first identified by a vet working at a pig abattoir. But the focus is on animal welfare, so the vet can also alert authorities to issues arising from farming or transport. The vet is then responsible for making sure animals are well handled before slaughter, and that they are properly stunned so that they don’t suffer. They may also work with meat inspectors on the site to check cleanliness and make sure that no dangers to health arise from poor handling of the carcasses.
It’s well known to prospective veterinary students in the UK that work experience in an abattoir is a valuable asset on your university application; it shows that you’re willing to see the less sentimental sides of the job, and you’re not deceived into thinking that all vets do is cuddle furry animals. But working in an abattoir can be appealing for vets: it offers the chance to do considerable good in animal welfare, knowing that you’re having an impact. And from a practical perspective, it’s a job with regular hours and reliable income.
6. Working in forensics
Veterinary forensics is the field of using veterinary science in relation to a court of law. It’s a niche area, but potentially a fascinating one. Most of the time, forensic veterinarians work on legal issues where the victim is an animal – so most often, animal abuse. They use their veterinary skills to gather evidence and answer questions in a courtroom situation. That might be to demonstrate that abuse has definitely occurred; for instance, that an animal wouldn’t have been likely to come by its injuries naturally, or to establish a cause of death.
For people who aren’t dedicated animal-lovers, this role might seem trivial when you could be using forensic skills to protect people. However, even if you don’t think prosecuting crimes against animals is important in itself, it’s worth remembering that people often abuse animals as a starting point, and then go on to commit the same kinds of abuse against people. Prosecuting someone for animal abuse can therefore stop other – potentially even more serious – crimes from taking place.
But forensic veterinarians don’t just work on cases of animal abuse. They might also help where an animal isn’t the victim of a crime, but has been used in a crime, even being used as a weapon – for instance, if a dog has been used to attack somebody. Forensic veterinarians can additionally provide evidence in circumstances such as cases of potential insurance fraud, for instance in circumstances of an insurance claim for loss of livestock.
There are very few jobs available in this field, and the result is that outside of large animal welfare charities, there are few full-time forensic veterinarians. But it is work that can be combined with other veterinary work. As you can see, the world of opportunities available to veterinarians is tremendously varied and exciting.