If you are interested in becoming a veterinarian, you are likely most familiar with the daily tasks of a general practice veterinarian. These veterinarians perform wellness exams, sick pet diagnostics, and routine surgeries. From spaying dogs and cats to performing a c-section on a cow, surgery is a big part of many veterinarian’s daily tasks. But not everyone who likes veterinary medicine enjoys surgery. As a result, you may be wondering the following question.
Do all veterinarians have to do surgery? The answer is no. There are a wide variety of veterinary careers and many veterinarians never step foot in a surgery suite after graduating from veterinary school. From specializing in areas like dermatology, behavior or nutrition to working for industry companies to focusing on government regulation work, there are a wide variety of options available for veterinarians who prefer not to do surgery.
While all veterinarians have basic training in surgical skills during veterinary school, many veterinarians choose career paths that do not involve surgery. Below we will explore some of the rewarding veterinary jobs that do not involve a scalpel blade.
Common Veterinary Career Paths That Don’t Involve Surgery
When I was an aspiring veterinarian, I didn’t fully realize just how many different career paths are available for those with a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree. I, like many, pictured my family dog’s veterinarian when I considered what life as a veterinarian would be like.
However, once I was accepted into veterinary school, I began to realize just how many different career paths are available in veterinary medicine. During veterinary school, students are faced with many decisions. Will you practice on small animals, like dogs and cats? Or do you prefer large animals medicine, working with horses, cattle, pigs, or sheep? Maybe you want to apply for an internship and residency to specialize in a specific area of medicine – like oncology or neurology? Or perhaps you prefer research or regulatory practice?
According to statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), a little over half of veterinarians will choose to work in private clinical practice. Of the 120,652 positions held by U.S. Veterinarians in 2018, 73,373 of those positions were in private practice. For the purposes of this post, we will assume that most veterinarians in private clinical practice perform surgery.
The other 39.2% of veterinarians choose positions that are categorized into Public and Corporate Employment. And this is where the majority of the non-surgical veterinary career paths are grouped. (information below will probably do better as a table)
- College or University Jobs account for 40.8% of the total Public and Corporate Jobs and 5.7% of the total # of Positions held by U.S. Veterinarians.
- Federal government accounted for 11.1% and 1.5% respectively.
- State or Local Government accounted for 6.6% and 0.9% respectively.
- Uniformed Services account for 4.5% and 0.6% respectively
- Industry accounted for 21% and 2.9% respectively.
Veterinary Jobs at Colleges and Universities
Many of the veterinarians who are employed by a college or university have additional degrees. Some have completed a PhD and are now pursuing research. Most have specialized and now work doing some combination of teaching, clinical work in a veterinary teaching hospital, and research.
There are 22 different veterinary specialties recognized by the American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS). Veterinary specialties that do not perform surgery are bolded.
- (1) Anesthesia: These veterinarians are often in a surgery suite and are a VERY important part of every surgical procedure. However, veterinarians who specialize in anesthesia do not perform surgery, as they focus entirely on keeping the patient pain free and anesthetized during the procedure.
- (2) Animal Welfare: Animal welfare veterinarians have specialized training in animal welfare. This specialty does not directly involve surgery.
- (3) Behavior: Veterinary behaviorists do not perform surgery as part of their specialty. Instead, they focus on helping clients and their animals resolve unwanted behavior patterns.
- Dentistry: Veterinary dentists do not perform classic surgeries, but they perform many oral surgeries.
- (4) Dermatology: Although dermatologists may perform small procedures like skin biopsies, most of a dermatologist,s work is non-surgical.
- Emergency and Critical Care: ER Veterinarians may perform surgery depending on whether or not a boarded surgeon is on staff. There are a wide variety of surgical emergencies and laceration repairs are common in an emergency room.
- Internal Medicine: This category of specialties includes 5 subspecialties
- Cardiology: Veterinary cardiologists may perform heart surgeries – like implanting a pacemaker or repairing a congenital heart defect.
- Neurology: Most veterinary neurologists perform some brain and spinal surgeries.
- (5) Oncology: Veterinary oncologists focus on treating pets with cancer. While many of their patients will undergo surgical procedures, typically, veterinary oncologists work with veterinary surgeons for mass removals.
- (6) Small Animal Internal Medicine: Internal medicine specialists manage complicated disease processes. Like veterinary oncologists, internal medicine specialists typically work with veterinary surgeons when surgery is necessary for their patients.
- (7) Large Animal Internal Medicine: Just like small animal internal medicine specialists, most large animal internal medicine veterinarians refer surgeries to veterinary surgeons.
- Laboratory Animal Medicine: If research calls for it, laboratory animal medicine veterinarians will perform surgery.
- (8) Microbiology: Surgery is not an intrinsic part of studying viruses, bacteria, and fungi.
- (9) Nutrition: Veterinary nutritionists focus on creating healthy balanced diets for animals. No surgery required.
- Ophthalmology: Veterinary ophthalmologists perform several different types of eye surgeries.
- Pathology: While not surgery in the classic sense, veterinary pathologists are definitely comfortable with a scalpel blade.
- (9) Pharmacology: This specialty focuses on how medications/drugs affect animals and does not require a veterinarian to perform surgery.
- (10) Preventative Medicine: This area of veterinary medicine focuses on how diseases are spread and how they can be prevented.
- (11) Radiology: Veterinary radiologists study x-rays, ultrasound, CT scans, MRIs and other imaging procedures. While the information from this imaging helps guide surgeries, radiologists do not perform surgery.
- (12) Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation: Although often dealing with animals after surgery, this veterinary specialty does not involve performing surgery.
- Surgery: Yep, veterinary surgeons perform A LOT of surgery.
- Theriogenology: Veterinary theriogenologists may perform some surgery, such as c-sections or intrauterine artificial insemination.
- (13) Toxicology: The study of poisons and other toxic products, this specialty does not directly involve surgery.
- Veterinary Practitioners: This category is for veterinarians in clinical practice who have additional training and expertise in certain animal species. Surgery is a part of most clinical practice. Subcategories include:
- Avian Practice (birds)
- Equine Practice (horses)
- Beef Cattle Practice (cattle)
- Feline Practice (cats)
- Canine/Feline Practice (dogs and cats)
- Exotic Companion Mammal Practice (Small mammals kept as pets, like guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, etc).
- Food Animal Practice (cattle and pigs)
- Dairy Practice (cows)
- Reptile and Amphibian Practice (snakes, lizards, turtles, etc)
- Swine Health Management (pigs)
- Zoological Medicine: Veterinarians who work with zoo animals often perform surgery.
More information about veterinary specialists can be found on AVMA.org.
(14) Federal Government
More than half of federal veterinarians work for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). There are also several veterinarians working for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The majority of these veterinarians will not be performing surgery. Instead, many of them perform regulatory work.
However, some federal veterinary jobs are more exotic than others. If you are a veterinarian who works for the national zoo, you probably do perform some surgery.
To find out more about federal veterinary work, check out this article at www.fda.gov.
(15) State or Local Government
State and local government veterinarians are also unlikely to perform surgery. Instead, they help protect animal health and well-being by enforcing animal-related regulations, monitoring meat and poultry intended for human consumption, and preventing zoonotic diseases. (Zoonotic diseases are those that can pass from animals to humans).
Did you know that there are veterinary careers in the military? The army is the only service with a veterinary corps, so Army Veterinarians also support Navy, Marine, and Air Force operations.
The exception to this is that the Air Force does recruit veterinarians as Public Health Officers. And the US Navy does have a Marine Mammal Program that offers a veterinary medical externship.
US Army Veterinarians do provide full surgical support to the animals in their care. Find out more about becoming a military veterinarian at www.goarmy.com.
The final category of veterinarians reported in the AVMA’s veterinary jobs census is “Industry”. The types of companies that employ veterinarians in this category have been broken into 7 categories in a recent publication titled “Workforce Needs in Veterinary Medicine”.
- Human Health Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Companies
- Animal Health Companies
- Veterinary Pharmaceuticals and Biologicals
- Veterinary Biotechnology
- Veterinary Diagnostics
- Animal Feed Companies
- Animal Supply Companies
- Diagnostic Laboratories
While some research positions within these companies may involve surgery, the vast majority of industry veterinarians do not perform surgery.
Read the entire chapter on industry veterinarians online here.
Becoming a Veterinarian Who Doesn’t Do Surgery
All veterinarians have to get through a very small amount of surgery in veterinary school. But honestly, I was only required to perform one neuter during the first 3 years of my veterinary school curriculum. The rest of the surgery classes I took were elective.
During 4th year, you will have to take a surgery rotation. Mostly this just involves assisting during surgeries. You will have to be present and holding surgical instruments and possibly part of the animal.
But if you can get through that, you can happily find a veterinary career that does not involve surgery. Whether you want to work in industry, for the government or in a specialty like behavior or nutrition, there are many non-surgical careers available for veterinarians.
How old do you have to be to shadow a vet? The answer varies by veterinary clinic, but most veterinary clinics will want you to at least be in high school. Some may require you to be 16 or older. Send an email to any clinics you are interested in shadowing at to ask them what their individual requirements are.
What personality traits are required to be a veterinarian? There are many different personality types in veterinary medicine. However, almost uniformly, veterinarians are hard-workers, intelligent, responsible, have good attention to detail, and love to learn.