Becoming a Livestock Veterinarian: Job Description & Salary Info

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The median salary for livestock veterinarians is about $100,000. Is it worth the education and licensing requirements? See real job duties and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a livestock veterinarian is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Livestock Veterinarian

A career as a livestock veterinarian involves providing preventive care and treating the injuries and diseases of animals who are bred for food and other products. Consider some of the positive and negative aspects of this career before choosing your line of work.

PROS of Becoming a Livestock Veterinarian
Much higher-than-average pay (median annual salary about $100,000)**
Average expected job growth (12% for veterinarians over 2012-2022 decade)*
School debt relief programs available through the American Veterinary Medical Association**
Multiple specialties to choose from (beef cattle, swine, dairy cattle, equine, or general food animal)**

CONS of Becoming a Livestock Veterinarian
Must complete a doctoral program (four additional years of schooling)*
Veterinary school is difficult to get into (Only 28 accredited programs in the U.S.*)
Emotional stress involved in working with and euthanizing sick animals*
May work long hours, including nights, weekends and on-call for emergencies*
Danger involved with working around large animals*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

As a livestock veterinarian, you'll provide preventive care and treatment to animals such as pigs, cattle, horses, goats and sheep, much the same way physicians provide health care services to people. While you may have an office, you'll spend a lot of your time traveling to farms to see your patients. As such, you may have a veterinary vehicle stocked with medications and equipment that can be used to treat, vaccinate or diagnose the animals. For example, you might use ultrasound and radiographic devices, stethoscopes and surgical tools. Your duties might include dressing wounds, setting fractures, administering medications and performing surgeries. Some of the animals you work with will be scared or in pain, and you might have to protect yourself from kicks, scratches, or even bites. You'll also give owners or managers advice about breeding, feeding and shelter issues.

Livestock veterinarians usually own their own private practices or work in group practices. You may choose to work in general livestock animal medicine, providing a variety of services to all types of livestock, or you could choose to specialize in a certain category, such as a type of cattle, equine (horses), or swine. Livestock veterinarians often work long hours, and you may need to be available nights, weekends and on-call for emergencies. You may find this job to be emotionally taxing, since you'll be working with sick animals, some of which you will have to euthanize. While working outdoors and on farms can be pleasant, you may also have to work in poor weather conditions and perform surgeries in unsanitary conditions.

Career Prospects and Salary

According to the BLS, only about eight percent of private practice veterinarians worked just with food animals in 2012. Job prospects are excellent, since most veterinarians focus on companion animal care and there is little competition for livestock care jobs.

The BLS reports that the mean annual wage for veterinarians, including those who conduct research, was approximately $98,000 in May 2014. Veterinarians working exclusively with food animals had an average starting salary of about $77,000, according to an AVMA survey in 2013. That same year, the AVMA revealed that salaries of many veterinarians had decreased, but that even with a dip, food animal exclusive veterinarians were still the highest paid in private practice, with a median salary around $100,000.

What Are the Requirements?

Education

All veterinarians must graduate from an accredited veterinary school. Admission to veterinary school is highly competitive, and the BLS reports that more than half of the applicants in 2010 were denied admission. Most students admitted into a veterinary program have already earned a bachelor's degree, though you might also gain admission without a degree if you've completed the prerequisite courses, such as anatomy, biology and zoology. You'll also have to take a standardized competency exam, such as the Veterinary College Admissions Test (VCAT).

After gaining admission, you'll spend four years in veterinary school to earn your Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree. You'll complete in-class and laboratory instruction in topics like pharmacology, anesthesiology, infectious diseases, parasitology, neurobiology and imaging. You'll also complete clinical rotations, particularly during your final year of study, in areas of veterinary medicine like cardiology and radiology.

Licensure

All states require licensing of veterinarians. Licensing requirements vary somewhat, but all include the DVM degree and a passing score on the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam. Most states also require that you pass a jurisprudence exam covering its state regulations. In addition, most states require that licensed veterinarians complete continuing education to make sure that they keep up on recent medical advances.

Certifications

Various specialty certifications are available through the AVMA in specific disciplines and organ systems. In addition, the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP), which is accredited by the AVMA, offers certifications oriented to specific species, including beef and dairy cattle, equine, swine and food animals.

Job Postings from Real Employers

The BLS states that more livestock veterinarians will be needed as the population grows in order to ensure a healthy and safe food supply. Employers often look for licensed veterinarians with experience in livestock medicine or a veterinary specialty. Read the following excerpts from real job postings in May 2012 to see what employers were seeking:

  • A cattle company in Nebraska advertised for a veterinarian to provide animal health support for one of its locations. Duties included ensuring the maintenance of beef quality, providing training, reviewing and interpreting animal health reports and overseeing the necropsy department. Candidates were required to have a veterinary degree (DVM) from an accredited program, an active license in Nebraska (or ability to obtain one), 3-5 years of experience (preferably with cattle), excellent communication skills and strong leadership abilities.
  • A small and large animal veterinary clinic in Pennsylvania was looking for a full-time large animal associate DVM with a strong dairy cattle background. Applicants also needed to have great people skills, good work ethic, strong surgical skills and a focus on quality care. Some evenings and weekends were required, along with at least one year of full-time experience.
  • A mixed animal practice in Virginia advertised for a full-time veterinarian who was enthusiastic, energetic and eager. Applicants could be experienced or new graduates. Candidates might be required to work with dogs, cats, horses, or cattle.

How to Beat the Competition

Complete Postgraduate Training

You may gain further expertise in your field and increase your earning potential by completing a residency in livestock medicine. This would allow you to gain supervised, hands-on experience in clinical settings. Alternatively, you may choose to complete a 1-year internship before entering the workforce.

Get Board Certified

The American Board of Veterinary Practitioners offers certification in specialty areas of livestock animals to qualified applicants who pass certification exams. To be eligible to sit for the exam, you must have a DVM degree from an accredited college, hold a veterinary license and have six years of clinical practice experience. The experience requirement can be substituted with completion of an approved residency program. You must maintain certification every five years by completing 90 hours of continuing education.

Other Career Paths

If a career in livestock medicine isn't right for you, consider specializing in another breed or discipline of veterinary medicine. You could, for example, focus your practice on companion animal care, which the AVMA reports is the chosen specialty of most veterinarians. You might also become a research veterinarian, who performs tests on animals in laboratories.

Veterinary Assistant

You might decide that you don't want to become a veterinarian at all. If that's the case, consider a career in veterinary assistance. These professionals work alongside veterinarians of various specialties, helping with treatments, surgeries, laboratory testing and other animal care tasks. While the risk of work-related injuries is still high in this career, you will most likely work indoors in a clinical setting rather than having to travel to farms. You don't need postsecondary education for this career, and most training is done on the job. The BLS reports that jobs in this field were projected to increase by 14% from 2010-2020. As of May 2011, these assistants earned a mean annual wage of about $24,000.

Farrier

If you think that you might enjoy working with horses in a career that requires less education, consider becoming a farrier. In this career, you'd prepare horseshoes, make custom shoes, trim horse hooves and nail shoes onto the hooves. Experienced farriers often work with veterinarians to solve severe foot problems. To prepare for this career, you may complete an apprenticeship, though there are no strict requirements. Some veterinary schools also offer shoeing programs. According to Salary.com, these professionals earned an average annual salary of about $20,000 as of April 2012.

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