Zoo Veterinarian Career Profile

Vet listens to baby leopard's heart
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Zoo veterinarians are specialists with advanced training in the treatment of exotic wildlife species.

Duties

Zoo veterinarians are practitioners with extensive training in the care of non-domestic animal species. Their patients may include elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebras, lions, tigers, bears, parrots, aquatic animals, small mammals, reptiles, and many other species. 

Typical duties for a zoo vet may include performing exams, administering sedation, taking samples, giving vaccinations, administering fluids, prescribing medication, performing surgery, cleaning teeth, taking ultrasounds and radiographs, treating wounds, assisting with captive breeding programs, and supervising zoo veterinary technicians.

They may also be involved with research studies and interacting with the public as a part of educational events.

Veterinarians may be on call for emergencies, and hours often include some nights, weekends, and holidays. Many vets work 50 hours (or more) each week.

Career Options

Zoo veterinarians usually are employed by zoos, aquariums, museums, or research facilities. Other options for zoo veterinary practitioners include positions in academia (as professors or biology teachers), veterinary pharmaceutical sales, various government organizations, and laboratories.

An American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) survey conducted in 2013 found that there was 137 board certified diplomates in zoological medicine. Some of these diplomates held dual certification in other areas such as pathology, epidemiology, or reproductive physiology.

Education and Training

All veterinarians graduate with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree, which is achieved after completion of a demanding course of study covering both small and large animal species.

There are currently 28 accredited colleges of veterinary medicine in the United States that offer a DVM degree program. After graduating and passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE), a vet can be professionally licensed to practice medicine. 

There are several steps a vet must complete to achieve board certification in the specialty of zoological medicine.

First, the vet must complete a one-year internship following their graduation. They must then complete a three to four-year residency in an approved zoological medicine program (under the supervision of a board certified diplomate). Residents must also publish five times in peer-reviewed journals, complete a credentials package, and secure letters of recommendation. The final step is to take the comprehensive two-day board examination which consists of both written and practical elements. Those who pass the exam are recognized as board certified diplomates in zoological medicine.

Professional Associations

The American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV) is a leading professional association for zoo veterinarians. The AAZV has more than 1,000 members and publishes the respected Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine. 

The European Association of Zoo and Wildlife Veterinarians (EAZW) is a well known international association, with 600 members representing 48 different countries. The EAZW publishes professional papers and hosts scientific meetings each year.

Salary

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track salary data for specific veterinary specialties, the general category of all veterinarians had a median annual wage of $82,900 in the survey conducted in May 2010.

The lowest ten percent of all veterinarians earned less than $50,480 while the highest ten percent of all veterinarians earned more than $141,680. Board certified specialists tend to earn salaries even higher than the top end of the compensation scale.

The 2011 AVMA Report on Veterinary Compensation found that the median salary for zoo veterinarians was $79,000 per year, while the mean salary was $97,355 per year. While both mean and median for zoo veterinarians were lower than most other veterinary specialties, it is worth noting that the sample size reporting on zoo salaries was quite small (just 12 veterinarians). The survey also reported that zoo vet specialists in the 25th income percentile brought in $67,000 per year, while those in the 90th income percentile earned more than $157,000 per year.

Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not separate the specialty of veterinary zoological medicine from salary data collected for all veterinarians, but it does project that the veterinary profession will show solid growth over the decade from 2010 to 2020. The BLS data indicate that the field of veterinary medicine will expand at a rate of approximately 36 percent, much faster than the average for all professions.

The lengthy and rigorous nature of specialty training programs and the difficulty of board certification exams ensure that only a limited number of professionals are able to attain board certification each year. The few who achieve board certification in zoological medicine should be readily able to find employment in the field.