How to Become a Zoo Vet and How Much Do They Make

Many of us dream of becoming a vet at some point, but what does it take to become a zoo veterinarian? 

It’s not just about having a love for animals. More importantly, you can take many different paths to become a zoo veterinarian. However all roads lead through a Doctor of veterinary medicine degree as a starting point.

We’ve put together this comprehensive guide on becoming a zoo vet. It includes everything from the prerequisites and education to the skills you’ll need to succeed in this career.

Zoo veterinarians find themselves giving medical care to all kinds of animals, and they work with penguins, elephants, gorillas, hippos, sloths, and everything in between.

What Degree Do You Need To Become A Zoo Veterinarian?

To become a zoo veterinarian,n you will first need to earn a Doctor of Veterinary medicine degree. There are over 45 accredited veterinary schools worldwide.

To get into a US veterinary school, most require a bachelor’s degree, and from there, you need to apply to a veterinary school.

Getting into veterinary school is highly competitive, so you will need to have many veterinary experience hours and excellent grades and GRE scores. Some schools look can’t more holistically, like vet schools in Colorado (CSU), LMU, Ross, and SGU, to name a few.

While you are in undergrad or even high school, if you know you want to become a zoological veterinarian, then you need to start volunteering at a zoo. The volunteer work will allow you to get a feel for zoo veterinarians’ day-to-day work and help you build up your veterinary hours.

Landing a pre-vet zoo internship before you start vet school is highly competitive. However, if you can manage to snag one, it will give you a huge advantage.

During undergrad, some of the prerequisite classes that can help you are comparative anatomy and physiology, animal behavior (check out our list of the best animal behaviour books), mammalogy, veterbrate zoology, and invertebrate zoology.

A raccoon is examined with a stethoscope by a zoo vet - How to Become a zoo vet?

How to become a zoo vet?

  • Graduate with a bachelor’s degree
  • Gain plenty of zoo and wildlife experience throughout college (and even high school)
  • Earn your DVM from an accredited veterinary college
  • Work for 1-year  post-graduation in a clinical practice i. If you can work in an exotic animal practice it will be more beneficial (this will give you experience treating animals, even if it’s just cats and dogs)
  • Apply for a 3-year residency, one that is on the ACZM approval list
  • Study for the ACZM board examination

What Skills Do Zoo Veterinarians Need?

In addition to having a veterinary degree, zoo veterinarians also need to have strong animal handling skills. Zoo vets also need to be comfortable working in various environments, from the zoo’s vet hospital to outside in the animal’s natural habitat.

Zoo veterinarians also need to be good at public speaking to can educate the public about their work. Not only that, but since a zoo veterinarian is working with such large animals, they are often working with an entire team of veterinary assistants and techs. Communication skills are extremely important in order to be able to work as a team effectively.

The following are some of the skills a zoo vet will need to succeed:

  • Proficiency in electronic medical record-keeping
  • The ability to pass the ACZM board examination
  • Becoming well versed in the understanding of epidemiology and how it relates to humans and animals
  • Communication skills for making presentations, and case rounds with colleagues
  • Familiarize yourself with the biological, nutritional and behavioral characteristics of zoological animals; you will be able to understand how they live their lives and how best to treat them medically
  • Gain expertise in the use of remote drug delivery systems, anesthetic agents, unique capture equipment, and immobilization protocols.
  • Must become skilled at  post-mortem examinations on all zoo animals
  • Advanced knowledge of comparative anatomy and physiology is a must
  • All zoo will require the zoo vet to participate in conservation research as well
  • Must be able to work outdoors in the rain and mud if necessary
  • And so many more.

Learning how to become a zoo vet is just the first step in a long and arduous career. Zoo vets are not known to make a lot of money either, so all of this advanced knowledge and schooling is a passion-driven career choice.

What Can You Do With A Zoo Veterinary Degree?

There are many different paths you can take with a zoo veterinary degree. You can become a zoo veterinarian, but there are also opportunities to work in the animal health industry, research and development, or academia.

The opportunities are endless with a zoo veterinary degree, it just takes a little bit of creativity and ingenuity.

What Does A Zoo Veterinarian Do?

Zoo veterinarians are responsible for the medical care of all the animals in a zoo. Animal care includes diagnosing and treating illnesses, prescribing medication, performing surgeries, anesthesia, etc veterinarians also work with the zoo’s staff to develop animal health care programs and protocols. They also educate the public about animal health and veterinary medicine.

Conservation research is another big part of a zoo veterinarian’s must-have skill set. Many zoo veterinarians will find themselves diagnosing animals within their enclosures. Like this veterinarian below who is treating a hippopotamus.

Hippopotamus being treated by a zoological veterinarian in Brazil at a zoo

The Bottom Line for How to Become a Zoo Vet is If you are passionate about animals and want to enter a highly competitive career that is both challenging and rewarding, then become a zoo veterinarian.

What is a Zoo Veterinarian?

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A zoo veterinarian is a veterinarian that specializes in the care of animals in a zoo setting. They are responsible for the health and well-being of animals such as lions, tigers, elephants, dolphins, parrots, and gorillas.

Zoo veterinarians must have a wealth of knowledge in animal health and disease, as well as experience in animal handling and caring for a wide variety of zoo animals. They must also be able to work with zoo staff to create and implement animal health care programs.

A zoological veterinarian is not an easy career choice, and on top of that, it’s a highly competitive field to break into. You must have a lot of volunteer experience through internships with zoos, wildlife parks, and animal rehabilitation centers.

So if you’re passionate about wild animals and want to make a difference in their lives, then becoming a zoo veterinarian may be the perfect career for you.

What is a Zoo Vet Called?

The formal name for a zoo vet is a zoological veterinarian. It’s even the governing body’s name is the American College of Zoological Medicine (ACZM).

How Does a Zoo Veterinarian Learn All of the Different Species?

(Learn the Process for How to Become a Zoo Vet)

Becoming a zoo veterinarian is similar to learning how to become an exotic animal vet. Mainly because a zoo vet is under the umbrella of exotic animal medicine. Ideally, a zoo veterinarian will begin memorizing all of the different species while they are in veterinary school.

There are student clubs where many vet students begin to learn about other species by performing necropsies while learning all about comparative anatomy and physiology. At this time, you will spend your four years of vet school learning dog, cat, cow, small ruminant, and horse medicine.

When I was in vet school I got to perform necropsies on rock pigeons and monkeys. Although it was only through my participation in the necropsy club, that I got the opportunity.

These student clubs are not part of the regular vet school curriculum, but rather there for those who want to learn more.

The ACZM (American College of Zoological Medicine) makes recommendations on veterinary curricula and facilitates the ongoing efforts of North American veterinary colleges to provide their veterinary students with the knowledge and skills necessary for them to succeed in the field of zoological veterinary medicine. 

There is no clear path to becoming a zoo vet, but since it is a highly competitive field it’s best to contact the AAZV (American Association of Zoo Veterinarians) and fill out some applications for externships. There are externship opportunities both in the US and outside of the US, and if you are lucky, you may land one while you are in the 4th year of vet school.

Keep Reading for more information on how to become a zoo vet.

A Siberian tiger receiving stem cell treatment from a zoo vet

How Long Does It Take To Become A Zoo Veterinarian? (Zoo Veterinarian Education)

How many years does it take to become a veterinarian? If you are not specializing in becoming a zoo vet or one of the many other post vet school disciplines, then it will take at least 8 years of school.

On the other hand, how long it takes to become a zoo veterinarian will depend on the career path. It will take at least 8 years of school and then a 3 – 4 year residency to become a zoo vet.

Is There A Residency For Zoo Veterinarians?

(Residency is Part of the Process for How to Become a Zoo Vet)

Most Zoo veterinarians do a three-year residency after graduating from veterinary school. There are places like the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, and countless others where recent veterinary graduates can complete a residency.

Most residency programs require 1 year of general practice work before going into the residency. Completing the 1 year will allow the new grad to gain some hands-on fundamental world vet skills, before jumping into a zoological veterinary program.

Can A Zoo Veterinarian Work From Home?

No, most zoo veterinarians will need to be at the zoo on a daily basis to make their rounds, meet with colleagues, talk to the public, do media interviews, and most importantly perform exams on sick animals.

A day in the life of a zoo veterinarian is waking up early and heading to the zoo. Once you get there, you’ll start the usual rounds of checking on the animals. You’ll ensure that they are all healthy and have everything they need.

How Much Do Zoo Vets Make?

A zoo vet can make anywhere from $69,000 to $125,000. Becoming a zoological veterinarian is not one of those career choices that will earn you a lot of money. However, if you have a deep and burning passion for medicine and animal,s then you will be rewarded in other ways, through job satisfaction and happiness.

However since the road to becoming a zoo veterinarian is long and hard, it’s a decision that will require a lot of thought and planning.

Some zoos are non-profits, whereas others are for profit. So it depends on what type of zoo you are working for that will determine how much money is available for salaries.

There are some zoos in the state of Oklahoma that pay as little as $69,000 to start. On the other hand in Massachusetts, a zoo veterinarian can make $80,908.

You have to keep in mind that the cost of living in Oklahoma is much lower than in Massachusetts. In Oklahoma, you can purchase a house for $170,00 on average. On the other hand in Massachusetts, you will be looking at at least $550,000.

Job Prospects for a Zoo Veterinarian

The field of veterinary medicine is ever-expanding, with new opportunities in private practice, research, and conservation.

The AAZV (American Association of Zoo Veterinarians) provides a job listing service for its members. You can also find job postings through the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) website and various veterinary-related websites.

With more and more wildlife and conservation efforts coming to the forefront now more than ever, the zoological veterinary field is growing.

How Many Zoo Veterinarians Are There?

The AAZV (American Association of Zoo Veterinarians) has over 200 members. However, the number of zoo veterinarians in the United States is unknown.

There are many zoos across the United States with different sizes and animal collections. There are also other types of zoos, such as municipal zoos, private zoos, and accredited zoos.

Some zoo vets may not be members of the, and they pass their boards in exotic medicine, which overlaps in the field of a zoo veterinarian. So it’s difficult to say how many zoo veterinarians there are, but it is safe to say that it is a small percentage of the veterinary workforce.

Final Thoughts on How to Become a Zoo Vet

So, you want to be a zoo vet? A zoological veterinary path is not an easy one, but it is definitely rewarding. Don’t forget that earning your Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree is the first step on this exciting journey!

There are many opportunities for veterinarians who want to specialize in zoo medicine, from private practice to research institutions. You will also need to have veterinary experience working with a variety of animals in different settings. Luckily, there are plenty of fantastic institutions where you can gain this exmedicine.

Keep in mind that you can achieve your dream of becoming a zoo veterinarian with hard and determination!

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