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Some veterinary colleges, though, allow for modest specialization during the initial four-year program, such as focusing on treatment methods for smaller creatures.

The Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Va., for example, offers five areas of general concentration during its main four-year program: small animal, large animal, mixed government, corporate and equine.

Dr. Donal Walsh, editor of the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, says different schools have different approaches to specialization.

At one end, schools train students as generalist veterinarians who then look for their specialization to occur after that, Dr. Walsh says. But at schools such as the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, where Dr. Walsh is a professor, students can start specializing in the middle of their four-year DVM careers.

The problem, Dr. Walsh says, is that students need a broad enough education to pass the DVM certification, and specializing early could endanger that in some cases.

Veterinarians study long and hard to become certified, but the profession doesn’t offer the riches that other medical specialties provide.

Dr. Mashima says money isn’t a factor driving students into the profession. An established veterinarian might average about $65,000 annually, a small figure compared to other doctors’ salaries, not to mention the student loans they have to square. Veterinarians who specialize can earn into the six figures, though.

“They have a desire to help people as well as animals. This is a people profession.”

Michael Reardon, director of admissions and career adviser with the Virginia-Maryland college, says many students recall positive impressions left by those who had treated their pets growing up.

“They think of the rewards of service to the community and doing something they enjoy as opposed to something that would earn them more income,” Mr. Reardon says.

Having a scientific background is crucial to a veterinarian’s success, says Dr. Andrew T. Maccabe, associate executive director at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges in the District.

“When I went to veterinary school… organic chemistry and biochemistry were the classes that were a barrier to a lot of people,” Dr. Maccabe says.

Dr. Ellen Bronson, a veterinary resident at the National Zoo, says her field combined her love of wildlife biology with medicine.

One day alone last week, she helped treat a sea lion, a bobcat, some snakes and a pelican.

“It’s amazing how similar the animals are,” Dr. Bronson says. “We can apply everything we know to a snake or a bird.

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