Your average veterinarian can mend a bird's broken wing, chase away a dog's fleas and do a bit of bovine surgery should the need arise, but that's just a small part of what a trained veterinarian can do.
Graduates with the doctor of veterinary medicine degree, or DVM, can find work at universities, medical centers and industrial laboratories. Veterinarians can work with such groups as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, where they ensure the humane treatment of animals and inspect animals for signs of disease before they are slaughtered.
But most veterinarians ply their trade at private practices treating household pets.
Becoming a veterinarian requires a four-year degree -- after earning a bachelor's degree -- from one of only 28 accredited veterinary schools, a fairly small number given the many fields the doctors toil within. Once that degree is earned, a graduate can open a practice or opt for more training.
Dr. Ted Mashima, associate director for the Center For Government and Corporate Veterinary Medicine at the University of Maryland at College Park, says veterinary medicine teaches the "ologies," from neurology to epidemiology, lessons that can apply to all manner of creature. Animals like elephants and mice might seem enormously different, he says, but, generally, the biological systems of animals have more similarities than differences.
Dr. Mashima says most of the animals a common veterinarian treats will be dogs, cats, horses and cattle and, to a lesser extent, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens.
Veterinarians can work examining pre- and post-slaughter animals to ensure food safety, help treat laboratory animals and even contribute to homeland security. Bovine tuberculosis is but one of many diseases transferrable from animal to man, and cutaneous anthrax has been found in people who shear sheep in certain parts of the world.
"The sky's the limit in terms of different ways veterinarians are engaged," he says.
Budding veterinarians can hone their skills with both clerkships and internships as they work their way into their career.
Students in their final year of veterinary school can enroll in one or more clerkships, which can last for several weeks, depending on the college. These sessions involve working under an established veterinarian.
An internship, by contrast, is a one-year post-DVM role that generally is followed by a two- or three-year residency program.
Veterinary graduates also have the option of pursuing a specialized education, much as a traditional doctor might choose a career in oncology or plastic surgery.
These graduates can choose from 20 specialties, ranging from internal medicine to nutrition to radiology. To do so, they undertake a one-year internship and then a three-year residency program to earn certification in a particular specialty from, for example, the American College of Veterinary Surgeons or the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.
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.
"The thing that's important is that you like science and you're very good at it," she says. "A lot of people don't realize that. It's a lot drier than you think it is. It's very scientific."
Dr. Walsh says the veterinary industry is concerned that not enough graduates are tackling the less popular but crucially important positions involving food safety and public health matters. Undergraduates, he says, don't appreciate the wealth of roles they can play in the field.
"They're influenced by the Animal Planet television [channel]," he says. "Those are the popular images of what a veterinarian does.
"The push now... is to try and get students more knowledgeable about the breadth of the profession."