When your dog or cat gets the sniffles and a subsequent visit to the veterinarian, you may walk out of the clinic with a grumpier (if healthier) pet and a bigger bill than you’d been hoping for. More than one pet owner has found themselves driving home, inquiring of the windshield how much of what they just paid is going to line their veterinarian’s pockets.
The truth is that although the average salary for a veterinarian is strong (somewhere between the 80th and 90th percentile of annual salaries in the United States, depending upon the number of years the veterinarian has in the field), their expenses can be steep, and those expenses can linger for years.
What is the Average Salary of a Veterinarian?
Dr. Michael Dicks, director of the veterinary economics division at the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), said that new graduates from veterinary school often face drastically different financial futures, depending upon where they went to school, and whether they had to shoulder the cost themselves.
As is the case with undergraduate programs, students going to veterinary school in the state where they live will pay less than those who do so out of state. Dicks said there are some state programs that students can apply for that will make up the difference.
Lucky students may have scholarships or family members willing to pay for school and expenses on their behalf. For those that don’t, Dicks said the bill for the DVM degree averages $191,000 in tuition and fees over four years. Even with tuition aside, a student will still rack up somewhere between $60,000 and $80,000 in living expenses through vet school, during which time they likely won’t have the time to work full-time.
“It’s a huge difference. It ranges from zero all the way out to almost $500,000,” said Dicks. “Then they have to decide how they’re going to pay that off.”
Add interest to that, and recent grads could be on the hook for somewhere between 2 and 2 1/2 times that amount. Some loan programs will allow a student to base their repayment schedule on a percentage of their income, or to postpone repayment until several years into their career — but some of them don’t know what their options are.
Veterinary school debt can be crushing.
AVMA has some tips on how veterinarians can repay their debt. They say:
- Keep accurate information on your lenders, the loans and the payment due dates. You can use FinAid's Student Loan Checklist to keep track of your loans.
- Make your payments on time
- Make automated payments (but make sure your account maintains sufficient funds for the payments)
- Pay off your highest interest debt first
- Deduct your student loan interest on your taxes (if eligible for the deduction)
- If you have accrued more than $30,000 in debt, you are eligible for a 25-year extended repayment schedule without consolidating your loan(s); however, consider this option only if it is absolutely necessary to avoid defaulting on your loan.”
Starting salaries have remained flat since around 2012 after declining for four years beginning with the economic recession in 2008. Numbers presented at the AVMA Economic Summit this month indicated that average starting salary for the 3,000 veterinary school graduates this year is about $70,000.
Budgeting Tips for Veterinarians
Dicks estimates that new graduates should prepare for 10 years of strict budgeting to pay back their debt before they can afford the lifestyle that many may envision when they become veterinarians. Before that, most are skimping on entertainment spending or payments on nicer vehicles and houses.
“A lot of people don’t understand, especially someone who’s 26 or 27 years old, what that 10 years is going to be like,” Dicks said. “That means that a veterinarian that is still passionate, doing great work, is struggling with their lifestyle. Five years out, seven years out [of school], they’re still struggling and they don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s debilitating.”
Once they do get over that hump however, the hard work of earning the DVM degree pays off. Although male veterinarians are still paid more on average than female veterinarian, a professional degree (like a veterinary degree) narrows that gap — a fact that Dicks said will make veterinary practice more interesting as increasing numbers of female veterinarians progress through the ranks through their careers. Women with bachelor’s degrees make about 77 percent of what men make with comparable bachelor’s degrees, but female veterinarians earn 92 percent of what male veterinarians do.
As for future projections, the AVMA estimates that starting salaries will average $84,000 by 2020 and just short of $94,000 by 2024. The association also believes that the number of new veterinarians each year will increase; by 2025, there could be as many as 3,300 new graduates each year.
For Dicks this raises the interesting question of the supply and demand balance. A survey taken last year suggests that unemployment among veterinarians is low (around five percent) but there are many who are underemployed, which means that they are unable to find a wage that adequate covers their expenses. Some have suggested that this means there are too many veterinarians, but Dicks think it’s another issue.
“We know that there’s a lot of animals out there that are not getting basic services,” he said. “But that need isn’t the same thing as demand. Demand is, I have a need, and I have the ability to pay for it.”
This is the difference between oversupply and excess capacity — excess capacity being the excess of veterinarians for the amount of clients willing to pay those doctors’ predetermined rates for their services, while the term oversupply would imply there are more veterinarians than there are potential clients of any kind.
For those who choose to go into the veterinary field, this means they will need to be willing to think outside the box when it comes to changing their business model or lightening their debt load. It’s all about planning — and passion.
“Before you ever go to college, you should start educating yourself, because more than half of veterinarians wanted to be veterinarians since they were 10. So start doing something about it early,” Dicks said. “It’s a great profession, there’s a lot of opportunity, but it’s getting harder and harder to make both ends meet. You have to be smarter and smarter about it. You cannot just show up and be a good veterinarian.”
The average starting salary for veterinary school graduates 2015 is about $70,000.
So what exactly goes into a veterinarian’s education? According to the Houston Chronicle:
“Veterinarians need a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from one of 28 accredited veterinary programs. [Ed. Note: There are now 30 accredited veterinary schools.] This course of study takes four years and combines classroom, laboratory and clinical experience. Most vets also have a bachelor’s degree, obtained before application to veterinary school. They must have courses in biology, chemistry, zoology, microbiology, animal science and anatomy. All states mandate a license. Though requirements vary by state, vets need the educational background, as well as a passing score on the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam. A state exam covering local regulations may also be needed. Some states do accept licenses from other locations, though most require a state-specific license to practice veterinary medicine.”