Q&A: What’s The Difference Between Animal Experience and Veterinary Experience?

Dear Sharon,

I simply can’t express how helpful your blog has been to me, even though I’m in the earliest stages of preparing to apply to vet school. I’m happy to donate to keep your posts coming, with the amount information as I’ve already absorbed! I love that you and so many of your readers are vet students and pre-vets with non-traditional backgrounds, since that’s the same baffling and stressful situation in which I find myself, a 23-year-old history major who hasn’t taken a science class since high school.

The thing I’m having the most trouble with (and a couple of readers have echoed this sentiment) is getting the necessary clinic experience to be a serious candidate for vet school. I have a lot of large animal experience (lifetime with horses and part-time job as a livestock handler on a working farm), but I’m trying to broaden my background and acquire some experience that is more focused on day-to-day veterinary practice. Unfortunately, the feedback I’ve been getting from even small animal vet clinics is that they don’t generally take volunteers because of the insurance risk. I’m concerned, though, that volunteering at an animal shelter will be more focused on animal care experience an not really vet experience, especially since I have a full-time job and can’t volunteer during the week when the vets are around. Do you have any insight on what kind of experience is considered vet experience, and how hands-on I should expect things to be? I know some schools like CSU break it down into general animal experience and vet clinic experience, and I want to make sure I’m getting enough of the clinic side of things.

Next, I’ve shadowed a large animal vet a couple of times, and hope to do so more regularly (especially since that’s what I want to go in to), but am not sure how this will be reflected on my application. Will this even be considered experience on a vet school application?

Thank you again for your fantastic blog–I’m sure you get a lot of similar questions from people like me! Sorry to be repetitive, and thank you so much for all of your help!




Hi KD!

Thanks for writing and for your donation! I’m glad you found the blog as I know what it is like to be a career-changer and not knowing where to start or what to do!

It’s not unusual for private practices to deny volunteers for insurance reasons – it is a big liability to them if you get bitten or something of the sort. Some practices will let you volunteer if you sign a waiver agreeing not to sue the practice or hold them liable if anything happens to you, but other practices know that those waivers don’t always hold up in court and refuse regardless.

First of all, I want to clarify the elusive difference between animal experience and veterinary experience. Animal experience involves gaining experience working with animals in a capacity that is not overseen by a veterinarian. Examples of animal experience are: pet-sitting, dog walking and your experience with horses as well as your livestock handling experience likely qualify as well. Veterinary experience involves gaining insight and/or experience in the field of veterinary medicine by working in some capacity under the guidance of a veterinarian. Most of us consider veterinary assisting / technician duties to be veterinary experience without a doubt, but the field of veterinary medicine is much more diverse than that! You can work under a veterinarian doing research in a lab or tag along with large animal / equine vets to do farm visits and that will count as vet experience even if you don’t ever touch an animal! The idea is that you are getting exposure to what this field entails. It’s not about gaining the clinical skills necessary to be a vet (such as administering vaccinations, venipuncture, etc.)

Many people get hung up on the idea that a veterinarian must “oversee” you. Clearly, even as a veterinary technician, there will be times when you are providing veterinary care when the veterinarian is not present, but that’s what your job entails – you were trained to do these things without a vet having to be present. After all, if a veterinarian had to be present to oversee every aspect of the veterinary care that animals receive, vets wouldn’t be able to see nearly as many patients and the efficiency of things would plummet. Delegating trained individuals to carry out tasks that are not required to be done by a veterinarian is what makes the profession efficient. Though that might seem like a tangent, it is important to realize that doubting your experience because a vet wasn’t present all the time doesn’t discount the experience.

I would consider any health care carried out as instructed by a veterinarian to be veterinary experience. For example, while I volunteered at a zoo I was involved in the health care and administration of medication to animals despite the fact that the vet was not there when they were administered, but the vet gave specific instructions on the dose, method of administration, things to look for, etc. We were animal caretakers, not veterinary technicians, but we still worked under the guidance of a veterinarian. In addition, there are so many people who have administered subcutaneous fluids to their pets at home. While that experience was not overseen by a veterinarian, that is experience as the veterinarian had to have given you instructions for how much to give, how to give it, etc.

As for how to gain experience in the veterinary profession while working around your full-time job, I have a few suggestions. First of all, good job looking into shelters. Though I don’t know the specifics about your local shelter, some shelters have veterinarians on staff on weekends (I know mine did – every day of the week there was a veterinarian present, which was fantastic!). If you are certain that there are no vets working on weekends at your local shelter, try other shelters in the area (if you are in a city, there are bound to be multiple, while more rural areas will usually require quite a drive to get to the nearest shelter).

I would continue shadowing the large animal vet and perhaps even contact other local equine or large animal vets and tell them about your experience with these species and that you are applying to veterinary school and that you would love to ride along with them if possible. If you are an adult, it wouldn’t hurt to mention your age – some vets don’t want to babysit, so being an adult may increase your likelihood of getting them to agree. As for small animal work, consider pursuing work at an emergency hospital. You may try applying for a part time job – maybe even one day per week. Some places will be willing to train you, others you may have to agree to work as a kennel assistant or in reception to begin with. Don’t discount these opportunities – you are still gaining veterinary experience and you may have opportunities to gain clinical experience. It’s not uncommon for kennel assistants to work their way up in the practice or to get pulled in to help with something in a pinch. Same goes for receptionists. Many practices cross-train employees so that people can cover various positions should someone call in sick or should they be exceptionally busy. The techs might answer the phones, the receptionists might restrain dogs for blood draws, etc. I think those types of practices are awesome!

My last suggestion – do you have pets? You likely take them to a veterinarian, right? How about bringing your pet in for something routine and bringing up with the doctor that you are applying to veterinary school and ask if you might be able to help out around the clinic or just shadow the doctor! Vets who know you (and don’t have anything against you) will likely agree to one of the above. It always helps to have that kind of relationship built already as the vet likely knows your age/maturity level, and you’re not just a random person calling/stopping in asking to volunteer.

In case I wasn’t clear, I will state directly – shadowing a vet is considered veterinary experience. Like I mentioned earlier, veterinary experience doesn’t necessarily involve touching animals and gaining clinical experience; it might just be following the vet around and getting an idea of what the profession is like. With that in mind, shape your expectations for hands-on work accordingly. I know I was shadowing a private practice veterinarian and just followed her around and discussed cases in private, but she wasn’t afraid to ask me to do something rather than get her own vet tech to do the work. After all, if you’re there, you might as well be used if necessary!

I hope that helps address your questions / concerns. Please let me know if you have any other questions or need further clarification.

Again, thanks for writing as well as for your donation!

-Sharon Ostermann

Life In Vet School & Tips On Getting In