Studying Animal and Veterinary Science At University

lab class

Working really hard in a genetics lab class.

There are a few different pathways to becoming a vet in Australia. Traditionally it has been a 5-year undergraduate university bachelor degree, which would allow you to apply for registration as a vet. This requirement has changed. You now have to complete an appropriate undergraduate science degree and a postgraduate Doctorate of Veterinary Science (7-8 years full time). Certain subjects must be covered in the undergraduate degree in order to meet DVM pre-requisites. The other pathway is to complete a combined undergraduate vet science bachelor degree with a DVM (usually a minimum of 6 years). If you wish to specialize in something such as birds, further study is required.

Places in both the undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are limited and there are only a handful of universities that offer the degrees. You need extremely high marks to even get in. Even if you do well in an undergraduate degree, there is no guarantee that you will get in to a postgraduate degree. It’s something to think about because the subjects are expensive. Government assistance helps, but you still have to pay later whether you get in or not. Textbooks for each semester cost hundreds of dollars. Most new vets graduate under crippling student debt. The wage of the average vet is probably not as high as you’d expect either. Vets aren’t rich. In a nutshell, if you want to make money, look after humans, not animals. It’s the same (if not less) amount of study to become a human doctor and a lot more profitable in the end. This observation isn’t limited to Australia. It’s something vet students worldwide should be aware of before they consider this path.


The grounds at La Trobe University (Bundoora Campus) in Australia are worth seeing. The wild birds are everywhere. This is one of many wild Sulphur Crested Cockatoos flying around.

Personally, I am currently completing an undergraduate degree at La Trobe University – a Bachelor of Animal & Veterinary Biosciences. La Trobe University is the only university in the state of Victoria that offers a dedicated undergraduate veterinary degree. Other universities have science degrees that might include a few vet subjects, but that isn’t quite the same as a veterinary degree. My degree covers the pre-requisite subjects for the Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (which in my state is only offered at Melbourne University). It qualifies me to work in the animal industry even if I don’t go on to do a Doctorate and become a vet. Graduates from my degree have gone in to animal research; they have careers in agriculture; they work in zoos and sanctuaries; some work as animal behaviorists; there are far too many outcomes to list.

I love what I do. I’ve tried many different career paths already and I finally seem to have found an industry where I just seem to fit. To me it has felt like discovering who I am. It feels like I’m launching myself on a path that is allowing me to be myself and do what I love. It has involved a good deal of sacrifice to keep going though.

swamp hen

An assortment of swamp hens and other wild birds don't think twice about coming right up to students at La Trobe University. (Beware, they steal your lunch out of your hand.)

The degree isn’t easy. You can be the smartest person on the planet and still fail. It’s about persistence and organization. The workload is incredible. There are assignments or quizzes that need to be completed before you’re even allowed to attend a class. There’s always something due or an exam/test to study for. It involves a huge amount of reading and a lot of theory. There are a lot of ‘contact hours’ (hours spent in class). There is no escaping chemistry or the maths skills that you need to get through any subject. I often feel like I’ve been glued to my desk.

The hardest thing for me has been getting the uni/outside life balance right. You do have time to spend with your animals and family and you will have time for some parties but when exams are looming and assignments are due – you won’t be able to go to every party. Your other friends will go out without you, while you’re stuck at home writing up a lab report. You need those around you to understand about that. I was in a long-term happy relationship, and engaged to be married when I started my degree – but I’m single now. I say from experience that having explained the commitment before I started the degree, when you get halfway through, there is nothing quite like having your so-called support decide that they have a problem going to parties alone. It can be a shattering situation. Not one that is exclusive to me either.


An agriculture class included an assignment that involved watching and studying the behaviour of different species of birds without interfering with them. This swan was hoping our class's presence meant food.

I have to say though, what I have been learning has made it all worthwhile. Ok maybe not the math and chemistry part… math and I have never been friends. Despite that, some of the assignments I have completed have been truly fascinating. Getting behind the scenes at Melbourne zoo and learning about their various enrichment programs was amazing. Comparing and contrasting different sanctuaries enrichment programs gave me plenty of ideas for my own birds.

Pig with babies

Endangered "Large Black Pigs" there are only 60 registered breeding sows left in Australia. This species is in danger of dying out.

Recently, a trip to a pig farm that specializes in endangered pigs was a definite highlight. Previously, I hadn’t even considered that there were pigs that might be endangered. Learning about the importance of maintaining bloodlines has been very interesting. Looking at different farming styles and methods is something I hadn’t really been exposed to before – at least not when it came to pigs. Nothing drives a lesson home more than standing in a class and listening to your classmates squeal in shock when a pig unexpectedly shoves a snout into their leg.

pig farm

Class in a paddock?

Aside from the joys of excursions, exposure to laboratories and different procedures has already proven invaluable. Studying veterinary science has not reduced my vet bills by allowing me to take a ‘do it myself’ approach. It has however, given me an insight into what my vets are talking about and allowed me to recognize problems as they arise. Sometimes a little knowledge can help you ask useful questions.


Gabby is my favourite Orangutan at Melbourne Zoo. She is incredibly smart and very mischevious.

I have been asked how I cope with the ethics side of things when animals are involved in experiments we do in university. Any experiment involving animals is reviewed and approved by an ethics committee made up of appropriately qualified people. I have evaluated anything that I’ve been asked to do and if it hasn’t met my personal standards – I haven’t participated in that experiment. This means applying to be excused and to complete some other piece of assessment as an alternative.


Meerkats at Melbourne zoo. An agriculture class I was in spent a lot of time observing and classifying their different behaviours.

I have found myself objecting to one experiment so far. I had to submit an essay as to exactly what I objected to, in order to be excused. As the experiment had been approved for that year, there was no stopping it. Enough students objected in this particular case though which forced the university to reduce the number of animals they used that year. The written complaints we submitted ensured the experiment failed to get approval in subsequent years and it hasn’t been run again. Every complaint or objection can make a difference.

dissected cane toad

Dissections are a big part of biology and a good way to prepare vets for future surgery. All animals are treated with respect and humanely euthanized before students see them. This is a cane toad. Cane toads are pest species here in Australia. This particular dissection made use of animals that were being euthanized to eradicate them from an area.

The subjects that I have been doing in my course include subjects that focus on chemistry, biochemistry, biology, genetics, botany, zoology, agriculture, microbiology, immunology, physics, nutrition and I’m sure much more is still to come. There are classes that are mind-numbingly boring and then there are the ones that are fascinating. All of it is relevant in one-way or another, even if it isn’t obvious why at the time. Botany was one that a lot of the vet students questioned the relevance of? I heard more than one student mutter about wanting to learn about animals not plants. It made me wonder what they thought most animals ate? 


Behind the scenes at Melbourne Zoo.

There are days when I don’t feel like I have enough time to breathe, let alone finish writing reports and listening to lectures. There are days when I’m not sure I care what type of grass a cow should eat and why.  It’s on those days that I rely on the antics of my own pets and the wildlife rescue work I do, to keep me motivated and to remind me why I’m doing this. It isn’t easy studying vet science, but I think it’s right for me.  Every day I bring home some new piece of knowledge that I can apply to everyday life and that is worth something.

dissection lab

Marlen - my biology lab partner from a previous year.

 Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.

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