Brianna Parsons grew up around animals in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, and always thought she'd be a small-animal vet, caring for cats and dogs. But after a study abroad trip to Tanzania during her undergrad years, she decided to change course.
"I was seeing the ways people depended on livestock for their livelihoods, for food every day, and it kind of made me start thinking differently about veterinary medicine," Parsons said.
Today, Parsons is a fourth-year student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, studying in rotations, learning everything from large animal surgery to dairy production medicine.
"People are interacting with animals every day, whether they're thinking about it or not in the foods we're eating and in the products we're using in a lot of different realms," the 25-year-old Parsons said.
Demand for veterinary professionals like Parsons is on the rise— a byproduct of the booming pet-care industry, which is set to hit some $70 billion this year, and a growing world population, placing a greater emphasis on food safety and supply.
"A veterinarian's job is really to care for humanity by taking care of animals — we often talk about there only being one health. There's human, animal and environment and we serve all of that," said Dr. Joan Hendricks, dean of the UPenn's vet school.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, opportunities for veterinarians are set to climb by some 18 percent through 2026, while roles for vet technicians will rise by 20 percent in the same time frame. Salaries can reach into the high six-figures, depending on role and area of practice. And demand is so high that vet students often have two job offers when they graduate.
There aren't enough slots in U.S. vet schools to accommodate all applicants. Hendricks said there are about 4,000 spots for vet students across the country annually. UPenn now has 125 slots for students, up from 110, and the application process is highly competitive because the school can get up to 15 times more applicants than available slots.
Among the challenges for students is staying up to date on the "sheer amount of information" they need to know, she said. The information doubles every three years due to developments in biomedicine and in veterinary medicine, she added. The amount of training to become a vet is similar to what it takes to become a medical doctor.
"They just have to know a huge volume and be able to problem-solve," she said. "And they also have to be incredibly caring and intuitive and really good with animals."
Career options are plentiful once schooling is complete, from caring for companion animals to running one's own practice or even working for big pharmaceutical companies like Zoetis, which produces animal vaccines. The company is investing in research and development, supporting customers in companion animal practices and in working with food producers to ensure animals in the food supply chain are healthy.
"From a global perspective, there's been an increase in demand for the expertise that veterinarians provide to society," said Dr. Christine Jenkins, the company's chief medical officer for U.S. operations. "The demand is related to the increase in the size of the human population, an increase in affluence in developing countries, as well as an increase in overall urbanization."
The company looks for candidates with good people skills, interest in business and solid technical skills in areas related to large and small animals. Technical services vets like Michele Barrett are tasked with managing the health of cows and advising farm veterinarians and dairy farmers on the best uses for Zoetis' products. Educating customers and students is what she finds most rewarding.
"It's extremely rewarding to see how healthy we can keep them and it's extremely rewarding to see these family businesses grow and feed the communities around them," Barrett said.
After graduating from UPenn, Parsons is hoping to focus on food safety. She aspires to run a sustainable goat farm in West Africa — a project she's been working on for two years.
"The best part for me has been thinking more globally about health, and thinking about the ways that veterinarians can be involved in things that are larger than just the individual animal," she said. "When you think about health in a more comprehensive sense — that's what gets me excited."