Love animals, but especially the idea of keeping them healthy and active? A career as a veterinary nutritionist could be for you. According to the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN), the field is important “to maintain optimal health and ensure optimal performance [in animals], as well as to manage the symptoms and progression of specific diseases.” Nutritional specialists can be involved in research, can formulate foods and supplements or use their knowledge to help in the prevention or treatment of disease. While most veterinarians do learn the fundamentals of nutrition during veterinarian school (typically at least one class is required), students who want to specialize in nutrition need to seek more training afterward. This can be done through internships, fellowships or residencies available at a university teaching hospital or in private practice. However, to become known as a ‘specialist’ in the field, you’ll need to become board certified through the ACVN and meet all of its requirements to sit for its certifying exam.
Steps toward Veterinary Nutrition
Students interested in nutrition first need to be accepted into a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) program. This typically comes after they have completed a bachelor’s degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there are 29 accredited DVM programs in the U.S., and admission is competitive. Students who have take many science classes, such as biology, biochemistry, and chemistry, at the undergraduate level or have even completed a pre-vet degree may find they have improved chances for admission. Some schools, like North Carolina University, even require completion of a 3-credition Animal Nutrition class for acceptance into its DVM program. Our list of 7 Great Schools with Vet Nutrition Programs could give guidance to students seeking a DVM program.
Most veterinary programs typically start instruction at the pre-clinical phase and advance students toward clinical learning by the latter portion of their program. Students generally take at least one general education class (often just 2 credits) in nutrition as part of their DVM program. For example, at North Carolina University students take Veterinary Nutritional Health during the second year of their DVM program and learn how to diagnose and prevent nutritional problems as well as to understand the role of nutrition in veterinary medicine. At Oregon State University, however, Veterinary Clinical Nutrition is taken by the end of the student’s first year.
Electives in nutrition can help students to expand their skill set. Electives, often available in the latter part of a DVM program, might include:
- Clinical Nutrition
- Equine Nutrition
- Ruminant Nutrition
- Small Animal Nutrition
Electives could also be called by other names, such as:
- Clinical Nutrition for Ruminants/Swine
- Introduction to Clinical and Equine Nutrition
- Zoological Husband and Nutrition
Many of these elective classes are just 1-2 credits in length. Students may find other opportunities to learn about nutrition through their DVM program, however. For example, nutrition may be taught as part of a class such as Companion Animal Medicine and Surgery that focuses on many different facets of care. As well clinical rotations may give them the option to spend some time working in animal nutrition. By taking as many credits in nutrition as possible, you will best prepare yourself for additional opportunities that may be available after completing your DVM program.
After your DVM program has been completed
Students can look for fellowships, residencies or other training opportunities to acquire more skills in nutrition after becoming a veterinarian. Options will vary, and competition could be significant, but students should become prepared to sit for board certification through the ACVN with such a process. Some advanced learning opportunities include:
- Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine offers a clinical nutrition residency to those who have their DVM, as well as practical experience or a master’s degree.
- Penn Vet has a residency available in Small Animal Clinical Nutrition. More information can be found on the American Association of Veterinary Clinicians internship and residency matching program page.
- Students can apply for the residency program in small animal clinical nutrition available through UC Davis. Candidates must have a DVM and at least one year of clinical experience to be eligible for this two-year residency.
Fortunately, many residencies and some internships are paid, allowing students the opportunity to save money and to begin paying off any debt they might have accrued during their DVM program.
Sitting for Board Certification
There are 22 specialties recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association, including nutrition, with examination and board certification for this specialty administered through the ACVN. Typically, eligibility for any specialty requires at least a one-year internship and a 2-to-3 year residency program, and this is true for the ACVN, although students should be aware that requirements do vary among specialties. What exactly is a board certified specialist? According to the AVMA, “An individual who is board-certified in a veterinary specialty has graduated from a veterinary school followed by several years of advanced training and/or experience in a specialized field of veterinary medicine.”
In addition to an internship and residency experience, candidates for the ACVN exam also need to work under the mentorship of a board certified nutritionist. Applicants must also write up and submit three case reports before being approved to take the exam, which is two days in length and covers both nutritional and medical knowledge. Students should also know that the word ‘specialist’ is synonymous with ‘diplomate’, which they become after passing their boards. Those who are certified in veterinary nutrition could denote board certification after their name in any of the following ways: Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Nutrition; Dip, ACVN; or DACVN.
Candidates who pass the examination to become board certified will have their name listed in the ACVN’s diplomate directory. This board certified status can be useful in many ways: it allows veterinarians to be on the cutting-edge in their field; it allows them to consult in providing care to sick or injured animals; it may qualify them for certain jobs in private industry or in academia; it also makes them one of an elite group. Just over 11,000 veterinarians are board certified in AVMA specialty areas with slightly more than 80 listed as diplomates with the ACVN. Finally, veterinarians who are board certified in nutrition may find more employment options at their fingertips, including working in a vet school, for a drug company or pet food company, or simply just running their own business or working as a consultant.