Relief Veterinarians: What They Do and How to Become One

July 17, 2021

For Veterinarians

July 17, 2021

As focus shifts toward improving veterinarians’ mental and emotional health, the veterinary culture has changed, and veterinarians now have more diverse job options. New graduates, as well as established practitioners, are increasingly choosing to become relief veterinarians because that offers more flexibility in a profession that can be rather rigid.

You may have considered relief work, but wonder what becoming a relief veterinarian exactly involves. Preparing for relief work involves ensuring you thoroughly understand the position and weighing the pros and cons in light of your situation.

What credentials would I need to be a relief veterinarian?

To work as a relief veterinarian, you will need to complete veterinary school and pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination. New graduates can delve directly into relief practice, but may benefit from an internship or regular clinic work to gain experience before turning in that direction.

What responsibilities would I have as a relief veterinarian?

The work will vary depending on the assistance the practice needs. In general, you will be performing veterinary professional tasks such as:

  • Wellness exams
  • Surgical procedures
  • Dental procedures
  • Internal medicine issues
  • Client communication
  • Administration responsibilities, such as updating medical records

What benefits does a relief veterinarian enjoy?


A flexible schedule is a major attraction to relief work. You can set your own hours, decide what days you want to work, and decide how much vacation and personal time you want.


You will be working for several practices, meaning the faces, patients, and workload will constantly change. If you enjoy working on several species, you can easily switch between species-specific hospitals.


At every practice, you will meet new and interesting people who can potentially offer you other exciting opportunities.


You will learn new approaches and techniques to procedures, and can incorporate them in your arsenal as you like.

New toys

Veterinary medical equipment can be extremely pricey, but you will be able to use the practice’s equipment without straining your own pocket book.


You will be helping a practice in need so their patients receive the care they deserve. The practice will be extremely appreciative!

What are the disadvantages of being a relief veterinarian?

Relief work has perks, but the job is not for everyone. This may not be the best role for someone who really enjoys following their patient’s care to the end. Moving between practices means you likely will not be involved in every patient’s case this way.

Also, some pet owners may shy away from the relief veterinarian seeing their pet, thinking this implies you are inexperienced. Other owners may prefer a veterinarian they know.

One additional consideration—you will need to rely on the practice employees to learn each practice’s different software and specific processes.

What veterinary medical branch could I work in as a relief veterinarian?

Relief veterinarians are needed in many veterinary medical fields, including small animal, equine, food animal, and exotic. You can also choose the sectors where you would like to provide relief.

  • Daytime only
  • General practice
  • Emergency, day or night
  • Vaccine clinics
  • Animal shelters

If you have specialty education, such as dentistry, ultrasonography, surgery, acupuncture, chiropractic work, or endoscopy, you can develop a unique niche for yourself by offering these services to several area practices.

Where could I work as a relief veterinarian?

You can pretty much work anywhere you want! Being a relief veterinarian allows you to see the world and work as you go. If you have always wanted to visit a certain state, you can settle in for a few months to experience being a native.

International veterinary relief is also an option, once you obtain the necessary regulations and licensing required by your chosen country.

What would my schedule be as a relief veterinarian?

You can decide how much or little you work. You can decide you won’t take any Friday afternoon shifts if you like going to happy hour with your friends to kick off the weekend. If you like to work weekends and have days off during the week, you can schedule yourself accordingly. You can also easily change your schedule. If you suddenly decide you want weekends off, you can make the necessary changes.

What are the key skills I would need as a relief veterinarian?

Relief veterinarians should be excellent vets, and acquiring a few more skills will help them excel. They should:

  • Keep meticulous records — You will not have the luxury of giving your coworker the run-down on your last case if you get behind on your records. Also, you will not be available for the veterinarian who next sees your patient to ask questions. This means you must be precise, thorough, and coherent when composing your case notes.
  • Stay open-minded — Not every practice will perform procedures or handle clients the way you prefer. You must be willing to see their viewpoint and perform the duties you are asked.
  • Be confident — Your confidence in yourself and your abilities will be important as you go between practices, especially if you are the only veterinarian on staff. You will need to rely on your clinical assessments without second guessing yourself.
  • Have good collaboration skills Meeting new and interesting people is great, but you will also need to work well alongside these new people. You will not have long to get to know your new coworkers before seeing patients as a team.
  • Be reliable — The practice hired you because they needed someone to fill a gap in their work force. You must be reliable and dependable to fill this deficit, or you likely will not be asked to return.
  • Have good communication skills — Whether you are talking to your coworkers or your clients, you will need to coherently get your message across.
  • Be open to constructive feedback — Since a practice may prefer certain approaches to particular procedures, you will need to be willing to take correction and perform the technique their way.
  • Be adaptable to new situations — A veterinary practice is a busy place, and you will not have time to acclimate to the situation. You will need to learn on the fly, and hit the ground running.

How do I set myself up as a relief veterinarian?

  • Consider hiring a lawyer to get advice and protect your interests.
  • Consider hiring an accountant to accurately handle your taxes.
  • Consider setting up a limited liability company, especially if you own your own equipment.
  • Obtain professional liability insurance.
  • Obtain a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) license.
  • Obtain veterinary licensing in multiple states if you plan to travel.
  • Draw up a contract that the hiring practice can sign, if they do not provide one.

Why would a practice hire a relief veterinarian?

A practice may need a relief veterinarian for many reasons. When vets go on vacation, or maternity or sick leave, the remaining associates may not be able to handle the extra work. Some practices experience busy periods, and more hands can be helpful.

For instance, foaling season is especially hectic for equine practices, but when work settles down in the summer, the extra help is not necessary. A practice may hire a relief veterinarian to fill in until they can find and hire a new associate. A growing practice may need extra manpower, but can not yet support a full-time employee. Other practices enjoy having new faces to offer innovative ideas.

How do I find practices that need a relief veterinarian?

Get help from other veterinarians

Network in the community you choose to offer relief, and let area veterinarians know you are offering relief work. Continuing education meetings are great resources to mingle and spread the word.

Use social media

Promote yourself on sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook, and join appropriate forums to get support.

Join a relief association

Organizations exist that help connect relief veterinarians to practices in need and to other relief vets to get advice.

What would my salary be as a relief veterinarian?

According to ZipRecruiter, the average pay for a full-time relief veterinarian is approximately $75 per hour, or $175,000 a year. Your take home pay will depend on the going rate for services in the area you are offering relief. After determining the costs you have incurred for business needs and calculating your living expenses, you can include a rate you feel is fair in the contract you draft. You can charge more for your specialty services.

Demand for relief veterinarians rose 30% from 2008 to 2018, and this demand is expected only to increase. Becoming a relief veterinarian provides many options for an adventurous professional. You can set your own rules, and go where your heart desires. You can practice the medicine you love in a way that does not make you feel tied down, or set in a familiar routine.

Sources: AVMA 2019. DVM360 2021. The Balance Careers 2017. VinNews 2011.

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Disclaimer: Our content is for informational purposes only — it’s not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.