How I leverage my vet skills into travel opportunities, and why you should do the same.
Can vets travel the world?
When I tossed my mortarboard at my veterinary graduation ceremony in Melbourne, 2015, I didn’t really think so.
While I was excited to get started in my veterinary career, I was sure that accepting a position as a veterinary surgeon would mean my interest in travel would have to take a back seat. Working in a veterinary clinic has traditionally been a fairly static, location-based role, so I expected my ambitions of jet-setting to exotic locations would be confined to a few weeks of annual leave.
Or so I thought.
Over the following years, what I came to learn was that all the exotic destinations I had dreamed of, had one obvious thing in common. They all had animals. And where there are animals, there is almost always a need for enthusiastic, versatile veterinarians. You just had to find the right opportunities, and not be afraid to take the plunge.
In the years since I graduated, I’ve worked in paid positions in the highlands of Scotland, the outback of Australia, and the Swedish countryside. I’ve received free board in return for work in the Galapagos Islands, on the beaches of Sri Lanka, and the stilt villages of Papua New Guinea. And I’ve shared a meal and a coffee with vets and animal carers from dozens of amazing locations, from Bolivia and Iceland to Dubai and Namibia.
I soon found that traveling as a vet was my favorite way to see the world- and this is why:
Why Travelling as a vet is the Ultimate Way to See the World
1. Traveling Vets See a More Authentic Side of a Destination
Anyone can book a tour of the Isla Santa Cruz on the Galapagos Islands. But not everyone will know which food cart sells the best empanadas, or which water taxi will take you to an incredible crystal clear bay for snorkeling.
Traveling as a vet means you’ll stay in each location for a little bit longer. The clinics are usually located near the animals, so you’re likely to be staying off the beaten tourist track, perhaps in a local neighborhood or a national park.
Your accommodation will reflect the local way of life, meaning that if the local people don’t have hot running showers or refrigerators- neither will you. You won’t just see the sights- you’ll experience what it’s like to live there, and you’ll have a much more memorable time for it.
2. Traveling Vets Connect with the Locals
While I loved being a backpacker in my younger years, it has to be said that backpackers and tourists spend a lot of time hanging out with, well, other backpackers and tourists. I always felt like I was missing out on connecting with the local people, but it was hard to find common ground (let alone a common language).
However, when I started traveling as a vet, I found everyone wanted to interact. People love animals, and they love to talk to you about them!
You’ll also learn whole new ways to communicate, whether it be learning new expressions and dialects from your clients, or learning how to describe the neutering procedure through the medium of mime. By connecting with the people, you’ll have a much richer cultural experience.
3. Traveling as a Vet is More Cost-Effective
Modern veterinary graduates will be familiar with the challenge of juggling significant student debt with some of the lowest professional starting salaries, and I was no exception. And yet, when my friends were having to save their pennies, I was able to jet-set to incredible locations to work or volunteer.
Is this because I am irresponsible? Perhaps.
But it also has to be said that it can be a lot more cost-effective to volunteer as a vet than to visit on holiday. Once you reach your destination, many programs will cover the cost of your visa and accommodation. Some will even provide your meals or a stipend to help you stay longer. Using my skills in the clinic in return seemed a very good trade-off.
While the standard of accommodation is unlikely to be 5-star, volunteer programs have allowed me to visit a number of locations that I would otherwise have been priced out of. And if you find a paid role in a desirable destination, even better.
4. Traveling as a Vet Reminds Me Why I Worked so Hard to Become a Vet in the First Place
Veterinary work is stressful, and burnout is rife in our profession.
But the one thing that really renews my passion is remembering my time in charity clinics, and the feeling of really making a difference. Volunteer work really helps me see my job through a different lens and be grateful for what I’ve achieved so far.
I would recommend it to anyone.
How Did I Turn my Veterinary Skills into Travel Opportunities?
My international exploits have been a combination of volunteering in charity clinics and paid positions as either a permanent or locum vet.
While I never had an exact plan, I found that most of my trips have fallen into place with a combination of research, dedication, and a bit of luck.
How I Got my First Travel Gig
My first veterinary travel opportunity came just after graduation. After completing the arduous Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program in Melbourne, I was desperate to head out on my travels- but I recognized that as a new grad, I’d hardly be helping understaffed charity clinics if I couldn’t even spay a cat! Instead, I looked for a permanent new graduate position that would support me, while also fulfilling my desire for adventure.
And that’s when I found a job advert for a little mixed practice in Northern Scotland.
This role had the perfect mixture of stability and adventure- I was experiencing a new culture far from my home. But I still had the support of a similar style of clinic to what I knew in Australia. I stayed at that clinic long enough to become a competent vet, to make some lifelong friends, and to save money to put towards future trips.
I was always on the hunt for new opportunities, and that’s where the luck came in. While I was wondering what to do next, a former classmate of mine shared a Facebook post from one of her connections- a sole charge veterinary position in the Australian outback.
A few months later, I was boarding a propeller plane and heading for a remote town in the red center. From there, I was the solo vet in the only vet clinic in a 500km radius, working with both the townspeople, the indigenous communities, and the local cattle stations.
Although I’d grown up in Australia, I’d never expected the excitement and culture shock of working in the outback. The hours were long, and the pay was surprisingly good, and from there, my love of locum work was born.
After my stint in the outback, I set to researching opportunities around the world that would allow me to travel with my skills. Most of these roles fell into one of two categories- either you could work as a vet in a more developed nation and get paid a wage, or you could volunteer with a charity and receive food and board.
Different roles had different expectations- some required you to stay for a certain number of months, and some countries had strict requirements for visas and veterinary registration. I took on a mixture of each, always doing my research well in advance to ensure I was complying with local laws.
From there, I backpacked my way around the world as a volunteer vet, picking up locum work where I could to keep abreast of travel costs.
In some places, I could be pretty spontaneous with where I was going next (like Sri Lanka), and other trips took a lot of research and planning (like the Galapagos), but all in all, it’s very possible to travel as a vet and at least break even with your costs as you go.
How I Got Past the Fear and Took the Leap
The hardest thing for me wasn’t the money or the fear of doing it alone. For me, the challenge was really breaking the expectation of my family and peers and letting go of all the standard adult responsibilities that I was meant to be holding on to.
Like, shouldn’t I be saving for a house deposit? What if my vet skills started to fall behind my peers, or what if I didn’t meet someone and get married like my friends?
Well, as a home-owning, engaged, competent vet, it turns out all my fears were unfounded. It turns out, you have your whole life to figure out the serious stuff, but for me, traveling is never something that I will regret.
The Bottom Line
Vets are some of the best-placed professionals to incorporate travel into their careers. As a traveling vet, not only will you be welcomed into many new and exciting places, it will most likely be a much more affordable, rich, and memorable experience than a regular holiday abroad.
And if you’d like to know more about how to step out of your comfort zone and get traveling as a vet or vet nurse, you’ll find loads of information, interviews, and volunteer opportunities at my website, The Runaway Vet.com.