Nomadic Vet: How to Become a Traveling Veterinarian

Dr. Nikki Johnson, DVM
October 23, 2023

In Part Two of my series, I’ll be writing about how to become a traveling veterinarian: all the logistics I had to figure out (and still am figuring out after one year of doing this) to make my business run smoothly (you can find Part One here!). 

From stethoscopes to QuickBooks

When I was in veterinary school, I was a part of the Veterinary Business Management Association. Something that I think is lacking from most vet school curriculums is an understanding of finances and business management, especially for the many who become practice owners. In school, I imagined I would ultimately own a veterinary clinic, but as I started practicing, I quickly realized that I valued my work-life balance too much to get into the high-stakes, high-stress world of practice ownership. 

When I decided to start doing relief work on my own, I was able to learn and use some of those business skills in a much more low-stress way, which has been really rewarding. The logistical aspects that always seemed really scary and complicated ended up becoming very manageable and sometimes enjoyable.

Here are the steps I took to become a traveling veterinarian and what I learned along the way: 

1. Relief work: a gateway to veterinary work across the country

To initially dip my toe into the relief pool, I started working for a relief veterinary group in 2021 that provided me benefits and allowed for easy scheduling at a select group of clinics. This was a great introduction to relief medicine for me, but it still required too many rules and guidelines. I wanted freedom to practice when and where I wanted! 

So, when a life change took me to the other side of the country and another attempt at being an associate vet failed for me, I decided to give it a go on my own. I started off doing solo relief veterinarian gigs in local areas, never traveling more than a few hours and staying in hotels or commuting from home — I had no idea how big a part of my life this would become. 

After about 6 months, I decided that I was ready to buy a van and get on the road, fulfilling my long-term dream of being a full-time traveling relief veterinarian (it does exist)!

2. Set up your own business before going on the road

When I first started operating out of California (where I was living at the time), I established my business very simply as a “sole proprietorship.” This was recommended by my accountant since it was the simplest method, and I was unsure how much revenue I’d be bringing in just starting out. This was really straightforward, I just had to register my business in the city I was based out of and provide my social security number on W9s to the clinics I was doing contract work for (or my EIN — employer identification number — which I hadn’t yet applied for). 

Recently, after about a year of practicing as a “sole proprietor” relief veterinarian, I decided to form an LLC (limited liability corporation) for my business. I did this again based on the recommendation of my accountant with the main benefits being tax breaks and improved business security. 

I then set up a business bank account using my EIN, and I finally started using record keeping software (QuickBooks for me) to make my expenses and income much easier to handle (I had just been using excel spreadsheets previously). 

You definitely don’t need to have an accountant, but for me, it has been crucial! I find my time (and sanity) much more valuable than saving money, but that’s just personal preference. My accountant files my annual taxes in multiple states, calculates how much I need to pay in quarterly taxes, and really takes the frustrating money aspects off my to-do list. 

With this big step, I was ready to start traveling across the country to work as a relief veterinarian.

3. Liability Insurance for the self-employed vet

Don’t forget about Liability Insurance! This is a crucial part of being a relief veterinarian that has luckily been made very easy by the AVMA with their PLIT coverage. I hold extra coverage above their basic plan for peace of mind. There are other options out there, but I haven’t strayed away from the tried and true PLIT myself! 

4. Scheduling shifts as a traveling veterinarian

I initially thought that scheduling my shifts was going to be really stressful, but I was amazed to find it to be a really easy and enjoyable part of my job. It does require a time commitment, though, to organize my schedule, contact potential clinics, and ensure I’m working at clinics that are a good fit for me. 

Initially, Roo was my biggest source for finding work and clinics, since building relationships and word of mouth can really take time! I still use Roo regularly to find clinics, especially when I’m traveling to new areas where I don't have contacts and in instances when I need to fill gaps in my schedule. Otherwise, I can generally find contacts through Facebook groups, word of mouth, and contacting clinics directly. There is such a need for veterinary relief help right now!

Generally, I prefer not to book my schedule too far out, which allows more flexibility for myself (that was the whole point of doing relief work on my own!). I generally schedule veterinary shifts about 30 to 45 days in advance, though occasionally, I’ll schedule shifts only two weeks in advance or as far out as 60 days in advance. I find that not scheduling too far out gives me more options and allows me to schedule last minute events with friends! 

Roo: the traveling veterinarian’s best friend!

One of the huge advantages of scheduling work with Roo is the plethora of information provided in the clinic profiles. The expected number of patients per day, operating system used, lunch timing, etc. that are listed in these profiles really help me get an accurate idea of if a clinic is going to be a good fit for me from afar. 

I like to focus on longer, more in-depth appointments, so more fast-paced clinics with a higher case-load just don’t tend to be a good match for me. These are some of the questions I ask potential new clinics on my own as well: How long are appointments? How many appointments do you expect per day? How many staff members are on hand to support each doctor? What is the lunch timing? I have found that really thoroughly vetting (pun intended) clinics through email before working a shift really helps set me up for success.

And one piece of advice — do not overcommit to a clinic before you’ve worked a shift there! I have made this mistake before and still do occasionally, but I am a big proponent of working a shift at a new clinic before committing to several weeks, surgery shifts, etc. Of course, this doesn’t always work out, but it’s worth trying to remain true to! 

5. DVM licensing across borders 

In my next article, I’ll get into the licensing aspect of traveling veterinary work, which is essential if you’re going to be crossing any state borders! 

Following these simple steps, it’s easy to become a traveling veterinarian, and there are so many ways how Roo can make it even easier!

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