Relief veterinarian and dog

Research shows that over half of all veterinarians suffer from burnout—and much of this stress comes from the exacting demands currently placed on associate vets. Understaffing, long hours, and a lack of work/life balance are common industry complaints.

There’s been a growing interest in relief veterinary care (also known as locum vets) as a way for vets to still practice what they love—without suffering from the constant stress. But what exactly is a relief veterinarian, and what are the steps someone needs to take to become one? Here’s what vets need to know.

So what is a relief veterinarian?

A relief veterinarian provides temporary services to a clinic, filling in for other veterinarians —whether that’s because they’re sick, on temporary leave, or the clinic is growing but can’t justify another full-time employee yet.

Relief veterinarians do any or all of the job duties a typical veterinarian would do, depending on the needs of the clinic. This could range from conducting routine wellness exams to scrubbing in for surgery.

Many veterinarians become relief veterinarians because it allows them to take control of their schedule and achieve a better work/life balance. Relief veterinary services can be challenging, too—these vets often deal with the nitty-gritty work of running an independent business on top of the veterinary shifts they need to work.

Educational Requirements

For those wondering how to become a relief veterinarian, the initial pathway is much the same as it is to become an associate vet. Relief veterinarians have to have a DVM (Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine), and it helps to have several years of experience already under your belt as well. This is because relief veterinarians fill in wherever they’re needed without a ton of onboarding: flexibility and adaptability are key.

Depending on where they live, relief veterinarians are often licensed in multiple states so that they can successfully work at any clinic within a geographical range. Vets in Pennsylvania, for example, often hold licenses for New Jersey and Delaware as well. Thanks to reciprocity laws, getting a license held in one state recognized by another state is often just a matter of filling out paperwork and paying a fee.

Gaining Relevant Experience

It pays to be well-rounded as a relief vet. Becoming a relief vet will be a lot easier if vets have already gained experience working in a variety of veterinary settings since they often move from clinic to clinic and must adapt easily to each.  This also means that vets are exposed to different styles of running clinics.

Ideally, veterinarians would have 2-4 years’ experience:

  • Working at a small clinic
  • Working at a large corporate clinic
  • Working at an animal hospital

And veterinarians should look to gain experience in different parts of the practice, too. Relief vets should be comfortable giving general wellness exams, performing surgeries, cleaning teeth, and using tools like ultrasound machines and X-rays.

To be able to adapt to each clinic with minimal training needed, relief vets should ideally have experience with:

  • Anesthesia machines
  • Blood pressure monitors
  • EMR & handwriting records
  • Surgical clamps
  • Radiograph interpretation
  • Neuters/spays
  • Critical care triage
  • Hematology and internal chemistry assessment

Relief work can also be lucrative for vets who are board-certified in an area of expertise. Certain specialists may have an easier time finding shifts due to demand—a dental specialist, for example, may have to service a larger geographical region than an emergency specialist.

Dr. Pamela Bay in clinic

Building a Veterinary Relief Career

To transition from a full-time associate to working as a full-time relief veterinarian, there are a few steps veterinarians should take.

Get the Necessary Certifications

Many veterinarians live near state borders. Once they switch over to relief work, it’s necessary to get certified in all the potential states they could pick up shifts in. Doing it before making the switch to relief work means not missing out on potential shifts simply because they’re across a state line.

Determine if you will be a contractor or work with a professional relief agency

When relief first became a “thing,” veterinarians were considered 1099 or contract workers. There are now a few professional relief staffing agencies in the U.S. who hire veterinarians as W-2 employees providing benefits and paid time off. However, not all of these agencies are created equal (see below).

Relief work as a Contractor (1099)

Contract relief vets have to essentially build their own small businesses. Not only do these types of vets practice medicine, but they are also running a business. This means they’re responsible for submitting invoices to clinics, filing their taxes, finding a health insurance plan, setting aside money for their 401k, getting indemnity insurance, and much more. Unlike working at a traditional clinic as a W-2 employee, working as a relief vet will often require negotiating contracts as well.

Vets who don’t have a healthy bank account should wait before switching over to 1099 relief work. It may take a while to build up relationships with local clinics, which means vets may deal with a less-than-full schedule at first. It’s also a good idea to set aside extra money for dealing with illness and accidents. Once vets are no longer W-2 employees, they lose the security of having built-in vacation and sick time.

Essentially, this type of relief vet is setting up and managing a small business—and having a strong handle on the financial side of things is key to being a successful relief vet. Other things to consider:

  • Most financial experts recommend setting aside 20% to 35% of 1099 income to cover business-related expenses.
  • Vets should learn about contract terms and conditions to invoice properly. “Net 30,” for example, means the employer has a 30-day deadline for paying the invoice.
  • Relief vets should keep track of everything related to their business, including mileage and any materials purchased—since these can be used for tax write-offs. Also important to note: U.S. contractors are required to file taxes quarterly, rather than annually.
  • Before transitioning to relief work, it’s a good idea for veterinarians to determine how much money they need to make to maintain their lifestyle—this will inform which shifts they take on (and how frequently).
  • Hiring an accountant, especially for the first year, is a good way for vets to ensure they’re proactive about responsible money management.

Finding Relief Veterinarian Opportunities as a Contractor

So exactly how do 1099 relief vets find their shifts? There are a few options, including job platforms, networking and professional veterinary staffing agencies.

Job Platforms

There are several job platforms vets can utilize to find available shifts. They include:

Relief Rover: this is free for vets to use; employers charge a low monthly fee. Vets can search for shifts, and employers can also search for vets.

Facebook: There are several Facebook groups for relief veterinarians and employers, such as Veterinary Jobs & Relief Work—USA, that connect job seekers to job posters.

Indeed: Indeed is a classic job posting site, and it works for relief positions as well. Rather than single shifts, this is where vets can find longer-stint relief works (covering maternity leave for several months, for example).


Networking can be an essential tool for relief veterinarians looking to establish ongoing relationships with local clinics. Networking can look like attending local veterinary functions such as in-person CE courses and conferences.  Vets should have business cards with their information on hand for any such functions. New relief vets should also consider reaching out to clinics in their local area to let them know they are available for work.

Professional staffing agencies

Not all relief vets have to go it alone. There are a few staffing companies who hire veterinarians as W-2 employees but provide the flexibility that is the hallmark of relief work. For example, IndeVets offers the flexibility of relief work, but hires veterinarians as employees—complete with paid time off, paid parental leave, healthcare and many other benefits. Relief veterinarians at IndeVets are managed by an extensive team of other practicing vets who nurture their professional development.

types of veterinarian jobs, different types of veterinarian jobs

Veterinary Relief Work is Challenging, but Rewarding

Relief veterinarians play a crucial role in addressing staffing gaps, providing specialized care, and contributing to the sustainable growth of veterinary clinics. Becoming a relief veterinarian can mean taking on more responsibility as a contractor—there’s no longer a clinic in charge of managing a veterinarian’s taxes, healthcare, billing, et cetera (unless relief veterinarians work with a company like IndeVets).

Overall it can be a rewarding experience, so anyone wondering how to become a relief veterinarian shouldn’t be afraid to explore their options. Vets suffering from burnout can take control of their schedules, gain a wider variety of clinical experiences, and reignite their passion for veterinary medicine.



How can you become a great relief veterinarian?

Great relief veterinarians are flexible and adaptable, so gaining a wide variety of clinical experiences is key. This ensures you have diverse skills and can jump in where needed.

What should you do if you want to become a veterinarian? 

The first step to becoming a veterinarian is getting a DVM (Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine), which typically follows a 4-year undergraduate degree. Then you need to pass the NAVLE (The North American Veterinary Licensing Examination) in order to practice medicine.