A registered veterinary technician can be compared to a registered nurse of human medicine. Nurses basically care for their human patients after the doctor has examined them, made a diagnosis, and prescribed medication.
A vet tech does the same thing for animal patients – plus he or she tends to the care and well-being of the patient’s owners. A career as a veterinary technician takes hard work, dedication, flexibility, and a commitment to animal welfare to be considered successful, but the rewards of caring for sick and injured patients can be immeasurable.
The Nature of the Vet Tech Job
As a veterinary technician, your main job is to care for the animals in your particular clinic by following the instructions of the veterinarian and doing whatever it takes to make those patients comfortable.
As a veterinary technician you will be required to check patient vital signs (pulse, temperature, and respiration), get a complete medical history from the owners, and restrain each animal as the veterinarian examines it. You may be asked to take urine, blood, feces, skin scrapings and hair samples when required. You will be expected to medicate each animal according to veterinary protocol, including giving inoculations under the supervision of your vet.
If the animal is hospitalized, the vet tech serves as the primary caregiver for the patient. That means it will be necessary for you to monitor its condition on a continual basis, ensuring that the animal is fed and watered to the vet’s specifications, and that its kennel is clean and sanitary. If daily medications are necessary, you will be giving them at the specified time and dose, and noting those meds and any changes of the animal’s demeanor in the patient’s chart.
Additionally, you are expected to assist the veterinarian with any surgeries, take radiographs (x-rays), dispense pharmaceutical drugs to both in- and outpatients, perform clinical laboratory analyses, and attend to the comfort of any patient’s owners.
Along with these particular job skills, a veterinary technician also has certain responsibilities that they must maintain in order to ensure the well-being of the animals in his or her care.
Responsibilities of a Vet Tech
As a veterinary technician, your responsibilities include making sure that all the animal patients in your clinic are resting comfortably, that they have the proper food and hydration, that they are eliminating adequately for their conditions, and that their kennels are clean and sanitary. You will also be required to talk with the patient’s owners, letting them know how their hospitalized pet is doing, and recording any ongoing information received from the owner in the patient’s chart.
Your job when you are working with a veterinarian is to be their eyes and ears to the patient’s welfare. By talking with the owners of each animal, you will be giving the vet insight into the patient’s past history and background that can lead to a correct diagnosis. If an animal is hospitalized, it will be up to the veterinary technician to make sure they get treated promptly and appropriately if they suddenly become destabilized and require emergency care.
There are three things you CANNOT do as a vet tech. You are not allowed to diagnose an illness, you cannot prescribe medications, and you can’t perform surgeries. Any deviance from that and you can lose your registration and/or license.
Work Environment of a Vet Tech
A vet tech’s working environment can vary greatly depending on whether he or she specializes in large or small animal medicine.
When you work with large animals, you are typically dealing with farm animals – cattle, horses, goats, sheep, pigs – so most of your work will be completed either outside in a pasture or paddock area, or inside a barn. You will be expected to show up in all kinds of weather, under all sorts of conditions. Typically, short, uncomplicated surgeries like castrations are performed with the animal being sedated out in the field and not brought into a clinic.
In a small animal clinic, the environment is much more controlled. Depending on the size of the staff, you may be working with several veterinarians, several veterinary technicians, and one of two veterinary assistants. You can be assigned to one doctor or work with whichever vet is on staff at the time.
Typically, the working hours of a veterinary technician are never 9 to 5. Early mornings are common, as are late nights, and staying late for emergencies. Most modern clinics are open 7 days a week, so expect to work some weekends, including Sundays, when you are just starting out.
Related Veterinary Technician Jobs
Besides large and small animal medicine, veterinary technician specialities can be developed in different fields with further training and certification. These vet tech jobs typically pay a little better than regular clinic jobs and carry a bit more prestige.
You can work with exotics, reptiles, amphibians, birds, big apes, and felines as a zoo veterinary technician. Manufacturing and experimental laboratories hire vet techs to monitor and maintain the health of lab rats, rabbits, and other animals used for medical experiments. A veterinary nutritionist does not have to be a full-fledged veterinarian to receive certification in animal nutrition, nor does an animal behaviorist. These specialties are often filled by vet techs.
Other concentrations often require that a veterinary technician go back to college and take post-graduate classes to reach certification in them. These specialty jobs can include ophthalmology, dentistry, emergency medicine, oncology, surgery, and radiology/sonography.
Education/Training of a Vet Tech
Within the last 10 years, more and more veterinarians are only hiring veterinary technicians with college degrees and certifications because of the increasing demands and specializations of animal medicine.
Typically, vet tech schools run a 2- or 3-year associate’s program focusing the student on the protocols of veterinary medicine – much like university-sponsored nursing programs in human medicine. The veterinary technology student studies animal anatomy and physiology, canine and feline management, clinical pathology, parasitology, veterinary pharmacology, nursing and surgical procedures, radiology, lab animal management, animal conformation and breeding, food animal clinical management, and equine management. While there are some online vet tech programs that students can take, clinical experience must be obtained at some point before the student receives his or her diploma.
Most veterinary technician schools require that students intern in a small or large animal practice prior to graduation. The length of the internship depends on the school.
Vet Tech Certifications
To receive certifications, students must have received at least an associate’s degree from an accredited veterinary technology school. Additionally, vet techs must take and pass a national board exam administered by the American Veterinary Medical Association. State veterinary medical associations give exams focusing on individual state laws and regulations that students must pass in order to be certified to work in their particular state. Where a student is “Certified” or “Registered” depends on the state where they take the exams.
Veterinary Technician Job Outlook
According to the latest output from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of veterinary technicians is expected to grow 36 percent over the next 6 years. Pet owners are spending more money because they consider their pets to be part of the family.
Additionally, the need for vet tech specialists is expected to grow, as the American public demands higher and better levels of veterinary care. With only a little under 4000 anticipated graduates from vet tech programs each year, the number of veterinary technicians is not likely to meet the demand.
Salary of a Vet Tech
The latest statistics from the BLS for 2010-2011, show a vet tech salary averaging between $23,580 and $34,960 per year. The bottom 10 percent earned less than $19,770, and the top 10 percent earned more than $41,490 – these top earners were typically veterinary technicians who specialized or who had been at the job longer than 10 years.
Obviously, veterinary technicians must have an abiding love and respect for animals…or they shouldn’t be doing this work.
In addition, vet techs need to be flexible and fast-thinking, because it is in the nature of the job to change from moment to moment. A veterinary technician should also be detail oriented and able to multi-task over an extended period of time. You will need a mind that notices the small things, such as which animal is eating what food, and if that particular dog looks lethargic, or if this specific cat has lost weight. A good vet tech often works best under pressure and time constraints – knowing how to handle yourself in an emergency situation can save an animal’s life.
Most importantly, a good vet tech has compassion not only for the animals he or she cares for, but for the owners of those patients who may also need nurturing in times of stress.
Challenges & Rewards of the Veterinary Technician Job
One of the greatest challenges of the vet tech job is not allowing your emotions to interfere with the care and attention you need to give your patients and pet owners. For a person who loves animals to deal with sick, injured, and dying patients on a daily basis can become an emotional burden that a lot of people find hard to bear. Euthanasia procedures, while almost always necessary, are never easy, and a compassionate vet tech often feels the pain of that animal’s death as much as the owner.
However, knowing that you have participated in the birth of a litter of healthy puppies, or you’ve helped a sick and dying dog live a few more years, or that you’ve splinted the broken leg of that little kitten so that it no longer feels any pain – those are the pictures and memories that vet techs take home with them. It is those good memories that make the long hours and hard work worth it for most veterinary technicians – and why so many of you want to join in the work that can be so rewarding.