What is a Veterinary Technician?
If you know what a medical nurse does for a patient, then you know what a veterinary technician does for their furry patients. Veterinary technicians are the registered nurses of the veterinary profession. Unfortunately, the term veterinary technician can be misleading. Therefore, the profession is trying to change that term to the veterinary nurse, which is more appropriate because it more accurately describes the duties of a veterinary technician. Vet techs learn all the same skills as human medical nurses and as described below, learn several additional skills.
Vet Tech Duties
Vet techs are trained to perform the same duties as medical nurses (for human patients), such as drawing blood or placing catheters. In addition to those vet tech duties, though, vet techs receive more comprehensive training than medical nurses and are more widely equipped to assist in animal health-related areas after earning a two-year associate degree.
In addition to all the general nursing duties performed by all nurses, most veterinary technicians are additionally trained as dental hygienists, diagnostic imaging technicians, laboratory technicians, nurse anesthetists, and surgical assistants.
As dental hygienists, dental technicians clean the teeth of patients of all species, but most routinely dogs, cats, and horses. Dogs and cats come to the clinic for their dental cleanings and any surgical procedures such as extractions (a licensed veterinarian performs these). In addition, technicians and doctors will typically visit horses where they are stalled at an owner’s home or farm to perform cleanings and filing of teeth.
As diagnostic imaging technicians, technicians will restrain their patients comfortably and act as diagnostic laboratory support who take x-rays of any part of an animal’s body that the veterinarian directs them to examine. Vet techs are trained to employ both film and digital x-ray machines. Also, they may be involved in performing diagnostic tests like ultrasounds (where internal organs and structures are imaged with sound) or other contrast image technologies such as myelography.
As nurse anesthetists and surgical nurses, vet techs are taught to deliver anesthesia to their patients, preparing animals for clinical procedures. This is a complex skill set that involves the use of medical mathematics and extensive knowledge of drugs and pharmacology. In addition, the experience of an individual vet tech will bear upon the use and choice of drugs and methods when delivering anesthesia to a patient. Anesthesia is typically employed during dental and surgical operations.
As surgical nurses, vet techs will prepare patients for surgery by performing laboratory tests (as well as the doctor’s physical exam), preparing a protocol for drugs to prevent pain and ensure sedation, and preparing the patient for their surgery. In addition, by request of the licensed veterinarian, vet techs will assist during surgery and manipulate tissues during surgery at the doctor’s direction.
Veterinary technicians also perform a variety of other tasks that are too long to list here, but in general, they include:
1. Office and hospital management
This will include answering phones and answering questions from clients. For example, new prospective clients will ask technicians general questions about preventative animal care and vaccines. In contrast, current animal owners will have questions about possible emergency first aid or about sick pets undergoing chronic care for cancer, diabetes, or other chronic diseases.
Vet techs must also be prepared to participate in general hospital management: filing, reception, receiving and cataloging inventory, maintaining various clinical logs, and staff scheduling.
Vet techs perform calculations required to dispense medicine to patients. They also order and manage pharmacological inventories. Patients also require administration of drugs in various avenues: oral administration, intravenous administration, and sometimes other routes such as under or through the skin or even sometimes directly into bones.
As mentioned above, veterinary technicians are trained to perform general radiology in film and digital formats. They restrain patients for radiology (x-rays) and image both bones and soft tissue for further diagnosis by a doctor (veterinarian). In addition, they learn to perform contrast studies, where dyes are placed into various parts of a patient’s body so that foreign bodies or masses can be identified.
Also, vet techs can be trained to perform laboratory procedures, take an image of a patient’s heart, and contribute to a diagnosis involving the heart function of sick and healthy animals. This is usually accomplished by a system termed cardiac ultrasonography.
Every vet tech (unlike human medical nurses) is trained to work in the diagnostic laboratory to perform laboratory tasks. Vet tech programs teach them the proper collection of blood, urine, and other sorts of samples to test a patient’s blood for possible signs of disease or infection. This involves making glass slides of a patient’s blood to examine red and white blood cells. During this examination, the technician will look at the size and shape of red and white blood cells and the presence of possible infection from bacteria or parasites.
In addition, veterinary technicians will run the laboratory equipment used in laboratory procedures to evaluate a patient’s body function. For example, kidney and liver function can be evaluated with blood serum tests that utilize the laboratory machines that a vet tech is trained to use.
Technicians will also evaluate cells taken from pregnant dogs to determine if they are pregnant and at what stage they may be. This is important information for pet owners breeding their dogs or checking for pregnancy.
5. Exotic animals
Veterinary technicians are trained to provide animal care to rabbits, rats, mice, and birds. This is important for technicians working in small animal hospitals caring for these pets.
In addition, laboratory technicians may work in laboratories that are involved in helping cure cancer or major infectious diseases such as Ebola or malaria. Veterinary technicians work side by side with veterinary doctors to develop therapies and medications for animals and humans and vaccinations to prevent serious infectious diseases. These are very interesting jobs, usually available at university or private hospital research laboratories or for the government (such as at the National Institute of Health or the Centers for Disease Control).
Where do Veterinary Technicians work?
Veterinary technicians work in a variety of other very interesting fields.
Veterinary technicians provide the core of instructors at veterinary technician schools. They teach various courses, including anatomy and physiology, dentistry, radiology, pharmacology, medical mathematics, and nutrition. In addition, they teach the basic principles that students are required to learn by the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association).
Technicians also serve as instructors at veterinary schools and teach continuing education for veterinary technicians and doctors.
They will also provide clinical instruction during clinical and laboratory class time to students. Finally, veterinary technicians may serve as program directors at university or private occupational school veterinary technology programs. These are very interesting positions in that they involve the development of veterinary technology curriculum and teaching as well as administrative duties.
An unusual area of work for veterinary technicians also involves aquaculture. Veterinary technicians in aquatics help veterinarians care for fish and marine mammals at aquariums and zoos.
In addition, many biomedical research facilities that develop medical technology involve aquatics—a wonderful place to visit and see this sort of work is the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Aquatics also involves aquaculture—where fish are grown as laboratory animals for food, provided for consumption in the United States, and exported to other countries (particularly countries suffering famine).
Veterinary technicians work for locally owned private veterinary clinics and hospitals and large corporate-owned veterinary clinic chains. In addition, several types of clinics provide veterinary care to dogs and cats and large animals such as horses. They range from local clinics—and horse doctors that make house calls—to large referral and specialty facilities that house veterinary specialties in cardiology, dermatology, orthopedics (bone surgery), ophthalmology, dermatology (skin disease), oncology (cancer), and internal veterinary medicine.
In addition, veterinary emergency clinics are very busy places often in high need of veterinary technicians. Emergency clinics see many sorts of emergencies, such as dogs and cats hit by cars, poisonings (from chocolate, antifreeze, or over-the-counter medications), diabetes, and other metabolic emergencies. These clinics may also be associated with a specialty or referral facility, in which case patients may be recovering from surgeries or other procedures and require overnight critical care.
These clinics often have long hours, maybe overnight, and on holidays, but they also usually pay a bit more. They also present veterinary technicians with much more challenging nursing duties and enhanced learning opportunities.
In conclusion, veterinary technicians provide a wide range of services that include general nursing duties and additional nursing duties involving radiology (x-rays), surgery and anesthesia, laboratory skills, and dentistry. With their veterinary technician education, veterinary technicians can spend an entire career at a single clinic or evolve their careers through specialization of veterinary practice in surgery, internal medicine, exotic animal or large animal medicine, radiology, or even zoo animal medicine.
They can also be specialized as laboratory animal veterinary technicians. In addition, they can teach, act as consultants (to veterinary clinics training new technicians, for example), or even run animal hospitals from humane societies or universities and private occupational veterinary teaching programs. Salary is based on experience and other credentials such as specialty designations.
Of course, in becoming a veterinary technician, you must stamp your entry ticket by getting your credentials from an AVMA accredited veterinary technology program such as the Colorado Academy of Veterinary Technology. Once that is accomplished, you will be granted a degree (an associate degree of Applied Science in Veterinary Technology), which will then allow you to take the national boards exam (Veterinary Technician National Exam—VTNE), which then allows you to apply to whichever state you live in for your credentials as either a CVT, LVT, or RVT (Certified, Licensed, or Registered veterinary technician).
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