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. The term, veterinary technician, can be misleading. The profession is trying to change that term to veterinary nurse, which is more appropriate, because it more accurately describes the duties of a veterinary technician. Veterinary technicians learn almost all the same skills as human medical nurses, and in addition, learn several additional skills as described below.
Veterinary technicians are trained to perform all the same duties as medical nurses (for human patients), such as draw blood or place catheters. In addition to those duties, though, veterinary technicians receive more broad training than medical nurses, and after a two-year nursing program are more widely equipped to assist patients. Specifically, in addition to all the general nursing duties performed by all nurses, veterinary technicians are additionally trained as: dental hygienists, diagnostic imaging technicians, laboratory technicians, and 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 cleanings and any surgical procedures such as extractions (these are performed by the doctors). 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 take x-rays (termed radiographs) of any part of an animal’s body that the veterinarian directs them to examine. Technicians are trained to employ both film and digital x-ray machines. Also, they may be involved in performing ultrasounds (where internal organs and structures are imaged with sound), or other contrast image technologies such as myelography.
As nurse anesthetists and surgical nurses, veterinary technicians are taught to deliver anesthesia to their patients. This is a complex skill set that involves the use of medical mathematics and an extensive knowledge of drugs and pharmacology. In addition, the experience of an individual veterinary technician 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 procedures.
As surgical nurses, veterinary technicians will prepare patients for surgery by performing a physical exam (as well as the doctor’s physical exam), will prepare a protocol for drugs to prevent pain and ensure sedation, and physically prepare the patient for their individual surgery. Veterinary technicians will, by request of the doctor, assist during surgery and manipulate tissues during surgery at the direction of the doctor.
Veterinary technicians also perform a variety of other tasks that are too long to list here, but in general they include:
- Office and hospital management. This will include answering phones and answering questions from clients. New prospective clients will ask technicians general questions about preventative health care and vaccines, while current clients will have questions about possible emergencies or questions about patients that are undergoing chronic care for cancer, diabetes, or other chronic diseases. Veterinary technicians must also be prepared to participate in general hospital management: filing, reception, receiving and cataloging inventory, maintaining various clinical logs, and often staff scheduling.
- The pharmacy: veterinary technicians perform calculations required to dispense drugs to patients. They also order and manage pharmacological inventories. Patients also require administration of drugs in a variety of avenues: oral administration, intravenous administration, and sometimes other routes such as under or through skin or even sometimes directly into bones.
- Radiology: as mentioned above, veterinary technicians are trained to perform general radiology in both 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, veterinary technicians can be trained to image a patient’s heart and contribute to a diagnosis involving heart function. This is usually accomplished by a system termed cardiac ultrasonography.
- The laboratory: veterinary technicians are trained (unlike human medical nurses) to work in the diagnostic laboratory. Veterinary technicians will collect blood, urine, and other sorts of samples to test the blood of a patient for possible signs of disease or infection. This involves making glass slides of a patient’s blood for examination of red and white blood cells. During this examination, the technician will look at the size and shape of both red and white blood cells as well as for the presence of possible infection from bacteria or parasites. In addition, veterinary technicians will run the laboratory equipment that is used 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 veterinary technicians are trained to use. Technicians will also evaluate cells taken from pregnant dogs to determine if they are pregnant and at what stage of pregnancy they may be at. This is important information for anyone breeding their dogs or check for pregnancy.
- Exotic animals: veterinary technicians are trained to provide nursing care to rabbits, rats, mice, and birds. This is important for technicians working in small animal clinics that care for these sorts of 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 both animals and humans as well as 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).
Veterinary technicians also work in a variety of other very interesting fields. One of those is teaching. Veterinary technicians provide the core of instructors at veterinary technician schools. They teach a wide variety of courses including anatomy and physiology, dentistry, radiology, pharmacology, medical mathematics, and nutrition. In addition, they teach basic, intermediate, and advanced nursing skills that students are required to learn by the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association). 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 development of veterinary technology curriculum and teaching as well as administrative duties.
An unusual are of work for veterinary technicians also involves aquaculture. Veterinary aquatics allows veterinary technicians (working closely with veterinary doctors) to provide care to fish and marine mammals at aquariums and zoos. In addition, many 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 for food and provided for consumption both in the United States and for export to other countries (particularly to countries suffering famine).
Veterinary technicians work for small locally owned clinics and hospitals as well as large corporate owned veterinary clinic chains. In addition, several types of clinics provide veterinary care to dogs and cats as well as 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 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 sorts of 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. Hours at these clinics are often long and may be overnight and on holidays, but they also often 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 as well as additional nursing duties (and skills) involving radiology (x-rays), surgery and anesthesia, laboratory skills, and dentistry. Veterinary technicians can spend an entire career at a single clinic, or evolve their careers through specialization 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. They can teach, act as consultants (to veterinary clinics training new technicians for example), or even run university and private occupational veterinary teaching programs. Salary is most definitely based on experience and other credentials such as specialty designations.
Of course, to enter the field, you must stamp your entry ticket by getting your credentials from an AVMA accredited veterinary technician program such as the Colorado Academy of Veterinary Technology. Once that is accomplished you will be granted a degree (an Associate’s 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 which ever state you live in for your credentials as either a CVT, LVT, or RVT (Certified, Licensed, or Registered veterinary technician).