When I was very young I knew what I was going to do in life and I was not quiet about it. I was going to be a Veterinarian. I loved animals and I wanted to make them better (much to the joy of my pets growing up). When I turned 18 I was ecstatic that I got accepted into the University of Wisconsin – River Falls Animal Science program, I was FINALLY going to become a vet. The more classes I went to the more I began to question that childhood dream, the thought of having to actually pass Organic Chemistry may have also had something to do with it. I started looking at other career options, but if I wasn’t going to be a Veterinarian, how could I still full fill my dreams? It was then I discovered Veterinary Technology. I left UW-RF and pursued an Associate of Science Degree.
Going to Vet tech school was one of the best decisions I have ever made (aside from marrying my husband and getting Qwerty). I made Dean’s list every quarter. I graduated with honors, something I had never done before. I am not saying it was easy, I put in many long hours of studying (and working), but I actually ENJOYED reading text books for once in my life.
Now that I have been in the field a while (almost 10 years), I get asked on a regular basis, what is a vet tech? Now usually I give the short answer of, its like a nurse, but it is so different from being a nurse. (Disclaimer: I love nurses, they are smart and work very hard, this post is NOT to say that nurses are beneath veterinary technicians, but to explain how they are different.) So, what is a vet tech (I will be focusing solely on Certified/Registered Veterinary technicians in this post)?
According to the American Veterinary Medical Asssociation: Veterinary technicians have been educated in the care and handling of animals, the basic principles of normal and abnormal life processes, and in many laboratory and clinical procedures. In general, veterinary technicians obtain 2-4 years of post-high school education and have an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in veterinary technology. They must pass a credentialing examination and keep up-to-date with continuing education to be considered licensed/registered/certified (the term used varies by state) veterinary technicians. But what do we actually do?
When you go to your regular veterinary clinic you will usually meet a veterinary receptionist when you first walk in and they will then let a veterinary technician know that you are there and ready for your appointment. The technician will usually gather information for the doctor. They ask why you have brought your pet in today, check your record to see what preventative care your pet is due for, gather vitals like temperature, (yes, in many cases it is very important for us to get a temperature, no we do not have a better way to do this…) heart rate, and respiratory (breathing) rate. We ask about things that have been going on since your last visit. It is especially important for you to be honest with the Technicians so that they can give accurate information to your vet to help with diagnostics and treatments. They then take this information to your vet. I have worked in some clinics where the technician is in the exam room the entire time with the doctor and sometimes the technician will move on to the next task at hand until the doctor has further orders for them.
This is part of the reasons I love being a technician over being the doctor. The technicians are doing all the treatments and nursing care for your pets. When your pet is in the treatment room they are in the hands of a very capable and loving technician. They are drawing blood, giving injections, cleaning wounds, and more. Whatever the doctor has ordered for your pets a technician is most likely doing.
This is where veterinary technicians really different from nurses. That stool sample you brought? Your friendly clinic veterinary technician is preparing it and reading the results for the doctor. That blood sample that they drew, yup, they are running that sample as well. Technicians do urinalysis, hematology, comprehensive stool analysis, and many other diagnostic testing.
Technicians also perform x-rays. They set up the machine, position your pet on the x-ray table, and process the images. Now processing is easy for the most part, unless a clinic does not have digital x-rays (yes, some clinics still do not have digital x-rays…it’s wrong, I know). In the United States it is legal for a technician to be in the room while x-rays are being taken (in other countries it is not and the pet is required to be fully sedated for x-rays). So, in the U.S., technicians are holding an awake pet (usually one who is sick or injured) still for x-rays, not an easy task, not to mention the radiation they are being exposed to (they are required to wear lead, so they do have protection).
Veterinary technicians also perform dental cleaning on your pets. They do the same work as a dental hygienist. They will clean, polish, take x-rays, and assess for any problems that the doctor may need to address. They need to know what dental problems look like so they let the doctors know what is going on in the mouth. Then they are assisting the doctor during extractions or other procedures.
In many clinics Technicians and Assistants usually get to the clinic before the doctors. The surgical technician is usually there early looking at charts and setting up for the surgical procedures of the day. They are making sure lab work is done prior to surgery to make sure the pet is healthy enough to undergo the procedure they are scheduled for. They also prepare the inject able pre-surgical medications by calculating the dosages (based on what the doctor orders) and drawing them in to syringes. Then the technician is responsible for getting the patient hooked up to gas anesthesia and prepping the surgical site itself.
While your pet is under anesthesia, it is up to the Vet tech to monitor vitals such as heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, ECG, Oxygen Levels, and over all anesthetic level. They are in charge of making sure the pet stays under enough anesthesia that they cannot feel pain, but also make sure they do not go too deep into anesthesia that would pose a health risk. They are also communicating with the doctor how the pet is doing and adjusting according to the doctors recommendations.
When your pet is dropped off for a stay at the clinic, whether it is for illness, surgery, or other procedures, the veterinary technician is the one responsible for carrying out which ever care the doctor has determined your pet needs. That may be sitting with them through a seizure, or placing an IV catheter for their fluid administration, taking them outside to relieve themselves, or just offering comfort and snuggles.
It is very rare for a vet clinic to have custodial staff. Many times it comes to the technicians to clean and fix things. Sometimes clinics do have assistants or kennel staff that help, but the technicians are still expected to clean. In my clinic we mop, vacuum, clean bathrooms, dust, ect. All while still trying to see patients and perform our other tasks.
These are just some of the few examples of tasks and duties that the Veterinary Technician is responsible for, and the work load does vary from clinic to clinic. I am very proud of the work I do and I love my job, but I am not a nurse, I am a proud Certified Veterinary Technician, who will make sure your pet receives the best and most loving care I can give when they are with me.