When I was a teenager, I decided I wanted to become a vet tech. I always loved animals and I was interested in medical care. However, I didn’t want to go to eight years of school and I knew that vet techs only required an associates degree. Even though I had decided on this career, I didn’t quite know what a veterinary technician even did. Once I did my research, spoke to people in the field, shadowed a tech, and looked into degree programs, I became an expert on what a vet tech is. Although I eventually learned, many people today still don’t even know we exist, and if they do, they don’t understand what a vet tech is, what our job entails, or how much work we do to care for their animals. If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me if I was a veterinarian when I told them what I do… So I decided that I would take it upon myself to further educate those who aren’t quite sure what a vet tech is, and hopefully help people gain a whole new respect for those in this field.
Schooling is generally where most vet techs begin. The field of veterinary technology has grown tremendously, and is predicted to grow even more in the future. With the growing field and higher standards of pet care, most veterinary technicians are required to have at least an associates degree, if not be certified. However, the veterinary field is slightly behind the human medical field, so many techs that have been working for years have learned everything through on the job training. Today, if you want to work as a vet tech, you usually need a degree.
I decided to attend Great Bay Community College in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Not only was it reasonably priced, but it was the only American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) accredited program in the state at the time. After two years, I graduated with an associates degree in science in veterinary technology.
So, what exactly does a vet tech do?
I like to describe a veterinary technician as a nurse multiplied by ten. Think about when a person goes to a hospital. There’s one nurse that gives medication, one that will monitor a patient under anesthesia, a lab tech will draw blood, a radiology tech takes x-rays, a different nurse assists the doctor during the exam. Well, vet techs do all of that and then some. Not only are there just a few people to do all these jobs, but our patients can’t verbalize what is wrong with them and we can’t explain why we need to do certain things that might be uncomfortable. This is why one of the most important things a vet tech can know is how to properly restrain. This is the first thing taught in school, not only to keep the staff safe, but the animal as well. I was once told on an internship that if all you know is proper restraint, you are beneficial in a veterinary hospital. Other tasks vet techs complete in a day is surgery preparation, anesthesia monitoring, administering medication, giving vaccinations, calculating drug dosages, assisting the veterinarian during exams, entering medical information into the computer, educating clients, ordering supplies, trimming nails, cleaning ears, running blood tests, running fecal tests, running urinalyses, fixing broken machines, spending time on the phone with Idex, cleaning up messes, and updating the doctor on relevant medical information.
Veterinarians have so much on their plate, often times they rely on us to be aware of every detail of each patient. I hear veterinarians all the time ask questions like so what’s the deal with this cat’s eye again? Which dog has the heart murmur? Did he get his meds yet? Was her owner the one I needed to call? Most of the veterinarians I know have so much to deal with, they are often focused on the big picture, and they rely on technicians to intimately know every aspect of a patient, their owner, and the particular case. This is not to say veterinarians don’t know their patients, but when they get swamped, it’s almost impossible to keep track of every small thing. That’s why we are there to help them, even though at the end of the day the veterinarian ends up with all the credit because so much of our work is done behind the scenes.
There are some downsides to being a vet tech. Out of all the work vet techs do, they are incredibly under-appreciated and ridiculously under-paid. Veterinary technicians are paid an average of approximately $32,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. People always assume veterinary practices are “money-grubbing” and vets are “only in it for the money.” When in fact, veterinarians only make about $88,000 per year, and that is usually the top earnings. I knew a technicians who’s husband made less money than the hospital manager when he was right out of veterinary school. Plus, if the veterinarian owns the practice, a lot of their money goes back into the clinic. Veterinary staff work so hard, putting in so many extra hours away from their families in order to make sure each patient gets the best care possible. I’ve seen so many veterinary professionals skip lunch and hold their bladders because they are trying to get everything done, and it often seems impossible. Everyone I know in the veterinary community puts in so much blood, sweat, and tears and they do it because it’s a calling and they love animals, even on the days it gets hard.
An important fact to mention is that veterinary professionals also have one of the highest rates of suicide in comparison to other professions. This job can take a huge toll on mental health. It’s important to recieve proper help and talk to people when this job gets overwhelming.
Dealing with clients isn’t easy either, because they don’t always want to do what is best for their pet. Seeing animals in prolonged pain because people don’t want to let go, or good people making bad decisions that result in their pet suffering, or putting a perfectly healthy animal down because the owner was moving (I’ve seen that happen), having the doctor yell at you for making a mistake, because it falls on their shoulders, or dealing with an angry client. It sucks! Some days are hard, but I think there are so many rewards that it outweigh the bad. When the doctor tells you that you made a good call, or a client says thank you, or a dog wags his tail and looks up at you when you walk by, only hours after he just had major surgery. Those are the rewards that make it all worth while.
Because we all too often see a lot of unpleasant, sad, disgusting, upsetting, and horrible things in this profession, you have to have a sense of humor. I’ve spent many days dying of laughter in the veterinary hospital. You wouldn’t be able to get by seeing a cat who had it’s tail broken by the owner’s angry ex-boyfriend (seen it), or a cat with maggots crawling out of it’s anus (seen it), or see an owner abandon an animal at your hospital because they couldn’t afford the surgery it needed (also seen it), or having a chicken have projectile diarrhea all over the front of your scrubs (lived it), without also being able to laugh.
Although I love working as a vet tech, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever. Which is why I decided to venture out and head back to school to study animal behavior, because my ultimate career goal is to work in wildlife conservation and the vet tech program was always a stepping stone in my plan to get there.
Currently, I am working as a veterinary technician at the New Hampshire SPCA for the summer. They needed extra help on surgery days, which happens to be the area I am most experienced with (and my favorite!) I really love working at a shelter and I am hoping to pick up a part-time tech job near UNE for the school year.
Even though I decided to take a different path with a career, I truly feel that once you’re a vet tech, you’re always a vet tech. Working or not, you carry everything you have experienced and learned with you, and you will always be a veterinary technician at heart.
**This post was previously published on the author’s former blog**