How to Become a Vet Tech

Overview

By Joey Bryant, DVM
A vet tech and vet caring for a canine patient

Veterinary technicians (sometimes informally called vet techs) provide the front-line care animal patients need to recover from illness and injury and maintain good health. Working under the direction and supervision of a licensed veterinarian, veterinary technicians improve the welfare of dogs, cats, exotic pets, lab animals, farm animals and zoo animals by assisting in their healthcare and making them as comfortable as possible during medical procedures.

The role of a veterinary technician combines elements of many disciplines such as nursing, imaging, lab work, and customer service. Typical duties include:

  • Providing first aid and nursing care
  • Assisting veterinarians during examinations and procedures
  • Phlebotomy and intravenous catheter placement
  • Performing or assisting with diagnostic tests such as radiographs, urinalysis, fecal exams and blood tests
  • Conducting routine procedures like dental cleanings and immunizations
  • Preparing animals for surgery, inducing anesthesia, assisting in surgery and post-anesthetic recovery
  • Monitoring the condition of patients and documenting medical charts
  • Dispensing prescription medications under the direction of a veterinarian
  • Educating pet owners on animal care and welfare, disease prevention, disease treatment and behavior concerns
  • Ensuring that lab animals receive humane treatment.

For animal lovers with a passion for science, a career as a veterinary technician is extremely rewarding. Technicians often see the same patients throughout their entire lives and develop close, caring relationships with the animals and their owners. The care and education technicians provide make an immense difference in an animal’s quality of life, both in the medical setting and in the animal’s home environment.

Work Environment

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 91% of veterinary technicians work in the veterinary services industry at:

  • Private clinics
  • Animal hospitals (general, specialty, or emergency practice)
  • Boarding facilities
  • Animal shelters
  • Rescue leagues
  • Zoos

Veterinary technicians are also employed in non-traditional settings such as livestock facilities, wildlife control services, research laboratories, government agencies, pharmaceutical sales, veterinary medical equipment sales, and the military.

A veterinary technician’s work schedule depends on the type and place of employment. For instance, those working at 24-hour facilities may work evenings, weekends and/or holidays. In private clinics, technicians are more likely to have regular business hours, although they may occasionally need to stay late or through lunch to work on a sick patient; come in some evenings and/or weekends to feed and care for hospitalized patients; or come in early to admit early-morning hospital or surgery patients.

A career as a veterinary technician requires physical strength and stamina as these professionals spend long periods on their feet and are frequently called on to lift and restrain large animals. Because technicians have regular contact with needles, bodily fluids, radiation and other potentially hazardous substances, they must follow safety procedures carefully to avoid illness or injury. Additionally, they must have knowledge of animal body language and proper restraint techniques to avoid injury from or to an animal during handling.

Requirements

Education

The most accepted way to become a veterinary technician is to complete a two-year veterinary technician/technology program that is accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). There are over 160 of these two-year programs across the United States at community colleges, colleges or universities, and the credits can be applied to attainment of an Associate’s Degree (i.e. Applied Science). If it is inconvenient to physically attend an accredited campus, there are also currently nine distance learning programs that are accredited by the AVMA. Alternatively, you can enter a four-year AVMA-accredited degree program to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in veterinary technology. Currently, twenty-three universities award four-year bachelor’s degrees in veterinary technology. This pathway is especially desirable for candidates who wish to work in research laboratories or eventually pursue veterinary school. Finally, only three states – Alaska, California and Wisconsin – allow on-the-job training (OJT) as an alternate pathway to becoming a credentialed veterinary technician.

Training

Veterinary technician/technology programs immerse students in course curriculum such as veterinary anatomy and physiology, parasitology, pharmacology, anesthesia and surgery, pathology, radiology, lab animal medicine, and animal behavior. Many of these classes have associated labs, which allow for some initial hands-on learning. Most programs culminate in the final semester(s) with an internship/preceptorship/practicum at a veterinary clinic or hospital, a research hospital, a specialty hospital or other approved clinical site. During this experience, students enhance their clinical skills by working directly with animal patients and performing laboratory and clinical procedures under supervision.

Credentialing

Credentialing of veterinary technicians is becoming mandatory in the majority of states. Depending on the state, the credentialed veterinary technician may be:

  • “Licensed” (LVT) by a given authority such as the state veterinary medical board 
  • “Certified” (CVT) by a private or professional program
  • “Registered” (RVT) by a governmental agency.

In all but three states (currently Alaska, California and Wisconsin), a credentialed veterinary technician must complete a state-approved training program (all AVMA-accredited programs are state-approved) and pass an exam. The state test is often waived for those who have passed the Veterinary Technician National Exam.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Veterinary technicians should be personable, hands-on animal lovers who have a genuine passion for improving animal welfare. Their work requires strong verbal and interpersonal skills in order to communicate ideas effectively to pet owners and other members of the veterinary team.

Patience and emotional stability are vital in order to keep a level head during emergencies, to work effectively with challenging animals and people, and to cope with the suffering and death of patients. Because they have frequent contact with potentially dangerous animals and hazardous materials, veterinary technicians must follow safety protocols with precision. They must also have the physical strength and stamina to stand for long periods and to lift and restrain animals.

Opportunities for Advancement

Experienced veterinary technicians are often promoted to supervisory roles in which they train and/or direct the work of junior technicians and veterinary assistants. During their career, veterinary technicians are given many opportunities for continuing education (by attending events/conventions or participating in online education). This empowers the veterinary technician to take on new skills and perhaps choose an area of specialty within their practice or organization.

Today, there are many opportunities to pursue advanced specialization and certification beyond the credentialed veterinary technician. Beginning in 1994, technicians are allowed the opportunity to pursue specialty certification through a Society or Academy. Currently, there are eighteen technician specialties that recognize advanced knowledge and skills in specific disciplines. Examples include the Academy of Veterinary Dental Technicians and the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society. Becoming a veterinary technician specialist not only allows technicians to pursue and perform advanced skills they have mastered through their specialty training and education, but this advanced training allows veterinarians to focus their time and expertise on skills only they are licensed to perform. The outcome is a more efficient veterinary team, the best care for the patient, and a happier pet owner.

Finally, it is not uncommon for a veterinary technician to go on to become a veterinarian. Their certification and work experience are significant advantages during the highly competitive vet school admissions process.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a veterinary technician, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary and Job Outlook

Interactive Map of Income and Job Growth Projections

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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median salary for veterinary technicians is $31,070. The middle 80% earn between $21,390 and $45,710. According to the 2015 Firstline Career Path Survey, the average hourly wage for a credentialed veterinary technician is $17.40 (an average of $2-4 more per hour than a non-credentialed veterinary assistant).

Salaries are generally highest for veterinary technicians working in colleges, research laboratories and government agencies. Those in specialties such as dentistry, anesthesia, animal behavior or surgery also command above-average salaries. Earnings generally rise commensurate with education and experience.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, employment of veterinary technicians is expected to increase by 19% between 2014 and 2024, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is due to many factors, including the rise in status of pets as family members, novel medical advances in diagnostics and procedures, and the availability of specialized care within the veterinary profession (i.e. veterinary dentists, veterinary orthopedic surgeons, and veterinary cardiologists, to name a few). The result of the changing veterinary climate is a pet-owning population that seeks more complex procedures and specialized, personalized care for their animals. This, in turn, increases the demand for credentialed veterinary technicians and veterinary technician specialists to achieve the highest quality healthcare available. Now is an exciting time to become a credentialed veterinary technician!

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