How to Become a Vet Tech
Vet techs (more formally known as veterinary technicians) provide the front-line care animal patients need to recover from illness and injury and maintain good health. Working under the direction of a veterinarian, technicians improve the welfare of dogs, cats, exotic pets and farm and zoo animals and make them as comfortable as possible during medical procedures.
The role of a vet tech 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
- Performing or helping with diagnostic tests such as X-rays, urinalysis and blood counts
- Conducting routine procedures like dental cleanings and immunizations
- Preparing animals for surgery
- Monitoring the condition of patients
- Educating pet owners on animal care and welfare
- Ensuring that lab animals receive humane treatment
For animal lovers with a passion for science, a career as a vet tech is extremely rewarding. Techs 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 makes an immense difference in an animal’s quality of life, both in the medical setting and in the animal’s home environment.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 91% of vet techs work in the veterinary services industry at:
- Private clinics
- Animal hospitals
- Boarding kennels
- Animal shelters
- Rescue leagues
Vet techs are also found in non-traditional settings such as livestock facilities, wildlife control services, research laboratories, and in the military.
The schedules of vet techs vary across settings. Those in 24-hour facilities often work evenings, weekends and holidays. In private clinics, techs are more likely to have regular business hours, though they will need to come in some evenings and weekends to feed and care for patients.
A career as a vet tech requires strength and stamina as these professionals spend long periods on their feet and are frequently called on to lift and restrain large animals. Because techs have contact with needles, body fluids, X-rays and other potentially hazardous substances, they must follow safety procedures carefully to avoid illness or injury.
The first step in becoming a veterinary technician is to enroll in a certificate or associate’s degree program in the field. Some institutions require candidates to complete college-level coursework in microbiology, chemistry, biology and the humanities prior to admission. Training generally takes two years to complete.
Fifteen U.S. universities award four-year bachelor’s degrees in veterinary technology. This pathway is especially desirable for candidates who wish to work in research laboratories.
Most vet tech programs include a hands-on component such as a preceptorship, practicum or externship. During this experience, students enhance their clinical skills by working with patients and performing laboratory procedures under supervision.
Licensing and/or Certification
Licensure of veterinary technicians is mandatory in a majority of states. While requirements vary, candidates must generally complete a state-approved training program and pass an exam. Testing is often waived for those who have passed the National Veterinary Technician Exam. Vet techs who wish to work in research settings can pursue specialty certification through the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS).
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Vet techs 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 clearly to pet owners and other members of the veterinary team.
A tech relies on patience and emotionally stability 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 materials, vet techs must follow safety procedures down to the last detail. They must also have the strength and stamina to stand for long periods and to lift and restrain animals.
Opportunities for Advancement
Experienced vet techs are often promoted to supervisory roles in which they direct the work of junior technicians. Others specialize in a clinical area of interest such as critical care, zoo keeping, avian medicine, biomedical research, dentistry, surgery or clinical pathology. Many vet techs go on to become veterinarians. Their certification and work experience is a significant advantage during the highly competitive vet school admissions process.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median salary for veterinary technicians was $29,710 in May 2010. The middle 80% earned between $20,500 and $44,030.
Salaries were generally highest for techs working in the pharmaceutical industry, research laboratories and government agencies. Those in specialties such as preventive dentistry, anesthesia, animal behavior and surgery also commanded above-average salaries. Earnings generally rose commensurate with education and experience.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, employment of veterinary technicians is expected to increase by 52% between 2010 and 2020, which is considered much faster than the average for all occupations. This is due in part to the availability of many new procedures and medical advances that enhance animal health across the lifespan. Owners are therefore seeking more complex procedures and specialty care for their animals.
- American Veterinary Medical Association
- National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America
- Academy of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Technicians
- American Association of Equine Veterinary Technicians
- Academy of Veterinary Dental Technicians
- Academy of Veterinary Technicians in Clinical Practice
- Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians