How to Become a Veterinary Assistant

Overview

By Joey Bryant, DVM
Vet assistant holding a rabbit

For those who love animals, there are few jobs more rewarding than that of veterinary assistant. The compassionate presence of these professionals eases the experience of a visit to the vet for pets and pet owners alike. Veterinary assistants assist veterinarians and licensed veterinary technicians with every aspect of animal care, as well as manage pet owners’ questions and concerns.

Veterinary assistants play a vital role in the daily activities of a veterinary hospital. Examples of some of the responsibilities of veterinary assistants include:

  • Attend to the daily caretaking needs of the animals under their care, such as feeding, walking and providing water and clean bedding;
  • Clean and disinfect animal cages, exam rooms, and treatment areas;
  • Maintain surgical equipment, sterilize surgical instruments, and assist the veterinarian and licensed veterinary technician as needed in surgery (such as patient preparation and monitoring);
  • Administer medications to patients;
  • Properly restrain patients for blood/urine collection and tissue sampling for testing;
  • Perform laboratory tests such as urinalysis setup, operation of automated blood machines, fecal exams, and bedside “SNAP” tests (heartworm, feline leukemia/FIV, etc);
  • Maintain patient charts that document daily care.

In addition to the animal care they provide, veterinary assistants also fulfill a vital role for the pet owners. They are often the first point of contact for clients, and as such, set the tone for the overall veterinary hospital experience. Veterinary assistants must be comfortable with people and possess good communication skills. They facilitate and expand on client education about various diseases, medications and their proper administration, and general pet care. The assistants also answer any questions and concerns of the client.

According to the latest survey in 2012 by the American Veterinary Medical Association, pets are important members of the family in more than 71% of households in the United States today – and each of these households has an average of 2-3 pets! As integral members of the veterinary care team, veterinary assistants have the reward and satisfaction of assisting these beloved companion animals and their owners.

Work Environment

The majority of veterinary assistants work in veterinary clinics and animal hospitals. However, other career opportunities will be found in animal/biomedical research laboratories, research/teaching institutions, shelter medicine, and zoo/wildlife medicine. Veterinary assistants may work full or part time, and often have the option of flexible hours. Assistants who work in 24-hour facilities such as emergency animal hospitals have the opportunity to work evenings, nights, weekends or holidays.

It is helpful to be in good physical shape in order to effectively lift, move or restrain animal patients as needed. The ability to focus and stay on task in a noisy, busy environment is key. Finally, good communication and interpersonal skills are highly valued in veterinary assistants since they interact so vitally with clients and must work as cohesive team members with the other staff of the hospital/facility – always with the same goal in mind: a happy, healthy pet and pet family.

Requirements

Education

Most veterinary assistants have a high school diploma or GED. Some choose to earn a certificate through a non-degree program (either at a college or online), but certification is not required. Given the choice, employers generally prefer to hire veterinary assistants who have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in animal science or similar field (biomedical technology, agriscience, etc).

Training

Although some certificate programs provide hands-on training, most training occurs on the job. Colleagues in the workplace train veterinary assistants in animal care, laboratory skills, and front desk administrative tasks. Basic animal care will include:

  • Feeding
  • Watering
  • Patient restraint
  • Monitoring animals for issues
  • Cleaning and disinfecting cages and work areas
  • Sterilizing laboratory equipment and surgical instruments
  • Providing post-operative care
  • Administering oral and topical medications
  • Preparing specimens for lab examination.

Front desk training may include:

  • Assisting customers over the phone
  • Interacting with clients when they visit the clinic
  • Utilization of practice management software to manage client and patient records.

Licensing and/or Certification

Certification is not required, but is sometimes preferred by employers. Optional certification can be obtained through state veterinary societies and private organizations. Requirements vary by program, but generally consist of relevant educational coursework, hands-on training with veterinarians and veterinary technicians, and a final written examination.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Most veterinary assistants love animals and have a passion for animal welfare. Veterinary assistants need good physical endurance during physically challenging workdays and adequate strength to restrain animals when needed. Patience and the ability to maintain a calm demeanor are essential as the animals coming to the facility might be scared, stressed or in pain, which can result in erratic or aggressive behavior. Additionally, a busy day at a veterinary hospital, with multiple illnesses and/or surgeries, will be much smoother for all concerned when approached with a patient, caring attitude.

Veterinary assistants must possess emotional strength, stability and maturity for those instances in which they must treat abused animals, assist in euthanizing animals who cannot be returned to a reasonable quality of life, and communicate with emotional or challenging clients. Finally, good interpersonal and communication skills are vital for successful veterinary assistants. They are often the first point of contact for distressed animal owners, and they must collaborate and work together with the veterinary team to achieve the best outcome for both the patient and the client.

Opportunities for Advancement

Veterinary assistants advance their careers in animal welfare by obtaining further education and/or certification. Some veterinary assistants choose to go back to school to complete either an associate’s degree or a veterinary technician program to become veterinary technicians. Others choose to complete a bachelor’s degree with pre-veterinary requirements, allowing them to apply to veterinary school. Acceptance to veterinary school is highly competitive, making experience working as a veterinary assistant a distinct advantage for admission.

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 US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for veterinary assistants is $23,790, with a range extending from around $17,500 to around $36,200. According to the 2015 Firstline Career Path Survey on veterinary team pay, the average hourly wage for veterinary assistants is $14.23, with a range of $13.61/hr to $16.12/hr depending on the number of doctors in the practice and the type of practice (general vs. specialty). Research facilities usually pay higher salaries than clinical or hospital settings. Veterinary assistants with more years of experience will also earn higher salaries.

The veterinary industry continues to grow as pet ownership continues to increase in the US. Animal safety efforts and emphasis on responsible pet ownership have also increased the demand for veterinary assistants. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for veterinary assistants is expected to grow at a rate of 9% from 2012 to 2022, slightly faster than the overall average rate of job growth.

Further Reading

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