Veterinary technicians work right alongside veterinary doctors to provide top-notch care for the four-legged (and occasionally feathered or amphibious) members of our families. Most veterinary technicians work in the kind of animal clinics or hospitals you have likely visited with your own pets, though some may work in laboratories or zoos or even for the FDA. The wide scope of veterinary technology practice offers plenty of opportunities to specialize your own practice.
Veterinary Technician Specializations
Your clinical experience or personal interest may lead you to pursue a veterinary technician career specialization. Some schools may offer the opportunity for specialized study or continuing education. Training, certification and credentialing in veterinary technology specializations is offered through veterinary academies and societies. Veterinary technicians can specialize in:
- Dentistry (avdt.us)
- Anesthesiology (avta-vts.org)
- Emergency and critical care (avecct.org)
- Surgery (avst-vts.org)
- Animal behavior (avbt.net)
- Internal medicine (aimvt.com)
- Zoological medicine (avzmt.org)
- Equine nursing (aaevt.org)
- Clinical practice (avtcp.org) for canines & felines, avian & exotic animals, and production animals
- Nutrition (nutritiontechs.org)
- Pathology (avcpt.net)
- Management (vhma.org)
Veterinary Technician Certification
Veterinary technician schools offer a two-year associate degree for veterinary technicians. While this is the most common path to becoming a veterinary technician, some states do allow a combination of a high school diploma or GED and on-the-job training.
Most states require veterinary technicians to pass the Veterinary Technician National Exam. Additionally, veterinary technicians who want to work in a laboratory setting will need certification from the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (aalas.org). A number of veterinary academies and societies offer you the opportunity to become trained and certified in veterinary specializations.
Becoming a Vet Tech: Expert Q&A
To learn more about entering into the veterinary field, we spoke with Allison Stephens. She has been a vet tech for many years, specializing in emergency and shelter medicine. She has worked as a vet tech in Louisiana and New Mexico, encountering a variety of hospital environments. Currently, she is starting her own vet tech business "Happy at Home" in Santa Fe, N.M., and helps students interested in the field by providing some career-related guidance below.
Allison Stephens is an experienced vet tech, specializing in emergency and shelter medicine.
RWM: What is the typical educational path to become a veterinary technician/assistant?
Stephens: One of two ways...
- Go to school and become a licensed veterinary technician
- Start out working at a hospital and with enough time and experience you can possibly become certified with that alone, depending on what your state regulations are.
In most vet clinics I've worked at, the majority of people were not certified. However, you don't make quite as much being un-certified.
RWM: How long does it take to complete education for this job?
Stephens: Most programs are around 18 months.
RWM: Why would you encourage someone to pursue this career?
Stephens: I would encourage it for anyone wants to help animals AND people. A lot of vet techs I have worked with chose that career so that they wouldn't have to work with people and that is not what this job is about. Being a vet tech means that your responsibility is to help an owner feel calm, trust your abilities and also to help them better understand the best way to care for their animal.
It is a job that you have to have a calling and a passion for. It is not an easy career physically or emotionally. It also does not pay as much for how hard you work, which is why you have to be passionate about it. Clients do not understand your job and are usually worried/concerned for their pet -- with that emotions can get heated very quickly and you have to learn a lot of grace and patience.
The biggest disadvantage is you cannot stop an owner from making a bad decision. It is ultimately their choice for what they want to do with their pet. For example: in the emergency hospital, we had a 16-week old lab mix come in with a fracture in its cervical spine, very painful. Poor dog was crying in so much pain. The owner denied pain medication because they did not want "chemicals" in their dog's system and they waited for their "holistic veterinarian" to open. Her business was out of her house and I doubt she was a licensed vet.
RWM: Anything else rewarding about being a vet tech?
Stephens: For me, there is no better feeling then seeing a client and patient walk out the door knowing with the utmost confidence that you did everything you could for them. I love taking the time to make sure they understand all of the medication, side effects, when to come back in, and to not ever hesitate to call with any questions.
Also getting to see an animal that has been on IV fluids for days, transferred from specialty doctor to specialty, able to walk out the door on its own and knowing that it was because you worked as hard as you did.
Some say that it is a thankless job, and that can sometimes be true, but in my experience your team of fellow technicians and doctors do a great job of making sure that your talents and skills are noted. We spent most of our shifts building up our coworkers so that no one would get burned out. An almost non-existent environment in other career areas. The friends I've made working as a tech are friends I will have for life.
RWM: Do you have any advice for young people who are just starting out in this career?
Stephens: Try it first. Volunteer if you have to at varying clinics. A clinic out in a rural area can be a whole different type of job compared to busier one. I'd say give it a try for six months or so before deciding to agree to the expense of getting certified.
RWM: Are there any additional certifications or classes you'd recommend?
Stephens: Not when starting out. There are additional certs you can get if you're going to be working in shelter medicine. To improve job prospects, I would say the best thing you can do is get experience in fields other than just cats and dogs. Find a wildlife rehabilitator to shadow or try and find a veterinarian that works with exotics. It is very helpful knowing how to handle and restrain as many species as possible.
Veterinary Technician Salary and Career Info
While some students follow their hearts into this field, salary and job potential are important pieces of information to have before committing to a career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov), there are three main tiers in the veterinary field. Here's what to expect in terms of average national salaries, job availability, and growth for those three veterinary-related careers:
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Veterinary Assistants and Laboratory Animal Caretakers||75,620||25,940||9|
|Veterinary Technologists and Technicians||95,790||33,280||18.7|
Increasingly, veterinary practices are coming to rely on the veterinary technicians to provide quality animal care. For those who love working with animals, veterinary technology schools can be the first step to a long-term career with solid job potential and a two-year pathway to an associate degree.
- American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, https://www.aalas.org
- American Association of Veterinary State Boards, http://www.aavsb.org/VTNE/
- National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America, http://www.navta.net/
- Veterinary Technologists and Technicians, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/veterinary-technologists-and-technicians.htm
- Veterinary Technologists and Technicians, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292056.htm
- Veterinary Technologists and Technicians, Projections Central: Long-Term Projections, http://projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm
- Interview with Allison Stephens, veterinary technician, July, 2016