What Does a Vet Tech Do? Job Description and Duties
July 26, 2021
Overlooking the veterinary technicians at any animal hospital is pretty impossible. They may be few in number, but vet techs seem to have the supernatural ability to be everywhere at once, performing every single task.
Unfortunately, while many clients herald vet techs as heroes, others perceive them as mere “helpers” who did not, or could not, attend vet school. This common misunderstanding undercuts a veterinary technician’s immense knowledge, skill, and compassion, and proves that the question—What does a vet tech do?—needs a thorough, honest answer.
The vet tech defined
What a veterinary technician doesn’t do is easier to compile than what they do, so let’s start there. By law, veterinary technicians cannot:
- Make a diagnosis
- Prescribe medication or treatment
- Perform surgery
- Practice beyond the scope of their state practice act
Despite these few restrictions, vet techs contribute to every aspect of the hospital’s patient care, customer service, and veterinary support.
Vet techs do it all
The veterinary technician is a highly skilled, formally educated, veterinary nursing care provider, who works under a licensed veterinarian’s supervision. The veterinary technician assists in the entire veterinary process, freeing the veterinarian for higher-level duties, while being able to trust that patients are in trained, capable hands. A vet tech is similar to a human nurse, who carries out a physician’s orders and tends directly to patient needs.
Exam room assistance
Vet techs discuss and record your pet’s recent health history, measure vitals, safely restrain the pet for examination and any minor procedures, administer vaccinations, and collect blood work or other diagnostic samples, as needed. A good vet tech anticipates the veterinarian’s needs, so they can give your pet their undivided attention.
Phlebotomist level: expert
Technicians draw blood and place intravenous catheters on moving targets that bite, scratch, and kick. They must rely on feel to collect blood from a vein buried beneath fur or thick fat, and have steady hands and patience for delicately placing a catheter in fragile, thread-sized veins.
An eye for microscopic detail
The vet tech has a thorough understanding of a clinic’s lab equipment, including microscopes, blood work machines, urine analyzers, and centrifuges. Technicians understand proper sample handling and preparation, and can accurately read and record results for:
- Fecal parasite screenings
- Ear cytology
- Complete blood count
- Tests for heartworm and tick-borne disease, as well as feline leukemia and FIV.
Technicians bear the blessing—or curse—of knowing how to troubleshoot clinic technology. Rest assured that if a lab machine displays errors, the veterinarian will seek a vet tech’s help.
Image queen—or king
Vet techs are also imaging specialists. Vet techs know proper positioning and technique for taking diagnostic X-rays of pets from nose to tail, all while wearing heavy, lead-lined gowns, collars, and gloves to protect themselves from radiation. Technicians also assist with ultrasound, fluoroscopy, and advanced imaging, such as CT and MRI.
Licensed veterinary technicians are responsible for anesthesia during procedures and surgeries. Technicians calculate and administer medications, intubate patients, and closely monitor patients’ vital signs. They constantly assess and adjust the patient’s anesthetic depth, to ensure they do not experience pain, and they have a smooth and safe recovery.
Veterinarian, we’re ready for you
Veterinary technicians must understand a wide variety of surgical procedures to accurately prepare and position their patients. They must know where and how to shave the patient, and specific duties, like expressing a patient’s bladder, lavaging their stomach, or emptying their colon prior to surgery.
Another set of hands—surgical assistance
Although technicians cannot perform surgery, they can scrub in and assist the operating veterinarian. Vet techs are well versed in anatomy and physiology, surgical instrumentation, and maintaining a sterile field. A surgical technician frequently helps with retraction, positioning, clamping, or suturing under the veterinarian’s direct supervision.
Ready for anything—emergency triage
Vet techs may be the first to receive a critical patient who comes through the front doors, or be the only one around when a pet collapses. Technicians can quickly prioritize in an emergency, and will often begin resuscitation efforts or stabilization measures to buy time until the veterinarian arrives.
Vet techs are great educators. They can provide one-on-one demonstrations to help clients become comfortable and confident with a wide variety of animal care tasks, including:
- Post-surgical home care
- Husbandry skills, such as nail trimming, toothbrushing, and ear cleaning
- Giving a pet medications or subcutaneous fluids
- Diabetic pet monitoring and giving them their insulin injections
- Behavior advice for common topics like housebreaking, jumping, and chewing
Dental health advocate
When it’s your pet’s turn for a dental cleaning, a vet tech takes and processes full mouth dental X-rays, removes tartar and plaque from teeth, charts any significant findings, and completely polishes every tooth. In some states, veterinary technicians perform minor tooth extractions, but veterinarians always perform oral surgeries and complex extractions.
Compassionate nursing care
Vet techs love pets, so empathetic, gentle patient care is a natural part of who they are. One vet tech may provide the full nursing spectrum—from providing outdoor exercise and fresh bedding to the skilled care of nasogastric feeding, chest-tube maintenance, and post-operative rehabilitation—on the same day.
A listening ear
By the nature of their job, vet techs spend more time with clients than veterinarians. Clients are sometimes intimidated by veterinarians, and they may prefer to instead discuss their concerns with a vet tech. The technician can then advocate for the client, and the veterinarian may be able to modify the pet’s treatment plan, or reexamine the issue with new information.
What it takes to be a vet tech
Veterinary technicians must complete a two- or four-year veterinary technology program that culminates in an associate or bachelor degree. The program must be accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) for the graduate to be licensed. The AVMA’s Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities establishes national educational standards for vet techs, and regularly reviews existing programs.
Graduates then sit for their board exam, the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE), a rigorous examination that covers nine key competency areas:
- Animal care and nursing
- Laboratory procedures
- Pharmacy and pharmacology
- Surgical nursing
- Pain management and analgesia
- Diagnostic imaging
- Critical care and emergency medicine
In some states, the final licensing step is an additional state board examination following the VTNE.
License to care
Licensed veterinary technicians are designated with one of several suffix titles:
- RVT — Registered veterinary technician
- LVT — Licensed veterinary technician
- CVT — Certified veterinary technician
Technicians who have pursued additional training and testing in a specific field are designated Veterinary Technician Specialists (VTS), and their specialization follows the acronym.
Veterinary technicians are expected to stay current with their knowledge and to continually seek additional education. Many states require a specific amount of continuing education per year to maintain an active veterinary technician license.
The veterinary technician title tends to be used as a generic term for anyone who assists the veterinarian, but the proper designation for a veterinary employee who has not completed veterinary technician board exams and licensure is “veterinary assistant.”
Beyond the veterinary hospital—vet techs
Although the veterinary clinic may seem to be the only home for the veterinary technician skill set, an entire world of job opportunities is available. Because of their comprehensive education, vet techs are equipped for any of the following exciting industries:
- Medical research
- Diagnostic laboratories
- Zoo or wildlife conservation facilities
- Public health
- Food animal surveillance
- Animal health pharmaceuticals
- Pet nutrition companies
- Veterinary sales and marketing
- Shelters and humane societies
- Animal behavior and training
Veterinary technicians are remarkable professionals who make an enormous daily impact on veterinary medicine and the lives of countless beloved pets. So, the next time you see a blur of scrubs flash by at the veterinary hospital, or a vet tech takes the time to call and check in on your pet, ensure you thank them for their generous, tireless dedication to pet health.
https://www.navta.net/page/What_Is_A_VeterinaryTechnician. National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America. 2019.
https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/yourvet/veterinary-technicians-and-veterinary-assistants. American Veterinary Medical Association. 2021.
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