So, you’ve done your research. Maybe you’ve read online reviews, scoured through the “Meet Our Vets” sections of hospital websites, or gathered recommendations from friends and neighbors. You finally think you have decided on the right veterinarian for your precious Fluffy. He or she has all of the right credentials and comes with glowing reviews touting how caring, knowledgeable, and trustworthy he or she is. I dare say this is a very good start to building a long and healthy life for Fluffy. Your pet’s veterinarian should be your most valuable source for medical, surgical, and behavioral advice.
But does Fluffy’s veterinary care end with her veterinarian? In most hospitals, absolutely not. There is a staff of veterinary technicians, assistants, receptionists, and kennel workers that all contribute to your pet’s care. But, what is that contribution exactly? Do you know what the job description of a veterinary technician or a veterinary assistant is? Do they just follow behind your intact male dog with a mop as you let him pee on the water feature, then the fake potted plant, and finally the receptionist desk in the lobby? Or are they just the ones explaining to you in the most politically correct way possible that your chihuahua is in fact a demon straight from the depths of hell and may require help from a SWAT team if you want her blood drawn? Or is your veterinary technician much more? Are they the eyes and ears of your pet’s veterinarian and performing important skills vital to your pet’s life and health? Furthermore, why should the general public care about the education and credentials of the veterinary staff at your pet’s hospital? Aren’t they all under the supervision of the veterinarian anyway? What does it really matter?
In order to answer these questions, it is important for the general public to know the difference between a veterinary assistant and a veterinary technician. According to the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA),
A veterinary technician is a graduate from a two-year, American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) accredited program from a community college, college or university. A veterinary technologist has graduated from an AVMA accredited bachelor degree program. Almost every state requires a veterinary technician/technologist to take and pass a credentialing exam. Passing this exam ensures the public that the veterinary technician has entry-level knowledge of the duties they are asked to perform in the veterinary clinic or hospital.
Depending on the state, they may be called licensed, registered or certified veterinary technicians (LVT, RVT, or CVT respectively). Any veterinary staff member who has not passed the VTNE and their state’s licensing exam is a veterinary assistant.
Ok, now that we got the legal definitions out of the way, let’s move on to how these terms are used in the real world. Unfortunately with the current legislation (or lack thereof) of many states, veterinary hospitals frequently use the term “veterinary technician” for employees that have received on-the-job training, but have not gone through a credentialing degree program or taken credentialing exams. I myself have worked in hospitals that called me a technician even though I had not yet completed a veterinary technician program or passed any licensing exams. I’ve also been called a veterinary nurse or, my least favorite, pet nurse, all in efforts to get around the legal term “veterinary technician”. I had hands-on training and even a college degree. I did many things that a licensed veterinary technician would do on a daily basis. I have worked alongside and have been trained by wonderful licensed and non-licensed veterinary technicians, and learned a great deal from those that had years of experience rather than the AVMA approved education. So why should the general public be concerned about whether their pet’s veterinary technical staff is licensed or not?
Because education matters. Because veterinary technicians perform the same tasks on your precious Fluffy as a nurse at your doctor’s office would on you. Because as someone who was on-the-job trained for many years before going to school and becoming licensed, I know that knowing “how” is not as good as knowing “why”. And because I can tell you without a doubt in my mind that I can act faster in an emergency situation with your pet now that I know why things are happening and not just how to deal with them. Veterinary technicians draw blood, place IV catheters, monitor fluid administration and elimination, administer drugs, monitor anesthesia, all things which can have serious consequences if not performed correctly.
The general public should know that the veterinary technician job description is very similar to a registered nurse (RN) description. However, because veterinary medicine is generally not as specialized as human medicine has become, veterinary technicians are required to do much more. We have to collect samples from our patients, prepare them, and analyze them as a medical laboratory technician would. We have to take radiographs and have knowledge of x-ray imaging as a radiology technologist would. We have to administer and monitor anesthesia to your pets as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist would in a human healthcare setting. In your doctor’s office or emergency hospital, an RN is required to have a certain degree and to have passed standardized licensing exams. The same is true for your doctor, and for your pet’s veterinarian. Why should it be any different for your veterinary technicians who are performing the same tasks on your pets as an RN would on you?
The general public should also know that there are many non-licensed veterinary assistants or technicians (whichever term is allowed depends upon state law) that have the knowledge and experience to care for your pet properly. I am in no way saying that an experienced veterinary technician who puts forth the effort to educate themselves outside of an accredited veterinary technician program while being trained on the job is not competent. Remember, I was one of these staff members for years, and had mentors of the same background that I am so grateful to have learned from. But how do you know when walking into your pet’s veterinary hospital that the technical staff knows what they are doing? Passing licensing exams ensures that technicians have basic knowledge and skills, and provides the best foundation for gaining quality experience in the veterinary technology field.
Also be aware that there are many veterinarians who refuse to hire licensed veterinary technicians solely because they can pay non-educated individuals less money. I have worked in such veterinary clinics, and quite honestly, the quality of care was not as good. The technical staff merely copied what the senior technicians or veterinarian did because that was how that task was performed in that particular hospital, NOT because it was the correct and proper way to do it. I had to relearn many skills when I was in veterinary technician school because I had not been taught correctly during my on-the-job training. And what about continuing education? Did you know that veterinarians and licensed veterinary technicians are required to complete a certain amount of continuing education courses each year in order to keep their license? Medicine is constantly evolving, and we are constantly finding new and better ways of doing things. Non-licensed technical staff are not required to attend continuing education courses unless their employer requires them to do so.
So what does all of this mean for your pet? How can you make sure that your pets are receiving the highest quality healthcare? Making sure that you like the personalities and bedside manner of your veterinarian and technicians is important, but it shouldn’t stop there. Don’t be afraid to ask about the credentials of the technical staff at your primary veterinary hospital, emergency, or specialty hospital. You have a right to know who is handling your pet and administering its medications and treatments. A veterinary hospital that supports licensed veterinary technicians is one that also supports high quality patient care. It isn’t easy for hospitals to hire licensed individuals and pay them what they deserve, but those that do are interested in providing your pet superior nursing care and not solely concerned with profit. Remember that licensed individuals are required to practice veterinary technology at a certain standard or else they risk losing their license. Many non-licensed individuals do hold themselves accountable to a certain standard of care through personal conviction, but are not legally required to do so.
Be aware pet lovers, that veterinary medicine is at an important crossroads. Many veterinarians and hospital managers are realizing the importance of veterinary technicians that have completed an accredited degree program and a standardized licensing process, but it is a standard that is not yet held across the board. Experience is valuable. But education is no less important. There are many things that veterinarians and hospital managers can do in order to support their technical staff and maintain quality patient care. They can encourage non-licensed staff to attend an accredited veterinary technician program and even provide tuition assistance. They can require their non-licensed staff to participate in continuing education courses and make sure their staff is well-trained and educated. However, until the general public is aware of and demands a higher standard of veterinary care, these changes will happen far too slowly if at all. Remember pet lovers, that licensed veterinary technicians have proven their dedication to the field by attending school and studying hard for national and state licensing exams. Please, be a part of supporting credentialed veterinary technicians and help further veterinary medicine both for this wonderful profession and for your pets.