A Day in the Life of a Veterinary Technician
Why I've Gathered You All Here
I can't remember what I thought, when I applied to become a student at Bel-Rea Institue of Animal Technology, about exactly what my future career would be like. Throughout my career, I've watched videos and read articles about what other veterinary technicians' days were like, and I decided none of them really do justice to a general practice veterinary technical career. There's no nitty gritty, none of the boring stuff, none of the honest and real culture. It's all "rainbows and bursts of sunshine and sometimes you get pooped on." That's not even close to reality and so I wrote this article.
This article is long, because I've tried not to miss any details big, small, furry or otherwise.
How I Came to This Veterinary Technician Job
Okay, I’m going to try my best here. First, every technician’s day is going to be different because we are all living different lives so do not expect every technician’s day to go the same as mine.
Veterinary technicians have extremely versatile occupations and there is a wide range of fields one can go into with a veterinary technology degree. Briefly, my journey began when I graduated from Bel-Rea Institute of Animal Technology. I was a slam dunk to become a very successful laboratory animal technician and work my way up the research food chain. Then life happened and I moved to Bozeman, Montana and ended up in a general practice which has not been what I thought it would be at all!
There is poop, vomit, urine, blood... the works. But this is really not a bad part of the job. It's fascinating. Feces is a route to find out what the cause of diarrhea is for your patient. Vomit can be a hallmark sign combined with other symptoms that may save a patient's life. Urine is a clue as to just how bad a cat's kidney failure may be. Don't even get me started on blood. The different parts that make up liquid life, I'm not worthy to even try to explain it.
There are also emotions, frustrations, hallelujahs and things to trip over.
Onto the Good Stuff
I wake up every morning around 7:00 AM. While getting ready, I skip makeup because it is just either going to end up on some animal, the inside of my surgical mask or possibly the ground. My ensemble is either made up of a scrub top and scrub pants (I LOVE the Grey’s Anatomy brand) or nice jeans, a long sleeve shirt and a work vest. I wear your average socks and sneaks. The shoes that you wear must be comfortable and easy to keep on. You are going to be playing Twister for half of your day so buckle up.
I try to eat a substantial breakfast because I am never quite sure when I am going to have the chance to eat next. Recently, my work has put a higher priority on lunches being taken (much appreciated) so I have not had to worry as much as I used to.
The Lion's Den
When I get to the hospital, I park in a lineup of staff vehicles and hope that I’ll walk out of the correct door by the end of the day. I grab my coffee and head into the lion’s den.
I set my stuff down, clock in and look at the schedule. Depending on the day, I may be seeing appointments or on the surgery squad under my doctor’s service. Once I know where I’ll be and if I don’t have anything pressing to be done right away, I go find someone to help. I work the 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM shift, so the morning crew has already been there for an hour, they check in surgeries and perform treatments on any patients that stayed the night and generally get the place rolling for the day. Bless them. If I am on the surgery squad that day, I arrive at 7:30 AM (if I remember, I am so guilty of forgetting) to check in surgical patients that arrive early. It’s usually a bit crazy in the morning so I generally start in the area where we perform most of our treatments, dentals and minor procedures. There is almost always a patient that needs a Temperature, Pulse, and Respiration (TPR), their blood drawn or needs medications to be calculated, gathered together and administered.
Our entire team, reception and kennel technicians included, gather at about 8:15 AM for daily rounds. Here we talk about what procedures will be going on for the day, who will be on outcalls, who is on which doctor’s service and general FYIs for “the good of the team” as our practice owner likes to say.
When rounds are over, we huddle up and chant a rehearsed war cry about how much we love helping animals, have our hands in the middle and yell “BREAK!” at the end of the chant. Just kidding. We all just go our separate ways.
If I haven't already, this is when I’ll track down my doctor that I’m assigned to for the day and chat about what we’ve got coming up. We could have a jam-packed day of back to back appointments, animals that get dropped off, emergencies and/or appointments that become admissions to the hospital. If we have appointments, we usually start right away.
A Typical Well Pet Appointment
I am either told by reception, or I notice on the computer’s calendar, that our appointment has arrived at the hospital. I go find an unoccupied exam room and pull up the patient on the computer (we use Avimark as our program of choice). Plot twist! The team that used the exam room that I need couldn’t clean up after they were done so the room needs to be picked up, counters wiped down, I need to double check the treat status and sweep, maybe mop. Let’s say that this appointment is scheduled for thirty minutes, the patient needs all their vaccines updated, a heartworm test, heartworm medications, flea & tick preventative, and her ears have been smelly. We’ll call our pretend patient Kimber after my personal dog. I then walk up to the lobby and greet the client. I guide them to the proper examination room and introduce myself. Sometimes the clients would think that I was the doctor if I just said, “I’m Catie” and shook their hand. After that happened a few times, I started to say “My name is Catie. I’m Dr. Giggle’s technician today.” This stuck and it’s clear who the heck I am. Our hospital’s policy used to be that the technician would get a TPR, a detailed history and then report to the doctor. Well after having been Fear Free Certified as a hospital and trying to increase efficiency, I now usually just get a brief history, grab any samples that I can by myself (if needed) and go grab my doctor. A typical brief history conversation goes something like the following.
Tech: “So Kimber is here to get her vaccines updated?” I slyly look at the owner while asking this, hoping to all that is holy that the schedule is correct.
Tech: “Great! So, it looks like she is due for her distemper/lepto combo, bordetella, rattlesnake, and rabies.” Slyly look at the owner hoping for confirmation.
Tech: “Alright, I also see here that she is due for a heartworm check and heartworm preventative. Are you doing heartworm preventative this year?”
Tech: “Awesome. I also saw that you would like some flea and tick preventative. Would you like three months or six months’ worth?”
Client: “Three months would be fine.”
Tech: “Okay, well do you have any health concerns with Kimber? Any vomiting, diarrhea, limping, lumps or bumps?”
Client: “Yes, her ears have been smelling again. I would also like her anal glands expressed and a nail trim. She tries to bite me at home if I trim her nails.”
Tech: “Okay, we can certainly do that! Is Kimber on any medications or supplements?”
Client: “We keep her on a glucosamine supplement.”
Tech: “Great. Okay, any other health concerns?”
Client: “Nope, I think that’s it.”
Tech: “Okay, let me grab a sample from each ear and I’ll go take a look at it under the microscope and grab the doctor. Hang tight.”
There is an art to grabbing samples solo. I have to judge the dog's character, fear, stress and anxiety level, as well as its tolerance level for me messing with it. I can tell whether I can get a sample by myself or if I'll need assistance in just a few minutes. Ear samples are easy, I leave skin samples for doctors, fecal and urine samples are easy, I only gather blood samples from patients if I have met them before and know them well or I am confident enough and willing to risk getting bitten that day. This is pretty occasional and dumb. I never advise anyone to stick a needle in anything without a helper. I have truly been bitten by a dog only once, and it was totally my fault, I was not drawing blood from it at the time.
I would now exit the room and attempt to go find my doctor. He or she is usually either on the phone, in the potty or MIA so I would head to the lab and begin staining the ear samples to evaluate them microscopically. This takes about one to three minutes depending on the technique, drying time and the likelihood of being interrupted.
Eventually, the doctor will come and find me, I’ll tell them what I found on the slide, they verify it and now we have approximately fifteen to twenty minutes before our next appointment needs to be checked in.
I brief the doctor on what’s going on with Kimber as they look at the slide. While I am doing this, I am opening up the patient’s profile on the computer in order to enter in the notes that he or she is about to dictate to me to put in the record about the ear samples.
Tech: “(Insert client’s name) brought in Kimber who is a three-year-old Springer Spaniel and is very excited to be here. She needs her distemper/lepto combo, bordetella, rattlesnake vaccine, rabies vaccine, a heartworm test, heartworm medications, flea and tick preventative, her anal glands expressed, and the owner would like her nails trimmed. Oh, and her ears have been smelly.”
Veterinarian: “Okay, how long have the ears been smelly.”
Tech: “That’s a good question.”
Veterinarian: “Right on, this is a yeast infection, 2+ Malassezia. We’ll get her some medication. Let’s go see Kimber.”
As the client and the doctor chat about the patient, I am typing everything that the client and I spoke about and everything that the client is now telling the veterinarian. Using the Subjective Objective Assessment and Plan or SOAP format, the doctor is also dictating to me their examination findings. I’ll enter the notes in the plan section, such as which vaccines were administered and where and what we are prescribing. There is such a thing as diagnostic codes as well and I’ve got to get those in too as well as any tests and test results. The client instructions portion of the medical area is going to need some love, so I enter in normal and abnormal vaccination reactions, when to start heartworm and flea and tick prevention and how to administer the ear medication properly, when to stop it and if they should schedule a recheck examination. If I have time, I’ll add something sweet like, “It’s always great to see Kimber, we hope you both have a great summer” or something like that.
At the same time as the client/doctor chatting and exam is going on, I am putting in charges for the patient’s account, and getting vaccines ready. I’ll also prescribe the heartworm medications, the flea & tick preventative and the ear medication. The likelihood of me accomplishing all of this before the doctor is done with their exam depends on which doctor I am working with. Generally, they finish before I do so the doctor will either jump onto the computer and I’ll draw up the vaccinations or I’ll stay on the computer and they’ll draw up the vaccinations.
Next, as a team, we will shower the patient with cookies, easy cheese and lots of distraction so that they can be preoccupied while their vaccinations are given. Sometimes I am not needed for this portion of the appointment and I can keep typing away and getting things settled on the computer. Once I can get away from the computer, I’ll go fill the patient’s prescriptions and then return to the room. When I reenter the room, we can collect a sample for the heartworm test (generally no news is good news), treat the patient’s ears, express her anal glands and trim her toenails.
We have the convenience of checking the client out in the exam rooms so if we have a few extra minutes, I will do that. This includes running their cards, accepting checks or running to grab their change from the front desk. They pick up their receipt on the way out and Kimber’s 10,000-mile oil change is complete.
Rinse and repeat twelve to fourteen more times.
Here are some wrenches that I often must remove from my gears:
- Multiple pet appointments. Like the "typical appointment" above but for three dogs of all the same breed in the same room.
- Serious medical concerns.
- The patient wants to eat me.
- The patient wants to eat my doctor.
- The patient wants to eat the non-slip mat.
- The owner has far more concerns than they told me or the receptionist about.
- The owner and doctor want to talk about hunting for most of their exam time.
- The owner is having a bad day.
- The doctor is having a bad day.
- I’m having a bad day.
- The second the doctor and I walk back into the exam room, my baby flying monkey kicks me in the bladder and there is no going back.
Once I get to lunch, I either take a break from the hospital and get outside, or I eat through my lunch to catch up with the day.
Plot Twists: Emergencies, Euthanasia
1. Often an emergency walks into the clinic. Let’s pretend Kimber ate a sock the second that she got home. Okay, it happened less than an hour ago so we can just induce emesis (make her throw up) so I’ll grab the proper medication and a cat litter box to catch the vomit in. I’ll, of course, make sure that the litter box does not actually have any litter in it. So, Kimber yacks up the sock and out the door she goes.
2. Sometimes the next appointment is an outcall euthanasia. So between appointments earlier in the day, I gather all the supplies.
Outcall Euthanasia Supplies
- Consent form
- Cadaver bag
- Blanket and/or towel
- IV catheter supplies
- DO NOT FORGET THE EUTHANASIA SOLUTION
My doctor and I are going to hop into the company outcall vehicle or if it is occupied, we will take one of our personal vehicles.
Euthanasias are hard. They are always hard. I plan on writing a full article about euthanasia and the euthanasia process in the future, so I’ll make this short and sweet.
We arrive at the client’s home. We talk about all the options. The owners decide it is time to euthanize. We sedate the patient. We listen to all the stories about the animal and all the good times. We cry. The owners cry. We place a catheter. We euthanize the patient. We bring the remains back with us to the hospital and treat them like our own while we prepare them for whatever services that owners chose.
Back to appointments like Kimber’s for a couple of more hours.
Plot Twist: Hospital Admission
That vaccine appointment for that nineteen-year-old cat? Yeah, that’s a kidney failure cat now and it hasn’t eaten if four days. It needs to be admitted to the hospital, diuresed and given supportive care until it’s stable enough to go home and is eating again.
This hospital admission would most likely include the following:
- Getting a kennel set up (I call it a room with a view to the clients), this includes a litter box, prescription diet if warranted, water, pheromones, and blankies
- Collecting any samples from the patient if this hasn't been done already
- Placing an intravenous catheter
- Setting up the proper fluids, drip set, and extension set if needed
- Calculating the proper infusion rate
- Calculating a bolus if needed
- Calculating, drawing up and administering any medications
- DO NOT FORGET TO PUT A CONE ON THE PATIENT; many a catheter has been ruined by their own patients
We typically have a treatment technician that hangs out with all of the in house patients for the day, treating them, walking them, etc. Sometimes we are staffed well enough to where I can hand off my patient and instructions, but usually, the whole admission process is a two-person job anyways.
Now I’m late for my next vaccine appointment. Cruze through that.
Plot Twist: Cuteness
The CUTEST puppy you have ever laid your eyes on is waiting for me in the lobby for its first meet and greet examination after having been adopted. I promptly pluck that little baby right out of its owner’s arms and parade it around the clinic making all the other technicians jealous of my next appointment. I then would walk straight to my car and drive home. Just kidding. I would give them back. Maybe.
The Surgery Squad
Being assigned to the surgery squad for the day is completely different from running appointments. After rounds, I gather all the surgical candidate’s anesthetic monitoring sheets and huddle with the day’s surgeon. A low-key day would include a few spays, neuters and a few dentals. A busy day would include all of that and an orthopedic procedure or two, topped off with a couple of walk-ins/drop off admissions to the hospital and an emergency… or two, oh and maybe a mass removal, laceration repair or OFA radiographs… or two. Sometimes the surgery squad has appointments to see in the afternoon as well.
The doctor and I would now decide what order our surgical procedures will go in. We often have a second technician assigned to our squad as well. One technician will take dental procedures and one technician will do the spays, neuters, etc. All these procedures require general anesthesia.
Depending on bloodwork results, if authorized, the doctor and I prepare an anesthetic protocol for each patient. This includes pre-anesthetic medications (pre-a) and induction medications. These almost always include controlled substances so I would head to the injectable medication cabinet and safe to start drawing up and logging medications. Once the first pre-a is calculated and ready to be administered, I or another medical staff member will administer it. While this patient is “soaking” and relaxing with their pre-a on board, the medical team will place an intravenous catheter and shave the proper amount of hair for their surgical incision and sterile field margins. The team will also look in the patient’s ears and trim their toenails as this is the perfect time to get those procedures done! Next, I’ll prepare the first patient’s induction and get out all the supplies for intubation.
- Preparing and pressure testing the anesthesia machine
- Ocular lubrication
- Sterile lubrication
- Endotracheal tubes of approximately three sizes near each other
- Always test the cuffs to check for holes prior to intubating
- Endotracheal tube tie
- Inflation syringe (cuffer fluffer/defluffer)
- Heparinized flush
- This sounds bad but it’s just four soft ropes that I use to keep the patient in the perfect position for surgery. When a patient is under general anesthesia, they are totally dead weight, we’re talking flopping in the breeze, slugs, wiggly, sleepy bodies. Hence, I need something to keep them straight for the surgeon.
- I remember in tech school not having a clue what restraint really meant, and I would picture chains and cuffs and ropes and stuff. If I give a dog a steadying hug, that is called restraint as well. If I gently hold a dog’s paw for a nail trim, that’s restraint too.
- Anesthetic monitoring equipment
- Blood pressure monitor
- Sometimes I need a sphygmomanometer if the blood pressure needs to be double checked
- I put these on almost every dental and every single emergency if there is time, if I am able to just monitor the patient during a routine surgery or procedure, and I am not needed to participate in the procedure, I generally don’t feel the need to apply a doppler to those patients
- For the perfect anesthetic monitoring: Every. Single. Patient should have a doppler applied to them
- Esophageal thermometer
- SPO2 monitor
- Esophageal stethoscope or a general stethoscope
- I prefer esophageal because I usually don’t have to bug the surgeon, their drapes or risk breaking sterility by monkeying around under sterile “stuff” to find the perfect place for the drum of the stethoscope on the chest
- With an esophageal stethoscope, I can place it perfectly for auscultation of the heart and leave it there, I can come back to it at any time and it will still be in the right place
- IV fluids
- Warming devices
Once the patient and I are ready for induction, the patient is brought into the surgical suite and placed onto the surgery table. I flush the IVC prior to administering induction medications because if somehow the catheter is no longer working and the medications are administered perivascular, some of them can sting badly. Once I have flushed and know that the catheter is good to go, I administer the induction medications. These take approximately twenty to thirty seconds to take effect, sometimes longer, this is the time that I will apply sterile lubricant to the cuff of my endotracheal tube of choice. Once the patient is relaxed enough to intubate, a medical staff member will hold the mouth open for me, I’ll utilize a laryngoscope, sometimes I don’t need one, and I will place the endotracheal tube. I’ll tie the tube to the patient’s muzzle for stability and put the patient into place on the surgery table. Intubation can also be done solo, it takes skill and practice but I recommend always trying to find a buddy first.
Here are the next few steps in order.
- Position patient in proper recumbancy
- Turn oxygen on
- Attach oxygen line to patient
- Another staff member will stabilize patient, or stabilize patient with own elbow
- Attach inflation syringe to endotracheal tube cuff
- Close pop off valve
- Breathe for patient with one hand, fill the endotracheal tube cuff with the other hand while listening for any air sounds escaping the patient’s lungs upon inspiration
- Fill cuff appropriately if at all
- Detach inflation syringe
- Open pop off valve DO NOT FORGET THIS
- Turn on gas anesthetic agent
- Apply restraints to patient for final positioning
- Attach all anesthetic monitoring equipment
- Anesthetically stabilize patient and record the first necessary reading and times
- Apply ocular lubrication
- ALWAYS READ THE LABEL BEFORE APPLYING EYE LUBRICATION
- There is such thing as “tissue glue” aka superglue that comes in extremely similar tubes as the eye lubrication
- Trim any excess hair that could not be trimmed before induction
- Apply gloves, cap, and mask (to self)
- Scrub surgery site (I plan on writing an entire article on proper surgical scrubbing in the future)
- Prepare surgical instrument pack
For the rest of the operation, I will be grabbing items for the sterile surgeon, monitoring the patient closely, entering charges and notes, and making any adjustments necessary to keep the patient stable.
When the operation is over, therapy laser is performed over the surgical site and the patient is detached from everything except for the oxygen supply line. The surgical site is cleaned of excess blood and once the patient is ready for transport, it is taken to its recovery kennel where it is extubated properly.
Rinse and repeat for however many surgical candidates you have.
If I perform the dentals for the day, the induction process is the same. Once the patient is stable, I begin scaling the patient’s teeth and take dental radiographs on both sides. There is an art to dental radiographs, and everyone explains it differently. What really helped me was a CE course that my practice hosted, and everything began to click after that. I highly recommend dental radiograph CE to anyone that performs dental prophylaxis.
My biggest piece of advice? Aim at the plate.
I may write an article about the details of dental land in the future. Comment down below if you would find that helpful or interesting.
After radiographs are taken and the teeth have been polished, I notify the doctor of my findings within the mouth, any teeth that I think need to be removed or any other concerns that I or the client may have. If extractions are authorized and necessary, I block the necessary nerves with an injection and the surgeon will surgically remove any teeth that have no purpose left in the mouth, are painful or are infected. I monitor the patient closely throughout the procedure and grab any supplies that the surgeon may need.
Plot Twist: Unexpected Events During a Surgery or Dental
Plot twists during surgery or dentals:
- The patient isn’t doing well under anesthesia and requires constant adjustments and/or further medications to maintain homeostasis
- Masses need to be removed
- I found a mass that the doctor should take a look at
- I found ten more masses that the doctor should take a look at
- The patient has a raging ear infection that needs to be treated before it wakes up
- The patient has retained baby teeth that need to be extracted
- The patient regurgitates
- The power goes out
- Someone passes out
- I pass out
- The surgeon passes out
- We need more oxygen tanks
- We need to fill the isoflurane
- We run out of gauze
- We run out of blades
- We don’t have the proper suture in stock
- I could go on
All surgical patients need to have their owners called and a discharge time arranged. When the owners arrive, I guide them to an exam room (after making sure that it is clean) to go over radiographs, bloodwork, how the patient did under anesthesia and any medications that the owner needs to administer going forward. Sometimes that’s it and the patient can go home or other times, the veterinarian would like to speak with the owner and I let them do their thing.
You SNORT drugs, you ADMINISTER medications.
Plot Twist: Allergies
A horse has been experiencing colic symptoms for the last 6 hours and is headed into the clinic. I need to get all the supplies ready for a nasogastric tube, sedation and a rectal examination. The patient arrives and is loaded into the stocks.
I also happen to be allergic to cats, dogs, horses, cows, grass, dust, basically nature. But I am HANEOUSLY allergic to horses. I once had a horse just graze my forehead with its lip and I received one of the biggest hives I’ve ever seen on my face. After having been working with the same crew for a few years, they have taken pity on me and will trade me out for any equine stuff that’s on my doctor’s schedule. Most likely, I would jump onto a different doctor’s schedule and their technician would take my place until the horse went home.
SHOUT OUT TO MY TEAM!
So, now it’s 4:30 PM and its time for the closing team (my team) to start closing up shop for the next hour and a half.
- Clean up rooms
- Clean surgical instruments
- Wrap surgical instruments and sterilize any that are ready
- Treat any in house patients
- Make sure the morning crew knows what to do for any patients that are staying the night
- Turn off and clean all of the equipment
- Store any samples left over from the day properly
- Lock up any controlled medications
- Clean up the surgical suite
- Take out the recycling
- Unplug pheromone diffusers
- Send a text to the rest of the team about tomorrow’s schedule and if there are any patients in house overnight
- If we finish our checklist early, I try to help out the kennel staff that gives the whole clinic a wipe down after the medical staff leaves
- Wipe down all surfaces
- Get furniture off the floor
- Take out the trash
All the Things...
After appointments are over for the day, admitted patient’s treatments are completed and the closing checklist is done, I’ll catch up on records for the day.
Throughout the day between appointments, there are minor tasks that need to be completed.
- Filling prescription refills
- Stocking medical supplies
- This is a list of patients that I need to call back and check on
- General housekeeping
- Helping other technicians such as the surgery squad
- Speaking with concerned owners that have called the clinic for guidance
- Running laboratory samples
- Helping with treatments that need to be performed on admitted patients
- Placing IV catheters
- Administering fluids
- Administering oral, topical, intravenous, intramuscular or subcutaneous medications
- Taking radiographs
- Holding an animal for an ultrasound
- Holding an animal for an ECG
- Prepping other team's surgical patients
- Feeding, watering and walking patients
- Changing litter boxes
- Cleaning up patients that are about to go home
- Cleaning faces and surgical sites
- Removing catheters
- Removing pressure bandages
- Giving patients bandanas
- Getting cats in carriers
- Finding all of a patient’s belongings
- Making sure that the patient has all of their medications and food with them ready to go
- A final potty break
- Filling treat boxes
- Counting inventory
- Assisting reception if there are more than two lines ringing
- Putting together estimates
- Filling food orders
- I'm sure there is more that I am forgetting
Once it is time to leave for the day, hopefully on time, I clock out. I get home around 6:15 PM.
Every day as a veterinary technician is different. There are many combinations of what I have described that could happen. Sometimes, I end up staying late for a surgery or an animal that needs constant supervision. Sometimes I return to the clinic two or three times throughout the night to medicate or check on a patient.
Becoming a veterinary technician has been one of the best decisions that I have made. The things that have surprised me most have been how gross I find drool, how easy it is to amputate a limb, and how badly horses can mess themselves up all alone... in the middle of a field...
After having written this article, edited it and re-read it multiple times, I have increased my appreciation for the team that I work with. The ladies that I call my coworkers are truly heroes and I have so much respect for them for staying in the field, expanding their knowledge and advancing their skills. I find so much comfort in the fact that there is a place in this world that takes care of animals properly. Big, small, winged, scaly or bald, all animals are treated like family where I am lucky enough to call work.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.