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What Is a Vet Tech?

Alex loves animals and is an experienced licensed veterinary technician with a BS in Biology and an AS in Veterinary Technology.

Vet techs must be knowledgeable about all animals, including farm animals. My large animal clinical rotation was one of the highlights of my schooling.

Vet techs must be knowledgeable about all animals, including farm animals. My large animal clinical rotation was one of the highlights of my schooling.

What Is a Vet Tech?

In short, a veterinary technician (or vet tech for short) is like a human nurse. However, a vet tech is so much more than just a nurse. Vet techs are required to learn anatomy and physiology for small animals (dogs and cats), large animals (equines, cows, goats, sheep), and exotics (avian, pocket pets, and herpetology). In addition to anatomy and physiology, vet techs must learn surgical procedures and anesthesia monitoring, pharmacology and pharmacodynamics, and nursing skills to care for all of these animals in a hospital setting.

Vet techs must also be skilled dental hygienists as they routinely perform dental prophylaxis, radiographs, and in some states, extractions on all the species above. Vet techs must also be familiar with common diseases and disease processes in all the above species.

Vet techs are also radiologists and laboratory technicians in that they are responsible for obtaining radiographs and bodily samples. In addition to obtaining the lab samples, vet techs must also prepare and evaluate the cytologies and perform routine bloodwork and urinalysis. Vet techs also play a vital role in client education, triage, and often fill in for reception work.

So, is that everything a vet tech does? Not by a long shot. Some vet techs are specialized and only work with large animals, while others work with the animals at zoos and aquariums. Some vet techs are involved in research and help run the experience responsible for breakthroughs in human medicine. Some vet techs even work in office settings, making sure insurance claims are processed appropriately. Honestly, the sky is the limit for a skilled vet tech.

What Does It Take to Become a Vet Tech?

That exact answer depends on the state or country you live in. For example, I live in Virginia. Here, I am required to graduate from an accredited veterinary technician program and pass the VTNE before I can apply for a license from the state board of veterinary medicine. Some states also require an additional state test, like my neighboring state North Carolina.

In some states, individuals can practice as a vet tech without being licensed. However, these individuals cannot call themselves LVT, RVT, or CVT as those titles require special certification.

If My State Doesn't Require a License, Why Get One?

There is much talk in the veterinary community about the veterinary nurse initiative. Essentially, once this happens, you will need one. Period. Also, knowledge is power. Yes, you can learn a lot of skills and about many different aspects of veterinary medicine on the job, but you will learn much more in school.

The letters after your name will also allow you to gain further opportunities, like specialize in a specific field of veterinary medicine. When the veterinary industry is able to better standardize a license will be needed to practice as a veterinary technician, and those specialized vet techs with a VTS (veterinary technical specialty) will be the equivalent to a physician's assistant. That's a big difference. Also, there is hope that one day the pay will become more competitive in vet med, and those individuals with a license will be able to get a better wage.

While not common in clinical practice, vet techs that work at reference laboratories are proficient at performing bacterial cultures.

While not common in clinical practice, vet techs that work at reference laboratories are proficient at performing bacterial cultures.

What Is the Difference Between a Vet Tech and a Vet Assistant?

That depends on the state. In my state, a vet assistant is able to draw blood but is unable to place an IV catheter; they can obtain a voided urine sample but not a cystocentesis, they can monitor anesthesia but are unable to handle controlled substances, induce anesthesia, or intubate patients. Are these all the differences? No. In some states, like my neighboring North Carolina, an unlicensed individual can perform many of these skills; however, they are unable to handle controlled substances.

One thing to keep in mind is not all hospitals abide by their state's laws. While it may be tempting to maintain employment at a hospital that allows non-licensed individuals to practice illegally, doing so can be dangerous. If something goes wrong, the veterinarian or the hospital will not protect you. Also, practicing illegally can impact your ability to gain a license in the future.


What Can't a Vet Tech Do?

That, once again, depends on the state. In Virginia, I can extract one rooted tooth; however, I am unable to suture a wound. In no states can a vet tech perform surgery on their own, make a diagnosis, or prescribe medications. AAHA is even more strict with what technicians can and cannot do; even though my state allows me to do simple extractions, AAHA does not allow it. As my hospital is AAHA accredited, I am unable to perform extractions.

What Kind of Education Do I Need?

You will need to graduate from an accredited program; typically, this is just a two-year associate's degree. A vet tech program is offered at many different community colleges; just check with the community colleges in your area to find out if it is offered.

If you don't have a program near you, or you would prefer a different education pathway you can try one of the many online programs. Ashworth College and Penn Foster are two of the most well-known programs. You can even obtain a bachelor's in veterinary technology if that is something you would like to do.

Talk to Me About the VTNE

The VTNE, veterinary technician national examination, is an exam that is offered in every state and is required to obtain a license. The test is 170 questions, 20 of which are practice questions for future exams and do not count towards the score. The questions are weighted differently, and a passing score is 425 points.

The VTNE can cover anything that is covered in the accredited schooling program. Remember when I was talking about all the things a vet tech must know and all the technical skills they need? Remember all the different species I mentioned? All that could be on the exam. Yeah, it's a lot of information.

Is It Worth It?

That depends on you. Currently, the veterinary industry is in desperate need of people. There are so many jobs available. However, the pay is not what it should be for the education and technical skills needed to perform the job. The average salary for an LVT is around 35,000–40,000. That’s it.

There is often not a good work-life balance, long hours, many times weekends are needed. But, this is a job that can be very rewarding. I love helping those that cannot speak for themselves. I am an advocate for my patient. However, I do work overtime frequently, and I have spent a lot of time at work instead of with my family.

I feel that good things are coming to the industry; changes are coming, there is a big push right now to change the mentality of vet med. To stop idolizing the individuals that sacrifice everything for their job. I hope these changes come soon.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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