by Katie Duley
A successful visit to the veterinarian requires a team effort, but too often that team can get lost behind the veterinarian. So—especially considering that it’s National Veterinary Technician Week (October 11-17)—we’d like to take a moment to honor one of the integral parts of that team: the Veterinary Technician.
The veterinary technician field is still relatively new, so perhaps it isn’t too surprising that so many people are still confused about what, exactly, a veterinary technician is. In 1963, the first class of ‘animal technicians’ graduated and the American Veterinary Medical Association didn’t begin accrediting these programs until 1973 (Kogan, Wallace, Schoenfeld-Tacher, Hellyer, & Richards, 2020).
What Makes a Vet Tech Special
So, just who are these ‘veterinary technicians’? What role do they fill in veterinary offices and what makes them so special?
Well, perhaps a better question would be: What role don’t veterinary technicians fill?
A partial list from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (September 16, 2020) describes some of the daily activities of veterinary technicians:
- Providing emergency first aid to injured pets
- Running laboratory tests (e.g. urinalysis, blood counts)
- Taking x-rays
- Administering and monitoring anesthesia during surgeries
- Monitoring your pets while they’re in the hospital, on alert for any changes that could indicate a new problem is developing
- Administering medications and other veterinarian-prescribed treatments
- Recording pets’ medical case histories
- Veterinary technicians can also handle things like nail trims, baths, and safely restraining your pet during exams
Do any of these activities sound familiar? They should! Many of them are of the same nature as those performed by nurses in the field of human medicine (American Veterinary Medical Association, n.d.; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 1, 2020) – but done for your beloved pets instead of for humans, and thus at half the pay.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there has been a recent push to change the title of veterinary technicians to registered veterinary nurses (Larkin, 2018) though there has thus far been considerable pushback from many nurses in human medicine, and it remains to be seen where this effort will lead.
How to Become a Veterinary Technician
What sort of training is required to become a veterinary technician? Are there formal, standardized requirements, like there are for nurses? This is actually a more complicated question than it first appears.
Numerous colleges offer veterinary technology programs with a 2-year associate’s degree, and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is responsible for accrediting these programs (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 16, 2020). However, each state approaches the regulation of veterinary technicians a bit differently (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 16, 2020), and even the title of veterinary technicians is inconsistent across states, with some states calling them registered veterinary technicians (RVT), some calling them certified veterinary technicians (CVT), and others calling them licensed veterinary technicians (LVT), as we do here in Michigan (National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America, 2019).
In Michigan, to become a licensed veterinary technician (LVT), you must first graduate from an AVMA-accredited veterinary technology program. As a requirement of completing this program, you’ll need to do an internship at a veterinary hospital or laboratory, and to finally become an LVT, you’ll still need to pass the Veterinary Technician National Exam as well as the Michigan Veterinary Technician examination (VeterinarianEDU.org, 2020).
Let’s Talk Compensation
So, how much do veterinary technicians make, then? They are doing all these amazing things, which require a lot of independent judgment, quick thinking, and medical licensure – they’re saving lives! – surely ‘half what a nurse doing similar tasks would make’ is a gross exaggeration…right?
Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (September 16, 2020), the median pay in 2019 (nationally) for veterinary technicians was only $16.98/hour. According to ONet (2020), Veterinary Technicians in Ann Arbor currently average $17.18/hour, with variance between $11.67 on the low end and $22.30 on the high end. For Michigan in general, veterinary technicians currently average $17.55/hour, with variance between $13.11 and $23.95 (ONet, 2020).
A joke definition of “veterinary technician” floating around the internet is, “an underpaid equivalent of a nurse, who can tend to multiple species.”
A National Shortage of Vet Techs
In 2016, the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) conducted a demographic study of veterinary technicians. Of the surveyed vet techs who had left the field, the top reason given for leaving was insufficient pay (38%), followed by not feeling respected by their employer (20%) and burnout (14%) (National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America, 2016).
Compassion fatigue (i.e., emotional exhaustion from empathizing with the suffering of others) can culminate in burnout, and unfortunately both are commonplace among veterinary technicians. Burnout is a psychological state where it becomes much harder to feel any meaningful sense of personal accomplishment, and it is typically accompanied by feelings of depersonalization and emotional exhaustion. People who are burned out may start to feel cynical about their job, developing a detached or even callous attitude – not because they aren’t caring people, but precisely because they have cared too much. There are a number of factors which have been found to be predictive of burnout in veterinary technicians, such as client contact and being exposed to euthanasia. Given all of this, it is no wonder that veterinary technicians have above average turnover rates (Kogan et al., 2020).
The national demand for vet techs is expected to grow much faster than average over the next decade, with a predicted addition of 18,300 vet tech jobs between 2019 and 2029 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 16, 2020). With all this rapidly increasing demand, and the aforementioned turnover issues, the supply of talented individuals willing to go into such a difficult line of work simply isn’t keeping up. As a result, the veterinary industry faces widespread shortages in the number of veterinary technicians needed versus the number available (Cushing, 2020).
These shortages are very bad news for the veterinary field, given the incredible value added for every veterinary technician a practice manages to recruit. Beyond the multitude of skills mentioned earlier, veterinary technicians also increase the total number of pets we can help while simultaneously saving clients money by offering vet tech appointments (Gallimore, 2020).
So, please remember, the team who provides your fur baby with life-saving care isn’t in this field to make the big bucks, nor are these people who just ‘fell into’ this particular job. Becoming a licensed veterinary technician is a lot of hard work, requiring years of studying and stringent testing. It is far from the only (or best paying) thing which people this smart and tenacious could be doing.
These people are here for you and your pets because they love helping animals, and because they’re stubbornly devoted to giving your four-legged children the best lives they can have!
American Veterinary Medical Association. (n.d.). Veterinary technicians and veterinary assistants. https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/yourvet/veterinary-technicians-and-veterinary-assistants
Cushing, M. (2020, February). Opportunities and challenges. Today’s Veterinary Business. https://todaysveterinarybusiness.com/opportunities-and-challenges/
Gallimore, E. R. (2020, January 24). The value of credentialed veterinary technicians. Penn Foster. https://partners.pennfoster.edu/blog/2020/january/the-value-of-credentialed-veterinary-technicians
Kogan, L. R., Wallace, J. E., Schoenfeld-Tacher, R., Hellyer, P. W., & Richards, M. (2020). Veterinary technicians and occupational burnout. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 7(328). Doi: 10.3389/fvets.2020.00328
Larkin, M. (2018, November 7). What’s in a name? American Veterinary Medical Association. https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2018-11-15/whats-name
National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America. (2016). Demographic Survey Results. https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.navta.net/resource/resmgr/docs/2016_demographic_results.pdf
National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America. (2019). FAQ. https://www.navta.net/page/faqs#question5
ONet. (2020, August 18). Local wages for: Veterinary Technologists and Technicians. https://www.onetonline.org/link/localwages/29-2056.00?zip=48103&p=hourly
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020, September 1). Occupational Outlook Handbook: Registered Nurses. U.S. Department of Labor. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm#tab-2
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020, September 16). Occupational Outlook Handbook: Veterinary Technologists and Technicians. U.S. Department of Labor. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/veterinary-technologists-and-technicians.htm
VeterinarianEDU.org. (2020). Steps to Become a Veterinary Technician in Michigan. https://www.veterinarianedu.org/michigan-vet-tech/