Who Looks After My Dog at the Veterinary Hospital?
Staff members at your dog’s veterinary office may handle everything from checking your dog in, to collecting your dog’s vital statistics, evaluating your dog’s health, to cleaning the kennel if your dog stays overnight. While the roles can vary depending on the practice’s size or location, it helps to understand whom you might encounter on a typical veterinary visit.
Dr. Karen O’Connor, who recently opened her Coastal Georgia Veterinary Care practice in Richmond Hill, Ga., and Jessie Merritt, practice manager for Oswego Veterinary Hospital in Lake Oswego, Ore., explain the following roles:
Receptionist or Client Service Coordinator
“When you come in the front door, the first person you meet is one of the client service coordinators,” says O’Connor. Expect this staff member to welcome you, update your personal information (like your phone number and address), and direct you to either relax in the lobby or wait in an exam room, if possible. A client service person might also weigh your dog.
Veterinary Assistant or Veterinary Technician
O’Connor considers her assistants to be similar to nurses or nursing assistants in a doctor’s practice. They’re the lifeblood of many practices, serving multiple roles. “The nurses function as a filter. They’ll get a lot of basic information, get a preliminary exam, come in the back and present the case to me,” says O’Connor. “I’ve been in practices where I feel they’re underutilized. Here, I’m working these guys to the bone. They have a much more enjoyable experience; they’re learning medicine.”
So, what’s the difference between a veterinary assistant and a veterinary technician? A veterinary technician has typically attended a school accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association and has passed the Veterinary Technician National Examination, says Merritt. “These individuals invested time and financial resources to receive a level of training that enables them to perform procedures unlicensed veterinary assistants are unable to perform legally,” she explains. Those functions vary from state to state and might involve such work as taking blood or X-rays.
Veterinary assistants typically train on the job and often receive additional training through conferences or other classes, says Merritt.
Most people take a long time to choose their career path. Rebecca Rose, author of Career Choices for Veterinary Technicians: Opportunities for Animal Lovers (AAHA Press 2009), on the other hand, hit the ground running after she left school. “My mother worked for a veterinarian in the early 1970s,” says Rose. “I can remember helping her with the animals after school. When I was in high school, I researched my career options, and becoming a veterinary technician was the most appealing option.”
If you, too, enjoy working with dogs and other animals and relish being part of a team that takes care of them, becoming a veterinary technician is a great way to do what you love.
What Do Veterinary Technicians Do?
Most veterinary technicians handle basic medical tasks within an animal hospital. These tasks can include recording a dog or another animal patient’s medical history, assisting with surgeries and other medical procedures, collecting blood, urine, or stool samples, developing radiographs, preparing animals and equipment for surgery, and processing laboratory tests. Some veterinary technicians also serve as office managers for animal hospitals.
However, technical skills aren’t all a vet tech needs to succeed. “The most overlooked skill is that of great communication,” says Rose. “When a technician can properly communicate with clients, other team members, and veterinarians, that technician will reach higher levels of success.”
Many veterinary technicians work in a single animal hospital. Others find work in zoos, research laboratories, or several veterinary clinics, filling in as relief vet techs, depending on where they’re needed. Others parlay their skills into related dog-oriented businesses, such as grooming and dog day-care ownership.
And just as veterinarians can specialize in certain types of medicine or species, so can veterinary technicians. Among the specialties available to veterinary technicians are animal behavior, anesthesiology, emergency, critical care, and dentistry.
Additionally, some veterinary technicians like Rose work as consultants to help others develop their careers and reach their goals. In some states, technicians can even become practice owners.
Becoming a Veterinarian Technician
Not surprisingly, the skills a veterinary technician needs aren’t acquired overnight. Education and certification are a must. To gain hers, Rose attended Colorado Mountain College, a two-year college in Glenwood Springs. There, she earned an associate degree in applied sciences.
Most of the 160 veterinary technician education programs accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) are two-year programs. Another 20 are four-year programs that lead to bachelor’s degrees, and nine programs are distance-learning initiatives. Some institutions offer more than one program. For example, Northern Virginia Community College offers both a two-year on-campus program and a three-year distance-learning program. (The latter is tailored to individuals who already work in veterinary offices.) The AVMA Web site lists all vet tech programs accredited by the organization.
A typical two-year veterinary technician degree program includes course work in anatomy, behavior, chemistry, clinical practices, pathology, diseases, pharmacology, writing, mathematics, and public speaking. Admission requirements vary, but most programs seek applicants who have a high school diploma or equivalent, with passing grades in one course each of high school algebra, biology, and chemistry.
After students complete the course work, they must obtain a license from the veterinary regulatory board in their state. Licensing provisions vary from state to state but often require applicants to take the Veterinary Technician’s National Examination, a test administered by the American Association of State Veterinary Boards (AASVB). The AASVB Web site describes the examination and offers contact information for every state’s veterinary regulatory boards.
Becoming a veterinary technician is not easy, but it offers a rewarding career path for those who love dogs and other animals. Animal lovers with entrepreneurial skills can find success in this profession too. “There are numerous options and opportunities for veterinary technicians,” says Rose. “Truly, the sky is the limit, and technicians are limited only by their imaginations.”
Your dog’s doctor will usually take information from an assistant or technician, then talk to you about your concerns in the exam room. He or she will conduct a thorough physical exam of your dog, then administer necessary treatments or order needed tests or procedures. Veterinarians must hold a degree in veterinary medicine and a license to practice. The competition is stiff to become a veterinarian, says O’Connor, since there are only 28 veterinary schools in the United States.
Kennel Assistants and Volunteers
These workers usually keep the kennels clean, walk dogs, and help with other necessary, routine tasks.
An office manager may manage front-desk personnel, handling their scheduling and other paperwork.
A licensed veterinary practice manager will oversee the clinic’s operation. “I am a certified veterinary practice manager, which means I had to meet specific and extended requirements involving length of experience, routine duties, and education, and then I sat for the CVPM exam and passed,” says Merritt. Merritt’s wide-ranging role includes human resources, business organization, labor law, marketing, accounting, internal controls, policy and procedure implementation, hiring and termination, and even team-building exercises. Utilizing managers to handle operations frees veterinarians to focus on your dog’s care, explains O’Connor.
The Veterinary Career Path
If you think you might be interested in a vet-related career path, both O’Connor and Merritt agree it’s best to gain some hands-on experience first. Working as a volunteer or kennel assistant lets, you see the inner workings and can help you decide if you want to pursue a veterinary medicine career.
You’ll likely find that no matter their position, most veterinary professionals share a “profound respect and compassion for the animals they work on daily,” says Merritt.