Looking back on 45 years as a veterinary assistant

Billy Ray Barnett

Billy Ray Barnett—better known to everyone as Bill—is a veterinary assistant at AAHA-accredited Animal Health Associates in Eugene, Oregon. Before that, he worked at AAHA-accredited Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago, Illinois.

In all, Barnett’s been working in veterinary hospitals for 45 years. “I’ve been doing it ever since a little dog looked at me and said, ‘Help me,’” Barnett told NEWStat. And he’s been working at AAHA-accredited hospitals the entire time—with one brief exception in 1996.

Barnett’s journey began in 1975 when, at 22-years-old and tired of factory work, he spotted a want ad for a part-time kennel assistant and thought it sounded like a nice change of pace from the mind-numbing monotony of the factory floor. He showed a natural affinity for animals within a week (during which Barnett saw that little dog looking back at him) and the hospital asked him to start working full time. Within a month, he found himself working as a veterinary assistant for the head veterinarian.

Barnett never had any formal training. Everything he knows, he learned on the job. The most important lesson? “The correct way to hold an animal and not get bitten,” Barnett said with a laugh.

He said his favorite part of the job has always been “working in the exam rooms with the animals and learning how to read them—[how] to understand their head movements and their body movements, [and] what those movements meant.” He said that knowledge helped him keep the animals calm.

“I caught on very quickly,” he recalls. “The doctors said I was a natural.”

But after 20 years at Blum, Barnett started feeling restless. A former biker with a passion for the blues who liked to hang out with motorcycle clubs in his free time, he decided to hit the open road in the mid-nineties and wound up in Eugene, Oregon.

He still wanted to work with animals, but he also needed a job fast and took the first one he came across: a veterinary assistant position at a big-box pet store that also offered veterinary services—the sole exception to his association with AAHA-accredited hospitals.

But without the AAHA standards he’d followed religiously for two decades, Barnett found himself itching for a change. So he specifically went looking for a job at an AAHA-accredited hospital, “because their standards of care are higher.” Then he found his new home at Animal Health Associates.

“The doctors I worked for in Chicago and the doctors here, they go that extra mile,” Barnett said. And often on their own time, he added.

Barnett’s seen a few changes in his 45 years as a veterinary assistant—with some of the biggest relating to pain management for pets, especially during and after surgeries: “That’s improved 100%.”

And he’s seen huge strides in client education. He said it was par for the course for clients to turn down veterinarians’ advice on preventive care: “Sometimes it would take two or three years of relentless reminders to convince a client to get a dental done.” Today, clients are much more likely to follow preventive care recommendations.

Over the years, Barnett’s duties have included assisting with surgeries, training new employees, and just generally helping to keep the hospital running smoothly. But his favorite thing is still working in the exam room, “just getting the pets up on the table, reading them, keeping them calm, and giving them love.”

“It’s a pleasure to work for a hospital that has the standards to ensure we educate the client and give the best care we can to our little babies. AAHA goes that extra mile to make sure we deliver.”

Animal Health Associates Medical Director Sheila Johnson, DVM, who has worked with Barnett for more than two decades, told NEWStat he has “an innate ability to read animals. They trust him.”

Johnson trusts him, too: “I've never gotten bitten, scratched, or injured in all the years that Bill was on the other side of the table.” She can’t say that about any other assistant she’s ever had, and called it “Amazing.”

Clients love him, too—which can be an issue because they call and specifically request that Barnett assist the veterinarian during their appointment. “That’s hard to schedule with a four-doctor practice.”

“We tell him he can't retire until he’s 70,” Johnson added with a laugh. “So he’s got to get to 50 years with AAHA.”

Bill wouldn’t mind that at all. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way,” he said. “With AAHA.”

Photo credit: © Kelsey Peters