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What is a veterinary technician?

Veterinary technicians are animal nurses (and much more). In addition to their nursing duties, they act as patient advocates, phlebotomists, radiology technicians, laboratory technicians, anesthesia technicians, and surgery technicians. Except tasks legally restricted to veterinarians, such as diagnosing disease conditions, performing surgery, prescribing medications, and prognosing medical outcomes, veterinary technicians are trained to do everything a veterinary hospital requires to run smoothly.

Veterinary technicians must receive formal training in the knowledge and skills required to handle their many daily responsibilities by graduating from an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)-accredited college with an associate’s degree in veterinary technology. The program curriculum covers a wide range of topics, including:

  • Animal anatomy and physiology
  • Medical terminology
  • Medical dosage calculations
  • Animal handling
  • Animal nursing
  • Pharmacology
  • Anesthesia
  • Laboratory skills (e.g., hematology, urinalysis, microbiology)
  • Radiology
  • Surgical nursing

After completing an 18- to 36-month course, veterinary technicians also must pass the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE) to obtain a license. Although veterinary clinics might employ veterinary assistants to provide some patient care, many tasks are legally restricted to veterinary technicians who have the education and skills to provide a higher level of care.

A veterinary technician’s typical day

On a typical day, a veterinary technician wears many hats, often jumping from one task to the next to ensure proper care for every patient. During your pet’s office visit, a veterinary technician will take a detailed history and perform a basic physical exam before the veterinarian enters the room. Then, she gently will hold your pet during the veterinarian’s assessment, prepare your pet’s medications, and teach you to administer them at home.

Behind the scenes, a veterinary technician team is hard at work assisting with laboratory work, X-rays, anesthesia, and surgery. In the hospital’s treatment area, veterinary technicians gather patient samples for lab tests to help diagnose complicated medical conditions. They may draw blood, collect urine, or walk a patient to get feces for analysis. Blood is prepared for automated analysis by in-house machines to diagnose infections, anemia, kidney failure, liver disease, and thyroid deficiency, to name a few.

A veterinary technician also might make a blood slide for evaluation under a microscope in search of any abnormalities. Urine is processed to separate fluid from the solid components and then examined microscopically to look for urinary tract infections, bladder stones, and kidney disease. Evaluating feces is a dirty job, but veterinary technicians happily look under the microscope for parasite eggs that explain why a pet has diarrhea.

Pets needing X-rays are in good hands. Veterinary technicians measure the body part to be radiographed, properly set the machine, and hold the patient in position to obtain a diagnostic image. Veterinary technicians maintain most of the hospital equipment, including the X-ray machine, to ensure it’s ready to produce images to aid in a pet’s diagnosis.

When a pet needs anesthesia, a veterinary technician will place an intravenous (IV) catheter, as well as calculating and administering the correct amount of IV fluids. She also will calculate and administer the correct anesthetic dose to cause unconsciousness. After the pet is resting comfortably, a veterinary technician will prepare the pet for his surgical procedure by placing an endotracheal (breathing) tube for oxygen and anesthetic gas administration. Throughout surgery, the veterinary technician remains by the pet’s side, monitoring anesthetic depth and vital signs to ensure he remains at a safe anesthetic level. Afterward, she helps the patient wake up, keeping him warm and comfortable as he regains consciousness.

During surgery, a veterinary technician shaves the patient’s fur and aseptically prepares the surgical site. She prepares the necessary sterile instruments and equipment, and is present throughout the procedure to assist the veterinarian by readying supplies, handing over instruments, and maintaining equipment, such as laser, cautery, and suction units. Afterward, she will clean and sterilize all equipment and instruments so they are ready for the next procedure.

This is just a snapshot of some of a veterinary technician’s daily duties that make her invaluable in a well-run veterinary hospital. Veterinary technicians often work long, physically demanding shifts, but they return day after day with a smile, excited to fulfill their passion for helping pets stay healthy.