Veterinary Assistant Career Information
umans aren't the only living creatures deserving of quality medical care. The animals we love and appreciate also need it. We all know about veterinarians, the animal doctors who restore and help us maintain the health of our pets. But today's veterinary clinics employ more than just veterinarians. If you're an animal lover, you owe it to yourself to consider whether a career as a veterinary assistant or vet tech might be a good fit for you.
What is a Veterinary Assistant?
This is a critical question. In fact, many people have the answer all wrong. That's because some areas of the Internet contain bad advice, false information, and uneducated assumptions. If you are an animal lover in search of answers about careers in the veterinary field, then you need to cut through all of the baffling clutter. So, what is a veterinary assistant?
The confusion stops here. Let’s start by understanding what a veterinary assistant is not.
A veterinary assistant:
- ...is NOT a veterinarian
- ...is NOT a veterinary technician
- ...is NOT a veterinary technologist
- ...is NOT a “vet tech”
It is crucial that you understand these points. Making a good, informed decision about your future depends on it. Far too many websites, and even a few well-meaning career counselors, confuse these job titles. Let's look at what a veterinary assistant actually is.
A veterinary assistant:
- ...IS an entry-level position in the veterinary industry
- ...IS also known as a “veterinary technician assistant” or “vet tech assistant” or simply a “vet assistant”
- ...IS anybody who works in a veterinary office and performs basic duties that enable the more senior staff (educated and credentialed vet techs and veterinarians) to focus on providing quality medical care to animals.
“Veterinary assistant” and “veterinary technician (vet tech)” are NOT interchangeable terms. They represent completely different positions and skill levels.
So, if a veterinary assistant is not the same thing as a vet tech, then what IS a veterinary technician?
- ...are the equivalent of nurses, but for animals
- ...are taught not just how to do things, but also why and when to do them
- ...have greater responsibilities than veterinary assistants
- ...in most cases, have earned at least the equivalent of a two-year post-secondary degree in veterinary technology.
- ...are allowed to perform some medical procedures on their own (draw blood, monitor animals under anesthesia, give injections, place catheters, etc.), whereas vet assistants must be directly supervised to perform the same procedures (if they are even allowed to under your state’s regulations)
What Do Veterinary Assistants Do?
It may not always be glamorous, but the typical work life of a veterinary assistant is, nevertheless, very important. Veterinary assistants provide support to veterinarians and vet techs by handling a lot of the behind-the-scenes work and taking care of basic office tasks. During slow times, vet assistants may get the opportunity to play with animals, but, for the most part, they usually must perform a constantly shifting set of duties. So, specifically, what do veterinary assistants do?
It depends on where they work, and their duties can vary greatly, but veterinary assistants are often asked to:
- Feed and water animals
- Clean and sanitize kennel and work areas
- Sterilize equipment used for surgeries and laboratory tests
- Assist with basic animal care and post-surgical monitoring
- Administer oral and topical medications to animals
- Collect and prepare basic laboratory samples (while being supervised)
- Greet pets and their owners
- Educate pet owners about proper basic care of their pets
- Help restrain animals during examinations and medical procedures
- Check an animal’s weight, temperature, and vital signs
- Schedule client appointments
- Receive and return phone calls
- Admit and discharge animal patients
- Update inventory logs and order necessary supplies
- Maintain client records
- Screen and process mail
- Prepare, submit, and pay invoices
- Assist vet techs with anything they need help with
Veterinary assistants are limited in the amount of tasks that they can legally perform by veterinary regulations that vary from state to state. Veterinary technicians are also limited; however, they are generally allowed to carry out more advanced duties—many without direct supervision.
However, in a few states, there is no legal distinction between a vet assistant and a vet tech, and vet assistants in these states are allowed to perform any task so long as it happens under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian. Check out this state-by-state breakdown of allowable duties for veterinary assistants and vet techs from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) for further details.
So, if veterinary assistants already do so much, then what do vet techs do?
Veterinary technicians act as nurses for animals by carrying out a wide variety of more advanced medical and testing duties, which can include:
- Dental procedures
- Diagnostic imaging
- Taking blood and tissue samples
- Giving injections
- Applying bandages
- Preparing surgical sites
- Placing catheters
- Performing euthanasia
- Inducing anesthesia
- Removing sutures
- Assisting during surgeries
- Training junior staff
- Anything a veterinary assistant does
Where Do Veterinary Assistants Work?
Most veterinary assistants and vet techs work for veterinary clinics and hospitals. Additionally, some veterinary technicians may find employment in more diverse venues, such as pet pharmaceutical companies or post-secondary institutions.
What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Being a Veterinary Assistant?
Veterinary assisting is not for everybody. While it has its rewards, the work can oftentimes be quite challenging—even for animal lovers. So it is best to understand what you will be getting into before pursuing a vet assistant position.
Here are a few common challenges associated with being a veterinary assistant:
- The work can be physically demanding.
- The emotional demands can be substantial, especially when you witness sick animals that don’t get better or you have to help put animals down (euthanize them)—even when they are healthy.
- Pet owners are sometimes difficult to deal with, which can be stressful, especially when it is clear that they are neglecting their animals or want to complain about their bill.
- Advancement opportunities as a veterinary assistant are limited unless you pursue the proper education to become a vet tech or veterinarian.
- The work can be dangerous when you have to handle scared, aggressive, or uncooperative animals.
- Many clinics, hospitals, and animal shelters are open 24 hours a day, which means that you might have to perform long shift work on a rotating basis.
Of course, things aren’t all bad. Many vet assistants love their jobs and would not want to do anything else. Here are some of the advantages of being a veterinary assistant:
- It can be a great opportunity to learn about different kinds of animals, even exotic ones.
- It provides an essential way to “test the waters” of the veterinary field before making a bigger commitment.
- Boredom is rare or unlikely since there is usually a lot to do and a lot to learn.
- The satisfaction you can feel from knowing that you’ve helped a sick animal get better is very rewarding.
- Working around animals every day can be highly entertaining.
What is a Typical Veterinary Assistant Salary?
Most people don't go into veterinary assisting for the pay. Although wages can vary significantly depending on location and experience, you should keep in mind that the typical veterinary assistant salary will not support a high-end lifestyle. The people who turn veterinary assisting into a career do so because of their love for animals and the variety of duties that they get to perform on a daily basis.
Based on national estimates, typical annual wages for veterinary assistants break down this way: *
- The bottom 10 percent earn $16,490.
- Median wages (50th percentile) are $22,040.
- The top 10 percent earn $33,780.
The typical vet technician salary, by comparison, is a bit higher since vet techs must possess more advanced skills and credentials. Based on national estimates, typical annual wages for veterinary technicians and veterinary technologists break down like this: *
- The bottom 10 percent earn $20,500.
- Median wages (50th percentile) are $29,710.
- The top 10 percent earn $44,030.
What Qualifications Do You Need to Become a Veterinary Assistant?
While veterinary assisting does not necessarily require any formal qualifications aside from a high school diploma or GED, many employers view post-secondary education as an asset. Additionally, anyone wishing to work as a veterinary assistant can benefit from possessing a few key traits and skills:
- A love for animals—This one should be obvious. Having a passion for animals is what will get you through the most challenging days.
- Compassion—It’s important to be able to empathize with animals and pet owners so that you can help to make them feel more comfortable.
- Trustworthiness—Can you be counted on to follow through with the responsibilities you will be given? Lives are often at stake.
- Active listening and communication skills—Misunderstandings can lead to costly mistakes, so it is crucial that you know how to listen, understand, and communicate your own ideas and concerns with care and respect.
- Enthusiasm—A positive attitude makes an often-stressful job a little easier.
- A willingness to learn—You won’t succeed if you act like you already know everything. Veterinary assisting requires a mind that is receptive to ongoing learning and constructive criticism.
- Flexibility—Veterinary assistants have to be willing to handle a wide variety of duties.
- Computer skills—You’ll need to be able to type and learn how to use programs for things like record keeping, scheduling appointments, and invoicing clients.
- Phone skills—Many vet assistants are needed to perform reception duties, so having a warm telephone personality and a good comfort level with making and receiving calls can be essential.
- Basic math and science skills—A solid background with math and biology classes in high school will help you understand what you’ll need to learn on the job.
Like veterinary assistants, vet techs benefit from possessing the above traits and skills. However, in most states, veterinary technicians are required to go much further.
In the states that require licensing, registration, or certification, veterinary technicians generally must earn at least an associate's degree in veterinary technology from an AVMA-accredited program and pass official exams, which usually include the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE) as well as a state exam. Credentialed vet techs are also often required to take a predetermined number of continuing education courses every year in order to stay up-to-date with any changes in the field of veterinary medicine.
Can You Tell Me How to Become a Vet Assistant?
Employers in veterinary medicine want enthusiastic people who are eager to learn vet-assisting duties on the job. Learning the terminology and procedures involved in veterinary assisting (by completing a certificate or diploma program) is an asset that can help you know what to expect and get up-to-speed a little quicker once you're hired.
Just keep the following facts in mind: veterinary assistant programs offered by colleges and vocational schools can vary dramatically in what they teach and who provides the instruction. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) does not currently accredit any veterinary assistant programs, so there are not yet any widely adopted standards for them.
There is, however, one important thing to note. In an effort to unify standards and better define the structure of veterinary teams across the nation, the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) has launched an initiative that aims to accredit veterinary assistant programs. Graduates of such programs who also pass an official exam are awarded the Approved Veterinary Assistant (AVA) designation. However, because this process is still very new, there are currently only three NAVTA-approved training programs, with more to come in the future.
Therefore, the most common way to begin the process of landing a job as a veterinary assistant is simply to ask for one. Here are a few helpful steps to consider as you approach potential employers:
- Call around. Phone up a few veterinary clinics or veterinary hospitals in your area and ask if they have any openings for a veterinary assistant. The worst they can say is no.
- Create a straightforward resume and cover letter. Be sure to highlight your love of animals. Describe any relevant experience you have in caring for different types of animals, whether or not they were your pets. Stress your willingness to learn and do whatever it takes.
- Follow up, but don't be a pest. Veterinary clinics and hospitals are busy places, so you might have to follow up after a conversation or interview to receive an answer about employment.
- Think small. You are likely to receive broader training (more variety of duties) at a smaller veterinary clinic than at a larger animal hospital. More stuff to do means more you can learn and apply elsewhere later on.
- Volunteer your services or ask to job shadow. Volunteering as a part-time veterinary assistant, receptionist, or kennel worker can be a good way to get your foot in the door, and can sometimes lead to a full-time paid position.
As you consider becoming a vet assistant, you might also want to think about how to become a veterinary technician. Vet techs are not just paid more; they are also in higher demand. Given a choice, veterinary practices often prefer the expertise of licensed, registered, or certified veterinary technicians over vet assistants because vet techs are capable of handling a broader range of responsibilities.
How you go about becoming a veterinary technician varies by state, but in the many states requiring professional certification, it generally involves the following:
- Completing a two- to three-year veterinary technology program that is accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and ends with an associate of applied science degree in veterinary technology. As part of such programs, you will be required to complete a hands-on externship in a veterinary office before you can graduate.
- Passing the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE), which is distributed by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB).
- Passing a state-mandated exam, which, depending on the state, results in becoming licensed, registered, or certified. Official designations for successful vet techs (again, depending on your state) are Licensed Veterinary Technician (LVT), Registered Veterinary Technician (RVT), or Certified Veterinary Technician (CVT).
Veterinary technicians can also opt to pursue a bachelor's degree in veterinary technology, which is generally two additional years of education. Vet techs with a bachelor's degree are often called veterinary technologists. Additional education can also allow a vet tech to gain certification in a particular specialty, such as emergency and critical care, dentistry, anesthesiology, equine veterinary nursing, or many others. Such vet techs are typically called veterinary technician specialists.
What is the Most Common Veterinary Assistant Course Length?
There is no typical veterinary assistant course length.
Due to the lack of widely adopted standards or accreditation, veterinary assistant programs can vary substantially in their course content and length. Therefore, it is common to see different programs that take anywhere from a few weeks to six months to one year to complete.
The few veterinary assistant programs that have been approved by the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) can be completed in about eight months to a year.
If you do decide to pursue a certificate or diploma in vet assisting, then try to pick a program that includes the following course material (taught by experienced veterinary professionals):
- Veterinary office and clinic procedures
- Basic medical terminology
- Verbal and written communication
- Basic animal nursing
- Examination room procedures (including animal restraining)
- Surgical preparation and assisting
- Diagnostic imaging basics
- Laboratory procedures
What is the Typical Veterinary Assistant Tuition Cost?
Because the standards vary greatly between different vet assisting programs, veterinary assistant tuition cost also varies.
For some online and home-study programs, tuition alone can be as low as $650. However, since many veterinary assistant programs include a hands-on component, total schooling costs (not including living expenses) often range from about $1,000 to $3,500.
Most schools offer financing and financial aid options, such as loans, grants, and scholarships, to qualified applicants.
What is the Veterinary Assistant Job Outlook?
For anyone looking to work as a veterinary assistant, the job outlook is bright. Despite tough economic times, Americans continue to spend money on their pets. In fact, pet spending has been on a rising trend over the past decade.
The veterinary assistant career outlook is strong for another reason: many people use vet assisting as a way to test the veterinary field before making a commitment to pursuing a career as a vet tech or veterinarian. As a result, many veterinary clinics and hospitals experience a high rate of vet assistant turnover. That means new employment opportunities occur frequently in many areas.
Veterinary assistants are expected to experience much faster than average job growth over this decade (20 percent or higher between 2008 and 2018). **
If you are ambitious, however, then you might be better off pursuing a career as a vet tech. Veterinary technicians are expected to be in even higher demand (36 percent growth in employment between 2008 and 2018). **
Can a Veterinary Assistant Become a Vet Tech or a Veterinarian?
Yes, by pursuing the proper post-secondary education.
Many veterinary assistants are hired with the knowledge that they will use the position to learn whether or not they want to have a career in veterinary medicine. It is a terrific way to discover if you have a sustained passion for the field.
In fact, experienced veterinary professionals often recommend that anyone looking to become a veterinary technician or veterinarian first work as a veterinary assistant.
A few states allow experienced veterinary assistants to sit for the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE); however, those states may soon require a degree in veterinary technology from an AVMA-accredited program before you can take the necessary licensing exams.
A few other important points to keep in mind:
- Any credits you earn from a veterinary assistant program will likely not transfer to an AVMA-accredited veterinary technology program.
- Veterinary assistant programs and veterinary technician programs are not designed to help you prepare for applying to veterinary school to become a veterinarian.
- In most cases, the credits you earn in a veterinary technician program will not transfer to a pre-veterinary program.
- Veterinary technicians and veterinarians require separate educational tracks, which rarely mix. That means you should decide at the outset what you want to be. If you become a vet tech, for instance, and later decide that you’d like to be a veterinarian, you will likely have to start at the very beginning of the required educational path. Admission to veterinary school is highly competitive.
- The term “pre-vet” only applies to the educational track that leads to becoming a veterinarian (animal doctor). It does not apply to the training for vet assisting or veterinary technology.
So—again—what is a veterinary assistant, and what is being one good for?
Vet assisting is essential entry-level work in the field of veterinary medicine and is used by many people to find out if they truly want to make a career out of their love of animals. Veterinary assistants help to make the delivery of animal healthcare possible by providing much-needed assistance to vet techs and veterinarians.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, web site last accessed on Aug. 17, 2011.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, web site last accessed on Aug. 17, 2011.
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), web site last accessed on Aug. 17, 2011.
American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), web site last accessed on Aug. 17, 2011.
National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA), web site last accessed on Aug. 17, 2011.
American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB), web site last accessed on Aug. 17, 2011.