The Differences Between a Veterinary Assistant and a Veterinary Technician

What Does a Veterinary Assistant Do?

If you are interested in a career with animals, working as a veterinary assistant is a great place to start. Out of everyone in the clinic or hospital, vet assistants spend the most hands-on time caring for animals. This job covers a lot of ground, so it’s a good way to get a feel for what aspect of animal care suits you best.

Veterinary assistants provide all care for animals staying at the veterinary clinic or hospital for any length of time. This can include bathing and nail trimming, feeding and walking the animals, administering prescribed medication as well as wound and incision care, and tending to IVs or other equipment. A good deal of testing and lab work is often done on-site at a veterinary clinic. Veterinary assistants may look at pets’ stool samples to check for a variety of parasites, and check urine and blood for abnormalities that help in diagnosis. The specifics of what veterinary assistants are allowed to do in terms of medical treatment is determined by the state in which the clinic is located.

A big part of being a vet assistant is cleaning, and not just the animals themselves—a vet assistant must maintain a clean facility, which includes the “front,” where clients wait to be seen and meet with staff, and “the back,” which includes operating rooms, recovery areas, kennels, storage and even outdoor areas.  Vet assistants will also stock supplies in the exam rooms and surgery area, and may sterilize and prepare equipment for surgeries.

What Makes a Good Veterinary Assistant?

Even for those with academic training, there will always be a lot of learning on the job, because each facility has its own procedures and protocols. Veterinary assistants should always be caring and gentle with the animals in their care, but also are expected to perform their many responsibilities quickly. It is a job that can require both physical strength and careful attention to detail.

Challenges of Being a Veterinary Assistant

Veterinary assistants work long hours, coming in before the office opens and not leaving until everything has been cleaned and put away after the last patient is seen. During weekends and holidays animals still need to be fed and walked. The work of a veterinary assistant is physically demanding: in addition to long hours on your feet, there is a lot of lifting of equipment, supplies and animals. Frightened or injured animals can be dangerous, and there is an inherent risk to handling them. Inevitably, animals will die under the care of a vet. This is always hard on staff, particularly when the pet is a long-term client.

Where do Veterinary Assistants Work?

People trained as veterinary assistants have many options outside of a traditional animal hospital. They might work at an emergency vet, a low-cost spay/neuter clinic or even with a mobile vet. Their skills are needed at animal shelters, boarding kennels, at sanctuaries and zoos or university research facilities, as well as for providing animal care at science centers and natural history museums with live animal displays.

Getting Started

Many veterinary assistants get started by volunteering at a clinic or simply training on the job, but there are also academic programs (both campus-based and online) if you’d prefer to have some background knowledge before diving in. A high school diploma or GED is generally the only requirement for applicants.

What is a Veterinary Technician?

A veterinary technician is the animal care equivalent of a nurse. This is a highly technical job that requires quick thinking and decision-making and carries a great deal of responsibility. There are many specialized fields that a veterinary technician can pursue, such as avian, equine or exotic medicine, and emergency medicine, or work with a practice that specializes in cancer treatment, eye care, or physical rehab for working animals and athletes. Clinic managers and supervisors are often former technicians.

How to Become a Veterinary Technician

Requirements vary by state, but veterinary technicians in the U.S. are generally required to have a two-year degree at minimum. Some states also require that practicing technicians pass a certification exam and hold a state license. There are two- and four-year programs, and nationally recognized certification exams at different levels. Further education is available for specialized certifications. This is important because veterinary technicians assist in anesthesia and surgery and may handle controlled substances under the supervision of a veterinarian.

What Makes a Good Veterinary Technician

Veterinary technicians must be able to think and act independently, but also work well under all supervising veterinarians at their practices. They also have more direct interaction with clients, performing preliminary exams and procedures that do not require a vet, such as suture removal.

Which Job is Right for You?

Both veterinary assistants and technicians provide a much-needed service in the ever-expanding field of animal care. Assistants’ work is more care-based, while technicians help veterinarians with diagnosis and treatment. These jobs can both lead to many rewarding and exciting opportunities.

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