How to Become a Vet Tech

Do you love animals? Was the zoo one of your favorite trip destinations as a child? Do you own animals or have ever dreamt about a career working with animals?

If you answered yes to any of these then a career as a veterinarian technician may be something worth looking into.

Vet techs are a rapidly growing profession and there are now more options than ever to get the education and training you need to step into the career field.

A career as a vet tech is perfect for those who love animals and want to positively contribute to their well-being.

Read on to learn more about what it is vet techs do and what steps you can take to start a career as a vet tech.

What Does a Vet Tech Do?

In short, a vet tech handles all the technical details at a veterinarian office and performs whatever tasks needed under the direction of a licensed veterinarian.

The exact list of tasks differs by state regulation, but essentially a vet tech is licensed to perform all tasks at a vet’s office except for diagnosing conditions, prescribing medications, and performing surgeries.

Vet techs generally work wherever you find veterinarians; hospitals, private practices, research labs, and even zoos.

Originally, the tasks of a vet tech were relegated to students and other office workers to clean cages, feed animals, answer phones, etc. As animal care has become more complex, the role of vet techs has become much more specialized and requires a high level of knowledge and expertise.

Vet techs perform many tasks in offices from drawing blood to assisting in surgeries. In actuality, vet tech’s do so much that it is easier to say what they don’t do rather than what they do; e.g. diagnoses, prescriptions, and surgeries.

The majority of vet techs are employed at private practices but there is a growing need for vet techs in other industries related to animal health and human-animal relations, such as biomedical research, zoo and wildlife care, food safety inspection, animal use in military contexts, animal controls, and humane societies.

Vet Tech Duties

While the exact duties of a vet tech differ depending on state regulations, common tasks include:

  • Performing diagnostic tasks such as X-rays and MRIs
  • Prepping animals and instruments for surgeries
  • Providing general nursing care and emergency first aid
  • Assisting in animal research
  • Monitoring and reporting animal conditions
  • Administering medicines or vaccines
  • Assisting owners and educating them on home animal care
  • Working with local animal organizations

As you can see, working as a vet tech involves a number of duties that are absolutely integral to the proper functioning of a vet’s office. In many ways, vet techs could be seen as analogous to nurses and other medical techs at a hospital in the sense that they assist the physicians in the treatment of patients, performance of diagnostic procedures, and handle basic patient care.

Desirable Skills & Qualities of a Vet Tech

  • Communication skills: As with any job, communication is key. Vet techs need to be able to clearly and concisely communicate animal medical histories to physicians, consult pet owners, and perform tasks with other vet techs
  • Attention to detail: Animal care is a precise business which requires a lot of attention to detail. They must be able to precisely record information, perform tests, administer medications, and other tasks.
  • Compassion: As with any profession in the medical field, vet techs need to have a level of compassion and understanding when dealing with owners and animals. For many owners, their pet is as important to them as a human family member and animals themselves require care and affection. Animals can become very distressed while at the vet so a compassionate and empathetic vet tech can calm them down and make their treatment safer.
  • Technical skill: Vet techs deal with complicated equipment, machines, and procedures. As such, they require specialized technical knowledge. The purpose of vet tech educational programs is to teach people this specialized knowledge. Vet techs must also be familiar with clinic software that records and stores patients’ medical and contact information.
  • Organization skill: Vet techs typically handle the scheduling and appointments of offices, so they need to have good organizational skills. Vet techs do not only have to prioritize their own schedules but the schedule of the entire office.
  • A love of animals: Of course, a successful vet tech must have a deep love for all animals. Vet techs should want to contribute to animal welfare and make a difference in the lives of animals.

Vet Tech Education Requirements

Becoming a vet tech requires specialized education and requirements for practicing.

While the exact requirements differ by state, all vet tech programs in the US require at least a high school diploma or GED to enter.

In general, most states require at least an associate’s degree from an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) accredited program.

It is also possible to pursue higher degrees (BA, MA, Ph.D.) in veterinary technologies, though these higher degrees are usually only needed for highly specialized areas or scientific research positions.

Only three states, Alaska, California, and Wisconsin, allow on-the-job-training (OFT) as a way to become a credentialed technician.

Accreditation

After receiving a degree from an AVMA-accredited program, you also need to obtain any licenses or certifications that are required by your state. The different accreditations include:

  • “Licensed” (LVT): given by a medical authority (AVMA)
  • “Certified” (CVT): given by a private or professional organization
  • “Registered” (RVT): given by a state institution

Normally, the certification process involves taking a state-approved training program and then passing a final exam. The point of such programs is to ensure that potential vet techs understand and can abide by the various rules and regulations set down by the state. The exact content of these training programs and certification exams differs depending on the location. In most cases, the exams involve questions related to general medical knowledge, procedures, and any state-specific regulations regarding the handling and care of animals.

What You’ll Study

The exact course load and academic focus in your vet tech program depend on the level of your degree (AS, BA, etc.). In general, the programs include basic core courses in math, biology, chemistry, and psychology mixed with specialized courses related to vet tech procedures, pharmacology, management, nursing techniques, anatomy/physiology.

Some specific courses in a vet tech associate’s degree program could be:

  • Anatomy
  • Anesthesiology
  • Parasitology
  • Nursing
  • Public health
  • Radiology
  • Zoonotic diseases (animal to human disease transmission)
  • Animal dentistry

Regardless if you opt for an AS or BA in veterinarian technologies, you will be required to have a firm grasp of basic medical science, animal nursing procedure, lab procedures, and surgical procedures.

It is also possible to start first with an associate’s degree and use that as a jumping off point for acquiring a bachelor’s degree.

If you plan to take this path, then it is important to get your associate’s from a program that hold accreditation recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. That way there is a better chance that your course work from your associate’s will transfer over to your bachelors.

Selecting an accredited program offers numerous other benefits such as:

  • Higher standards of education and training
  • Potential for government financial aid
  • Transferrable education credits
  • Reputation of an accredited institution

Regardless of your choice of degree path, you will be required to take the Veterinarian Technician National Exam (VTNE), the most common accreditation exam offered in the US. The VTNE is a 170-question multiple-choice exam that is divided into 9 main subject areas:

  • Pharmacy and pharmacology
  • Surgical nursing
  • Dentistry
  • Lab procedures
  • Animal care
  • Diagnostic imaging
  • Anesthesia
  • Emergency medical care
    Pain management

After completing your exam and obtaining your credentials, most states have rules requiring you to complete a certain number of continuing education (CE) credits to keep your license renewed.

Training Information & Types of Vet Tech Degrees

As we stated before, there are several degree options for pursuing a career in veterinary technologies.

The “basic” option is to acquire an associate’s degree at an accredited university and then pass a state-licensed exam. The exact time required for a degree program depends on the degree, but the minimum requirements for an associate’s degree are 4 semester of coursework which comes out to about 2 years.

Option 1: Vet Tech Associate’s Degree

Acquiring an associate’s degree is seen as the “standard” method of entry into the vet tech career field. These programs are typically in person, though online programs for associate’s degrees are becoming more common. There are currently over 160 AVMA accredited vet tech associate’s degree programs in the US at two-year, four-year, and career schools. Generally, an associate’s degree takes 2 years or 4 semesters of course work.

Most associate degree programs also involve a period of hands-on clinical training as part of course credits. These programs are designed to give student hand on experience and acclimate them to working in a veterinarian office. Generally, these externships are completed as part of course work but some programs may require extra summer internships. Courses in vet tech associate degree programs also tend to focus on managerial/interpersonal aspects of the vet tech profession.

After completing an associate’s degree and passing and licensing exams, you are prepared to move directly into a position at an animal hospital or veterinary practice. Or they could move on to complete a BA.

Admission Requirement

In general, the only admission requirements to an associate’s program is a high school diploma or GED. Some associate’s programs may require that students have 18-20 hours of observation in a hospital environment before enrolling in the program.

Courses

Course work in associate’s degree programs normally cover basic lab work, imaging procedures, critical care, and nursing techniques. Some common courses include:

  • Anatomy/Physiology: Learning the organ systems, anatomical organization, and metabolic character of various common animal species
  • Lab procedures: Basic lab techniques involving tissue samples and diagnosing diseases
  • Animal nutrition: How nutrients are metabolized by each species and what their optimal diets are.
  • Animal nursing: basic nursing techniques such as wound care, administering medicine, and comfort care

Option 2: Vet Tech Bachelor’s Degree

A veterinarian technologist is a person who has obtained a BA or BAS in veterinary technologies. In general, technologists perform the same job duties as technicians but handle more specialized tasks. Acquiring a BA in veterinarian technologies is a good way to further your career as a vet tech and for working in:
  • Animal research
  • Conservation and zoos
  • Teaching
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Management
Obtaining a BA degree normally takes around 4 years (8 semesters of courses) and involves much of the same classes as an associate’s degree, though to a further degree of depth and precision. Additionally, BA programs offer courses for students to specialize in certain areas of animal care, like small animals, large animals, zoo care, or animal rehabilitation, to name a few examples. Currently, there are 23 AVMA accredited vet tech BA programs in the US, all of them at 4-year universities. Several of these programs offer short track options for applicants who have previously completed an associate’s degree at an accredited program.

Admission Requirements

Most BA programs do not have any admission requirements beyond a high school diploma or GED.

While not necessary, first acquiring an associate’s degree will increase your chances of being accepted to a top-caliber BA program.

Admissions for a BA in veterinary technologies follow the same schema as an application to any 4-year university.

Courses

Some specialized courses in a BA program could include:

  • Clinical pathology: Recognizing and testing for diseases in the lab via tissue/blood samples, etc.
  • Parasitology: Animal parasite taxonomy, treatments, transmission, and symptomology.
  • Clinical management: Learning the ins-and-outs of running an animal care facility
  • Animal Rehabilitation: The long-term treatment and care of animals with injuries or physical defects
  • Animal behavior: The identification/treatment of behavioral problems in animals.

Option 3: Higher Degrees

Typically, institutions do not offer graduate degrees in veterinary technologies.

Most professionals working in the field only require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Though if you have a BA in veterinarian technologies and would like to further your career working with animals, there are other graduate programs available. One potential path is to receive your Doctor in Veterinary Medicine and become a vet.

Several DVM programs are dual-degrees and allow you to work towards your master’s degree in tandem with your DVM.

While there are no master’s degrees specifically in veterinarian technologies, there are several master programs that focus on very specific subfields of animal care. For example, if you like horses you could get a masters in equine studies. A master’s degree in zoology could open the way to working for a zoo or conservation effort or masters in agricultural sciences if you work with cattle and other farm animals.

Alternatively, some schools offer master programs in a distinct subject but tailor them to a focus in animal care.

Admission Requirements

Typically, admission requirements for a DVM program or a masters program are more strict and encompassing.

It is normally required to have a 4-year degree and have taken a list of prerequisite courses such as microbiology, organic chemistry, developmental anatomy, and so on, before advancing on to higher studies.

Most DVM and masters programs also require the GRE (General Requisite Exam), a standardized test that is used for graduate school admissions.

Courses

Acquiring your DVM normally takes around 3 years and involves taking courses in advanced animal anatomy, biochemistry, medical neurology, and pharmacology.

Specialized course for masters degree typically involves a fair amount of individual research and courses on very specific domains of study.

Online Vet Tech Programs

Several AVMA accredited programs offer online courses for distant and non-local students.

These programs can be taken from the comfort of your home and tend to be cheaper than in-person courses.

Several online programs also offer accommodations for the practical and clinical portions of your degree study and can get you set up with an office to do your hours.

A handful of 4-year institutions offer online BA vet tech program, but these are the exception, not the rule. In general, the higher you go up the educational totem pole the fewer online courses are offered.

Advanced degrees typically have no online offerings as they require extensive clinical practice or field work for their completion.

How to Get Your Vet Tech License

After completing your degree program, you must first get your vet tech license before you can start working as a vet tech.

To receive your vet tech license, you must pass the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE).

The VTNE is a 170 multiple-choice question quiz that tests participants on basic medical knowledge and veterinary procedures.

After passing the exam, you will be a certified vet tech and can work in the field.

License Renewal

Most states require continuing education credits to maintain a valid vet tech license.

These requirements can range from 5 hours over a 1 year period to 30 hours over a 2 year period.

Some states do not require any continuing education credits for vet techs.

4 Steps to Become a Vet Tech

So let’s go over the basic point and steps to becoming a vet tech:

Step 1. Complete an AS degree

There are over 230 2-year associate programs in the US. 9 of these accredited courses are available online. Make sure to check with your state board for licensing and educational requirements.

Step 2. Pass the Veterinary Technician National Exam

The majority of states use the national exam presented by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards. Passing this exam earns on the status of a “certified veterinarian technician”

Step 3. Get licensed or certified

Normally, passing the VTNE is enough to become certified, but some states may have extra requirements before issuing certifications, such as background checks, proof of American citizenship, letters of recommendation from colleagues. Once the individual has met these requirements, they will be issued their license.

Step 4. Maintain certification

Several state licensing boards require certified veterinary technicians to maintain their certification by taking continuing education courses. The purpose of these courses is to keep techs on the cutting edge of techniques and research. In the US, all vet techs require a license to operate under the job title. Much like nurses at a hospital, vet techs require certification to indicate that they are up to date on techniques and procedures.

Vet Tech Salary & Growth

Vet techs in general have good starting salary and growth potential. The median salary for vet techs in 2018 was $34,420 ($16.55/hr) and it is expected that the field will grow by 20% by 2026.

Obtaining a vet tech degree also opens the door to other career paths in the health-care industry or animal industry.

Salary

$34,420

Growth

20%

Vet Tech Associations, Groups & Resources

  • American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
  • National Association of Technicians in America (NAVTA)
  • Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE)
  • Professional Examination Services (PES)
  • American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB)

Frequently Asked Questions

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Noel Griffith

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