Veterinary technicians

The physician's assistants of the animal world

The physician's assistants of the animal world

They can take x-rays, give injections, read blood tests, assist in surgery, clean teeth, anesthetize patients, and give post-operative care. They also answer the phones, make appointments, clean cages, and provide tender loving care for patients in the hospital.

Jacks and Jills of most animal care skills, veterinary technicians often form the backbone of a clinic staff, allowing the doctor to concentrate on animal exams, diagnosis, prescribing drugs, and surgery. Yet the contributions of these unsung heroes of the veterinary profession are often overlooked by the clients who bring their pets for checkups and treatment.

“If the creative Dr. Frankenstein were to put together a veterinary technician, he'd have to take parts from a nurse, a medical technologist, a radiology technician, a dental hygienist, a pharmacist, an anesthetist, an EKG technician, a surgery technician, a record keeper, a computer operator, an inventory specialist, and several different types of counselors,” wrote certified veterinary technician Diane Smith in Cats magazine in January 1995. “But he'd have to get the heart from someone capable of unselfish love.”

A generation ago, most states did not require specific education for veterinary technicians, but times have changed. No more depending on the veterinarian for basic training — veterinary technology is now a profession with specific skills. At least three dozen states now license these animal nurses, including Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, and require at least two years of schooling. Cincinnati's Raymond Walters College, a branch of the University of Cincinnati, and the UC College of Medicine team to provide a two-year course for technicians. Classwork — courses in English, humanities, microbiology, chemistry, biology, veterinary technology, and effective speaking — is done at Raymond Walters in Blue Ash.

Second year separates the wannabees from those who can not only deal with the science but can cope with the practical aspects of giving injections and restraining frightened or recalcitrant animals. It includes laboratory work in hematology, comparative anatomy and physiology, animal medical techniques, animal husbandry and diseases, parasitology, surgical principles, anesthesia, radiography, urinalysis, clinical chemistry, and cytology at the UC College of Medicine. Students must exceed a 2.5 grade point average in their freshman year in order to go on.

Lab sessions include practice on dogs and cats. Students learn to handle the animals with care to avoid stress and injury, give injections, start intravenous fluids, establish an airway for anesthesia, prepare for surgery, and give medications. They work in pairs on assigned dogs and cats, and they walk, play with, and groom their animals during class and study breaks.

The dogs and cats are bright, healthy, and well-socialized. They are purchased for student use from October to April and are adopted to students or other qualified individuals at the end of the school year.

Education for vet techs does not end when the license is granted. These medical professionals must attend continuing education courses during the year in order to maintain their status. They attend seminars and workshops offered by veterinarians, and local veterinary associations, and attend the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association annual meetings in February to earn their credits.

A day in the life

A vet tech's day often starts by checking on the animals in the hospital, receiving animals for the day's surgery and reassuring the owners, and preparing the first patient for surgery. When the veterinarian arrives, the tech is ready to report on the parvo puppy in the isolation cage, the diabetic cat, the dog with the broken leg, and the first surgical patient of the day — a bitch ready to be spayed.

Preparation for surgery includes intravenous sedative, entubation for gas anesthetic, teeth cleaning, clipping claws, and shaving the surgical area. When the dog is on the preparation table, the tech sometimes finds tumors or lesions not obvious when the animal is up and about.

All is not peaches and cream in the profession, though. Like veterinarians, technicians deal with people who neglect their animals out of ignorance, carelessness, or cruelty, and they provide care for half-starved animals infested with fleas and ticks, covered with skin lesions, or limping on an unrepaired broken leg. They hug clients who lose a beloved pet, and they cry when sick or injured or old animals are euthanized.

Job opportunities

Technicians who do not wish to deal with clients and those who wish to specialize in a particular aspect of animal care can use their education and training in other than small animal practice. Zoos, industry and university research laboratories, veterinary schools, emergency clinics, oncology clinics, animal industry nutrition research, animal shelters, and commercial animal operations provide a variety of other opportunities. Some additional education may be necessary for a specialty.

Although veterinary technicians are not highly paid, the salary of $16-18 thousand for full time work in small animal practices is a nice supplement to household income. Hours are often flexible, making the profession attractive for mothers returning to work after children are in school. Many clinics provide technicians with no-cost or very low-cost medical services. Most give paid vacations; many provide health benefits. However, in a 1992 survey published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, low salaries and lack of health benefits was the major reason for job dissatisfaction among technicians. In that survey, about one quarter of the respondents indicated they were considering leaving the profession for those reasons.

Career requirements

Veterinary technology programs often attract mothers who wish to return to work after their children are grown, people looking for second careers, and those looking for a stepping stone to veterinary medicine as well as high school graduates who just love animals. The UC program accepts them all as long as they meet certain academic standards, including a ranking in the top half of the high school graduating class; college preparatory classes in math, biology, and chemistry with grades of “C” or better; ACT composite score of 21 or better and SAT score of 875 (for high school students); and grade point average on any college transcripts of 2.0 or higher. All students must take the college placement test. Prospective students who do not meet these requirements will be given an opportunity to make up their deficiencies.

Class size in the UC program varies from about 15 students to about double that number. Interested high school seniors, those contemplating second careers, and mothers preparing to return to work should contact Janet Quilligan, assistant director of the UC program at University of Cincinnati, Department of Laboratory Animal Medicine, PO Box 670571, Cincinnati, OH 45267-0571 or leave a voice mail message at (513) 558-5183.

Kentucky residents interested in a career as a veterinary technician should contact C. Lee Tyner DVM, Veterinary Technology Program, Morehead University, 25 MSU Farm Drive, Morehead, KY 40351; (606) 783-2326; or Terry Canerdy DVM, director, Murray State University Animal Health Technology Program, Department of Agriculture, Murray, Kentucky 42071; (502) 753-1303. Murray State offers a four-year program with a Bachelor of Science degree.

Indiana residents should contact Roger Lukens, director, Veterinary Technology Program, Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, West LaFayette, IN 47907; (317) 494-7619 or e-mail 7602,

Ohio has two veterinary technician programs in addition to the one at UC. Central Ohio residents should contact H. Marie Suthers-McCabe, DVM, director, Columbus State Community College Veterinary Technology Program, 550 E. Spring Street, Columbus, OH 43215; (614) 287-2632 or 1-800-621-6407 ext. 2632 or e-mail

Information aboutThe Columbus State Community College is available at their website

Cuyahoga Community College in northern Ohio has a new program, but details were not available at press time.

[More on a career as a veterinary technician]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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