What Does A Veterinary Technician Do?

By Allison Salonko.

Allison is a Veterinary Technician in the state of Indiana. She graduated from International Business College and Vet Tech Institute of Indianapolis with a degree in Animal Science and Technology in 2011.

Friends and acquaintances love to ask about my job as a veterinary technician.

That is until I start to actually talk about it.

Many people don’t realize that the veterinary career field is a very tough one to survive in and the emotional and physical strain, low pay, and abuse from clients and animals are certainly not for everyone.

What exactly does a veterinary technician do?

The answer to that is simple: everything.

That is besides diagnose, prognose and prescribe, well, and do surgery of course.

Many technicians with formal schooling know how to do simple suture techniques and other minor ‘surgery-like’ procedures.

A veterinary technician is the:

  • Nurse
  • Restrainer
  • Phlebotomist
  • Surgical tech
  • Anesthesiologist
  • X-ray tech
  • Dental hygienist
  • Grief counselor
  • Fill-in receptionist
  • Office manager
  • Micromanager of Veterinarians. If you’ve ever worked with doctors, you will know that you have to lead them around most of the time. I have personally trained three baby docs right out of vet school.

The heart and soul of the clinic

Without veterinary technicians, all clinics would sink like the Titanic; quickly with minimal lifeboats.

Doctors rely on us to do over 90% of the work.

I know that in human medicine, nurses are oftentimes what makes the entire hospital go round and that applies to vet med as well.

After all, doctors rarely know how to draw blood, place IV catheters or console a grieving person.

Less school and responsibility with the same perks as a Vet

When I was a kid, daydreaming about being an adult and working in a career that I enjoyed, I always saw myself in the veterinary field.

I originally wanted to be a veterinarian, as so many young boys and girls do, but went for a technician degree instead.

After all, it is way less school and student debt.

It’s not all puppies and kittens

Friends and family always seem to think that most of my day is occupied with super cute and fun puppies and kittens.

This is so far from the truth.

If we are lucky, we will see one or two very young animals for vaccinations or some other enjoyable appointment.

Overall, my job is not cute and filled with fun pets to play with and love on.

Rather, I touch a lot of poop and get beat up by dogs over 15$ nail trims, shave gross abscesses and flush maggots out of nasty wounds.

It is certainly not fun or glorious 99% of the time.

Vaccines, ear infections and UTI’s OH MY 

Many days consist of handling sick and unhappy pets that are less cooperative and sometimes aggressive.

Most appointments range anywhere from just simple vaccinations to super weird ‘ADR (ain’t doing right)’ patients.

Common issues that we see are urinary tract and ear infections, allergies and skin irritations, vomiting and diarrhea and behavioral problems.

If only they could talk

I’ve always said that if I had a superpower, it would be to talk to animals.

You know, like Dr. Dolittle.

Sometimes the hardest part of my job is trying to figure out what is wrong with the pet.

The only information that we have is what the owner tells us and the pet’s clinical signs.

Attempting to diagnose an issue without the patient being able to tell us what is hurting or doesn’t feel right can be extremely difficult.

Unfortunately, it can take a lot of expensive diagnostics and still not figure it out.

It is important for owners to be patient with their veterinary staff while they are working to discover what is ailing their fluffy companion.

Dealing with owners – the real pain the rear of vet med

It is all too common that the owner has little to no information to give us about what’s wrong with their animal and it is our job to figure it out.

Oftentimes, we struggle to have appropriate diagnostics done on pets simply because the owner cannot afford it or does not see the value in the testing.

The average client is respectful and nice, but there are plenty of days where it seems like every person that walks into the clinic is there to pick a fight.

Sometimes I want to make an alert saying that the pet won’t bite or scratch but the owner will.

Handling delicate situations

When I refer to a delicate situation, I am usually talking about trying to gracefully address something like a money issue or a dying pet.

Sometimes going out of your way to find a donated drug for someone who cannot afford meds is life-changing to an owner.

Making sure that you give this pet a chance at being healthy or pain-free is the most important part of the job, even when an owner is broke.

The uncomfortable money discussion

Everyone knows that it takes money to run a business, so doing diagnostics and giving away drugs for free is not an option for veterinary hospitals.

We do not have financial backing from health insurance companies and donations from rich people.

It’s just not a thing.

It is sad, but most technicians make only a little more than a fast-food worker right after graduation. 

Asking for payment after euthanizing a pet or spending days caring for a hospitalized animal that passed away can be a little awkward sometimes.

In some situations, the owner doesn’t realize how expensive out-of-pocket care for their pet can be when they are ill.

Even healthy pets cost plenty of money to feed and take care of.

Usually, the stress of their sick pet and the lack of finances will cause an owner to flip their lid and scream at the front desk staff when asked for payment.

This common client reaction and general frustration causes a lot of burnout among receptionists and technicians.

The three B’s – bites, bruises and back pain

It is unfortunate how often technicians are injured on the job.

People are always surprised at how physically demanding restraining pets and running around the hospital can be.

Many of us are covered in bruises, fresh claw marks, scars or bite wounds on a regular basis.

Let’s not forget about back pain. Picking up sedated dogs that are as big as you will wear on the body quickly.

Life-long injuries are an inevitable occurrence if you have done the job for over a month.

While scratches and bruises are far more common than bite wounds, a technician should always expect to be bitten at some point in their career.

Although, I’ve heard there are plenty of jobs in the human field where their patients bite.

Yikes! 

Hey, at least mine are dogs and cats and don’t really know better.

Aggressive pets – the occupational hazard

Every career has occupational hazards and veterinary technicians are no exception. The bulk of the risks that we take are handling aggressive patients.

As listed above, bruises, bites and scratches come with the territory of being in the field, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t care about being injured.

Aggressive pets are a daily occurrence. They can range from just growling and being fearful to full-blown lunging at your face unprovoked.

Working on a pet that is angry and trying to bite can be a big challenge that gets everyone’s blood pressure up.

My personal story – the first cat bite

Dog bites are rough and usually hurt a lot due to the force and crushing of the tissue.

The risk of infection from a dog bite is certainly there but is much less likely than when being bitten by a cat.

Cat mouths harbor a lot of nasty bacteria and their tiny sharp fangs deliver them deep into your tissue.

I have met a technician that lost part of a finger from an infected cat bite, and another girl whose finger was bitten off by a dog when she worked in the shelter.

Thankfully, I still have all of my fingers.

My first cat bite didn’t come until I had worked in the field for over 9 years.

I have always been super careful and used excellent techniques when handling fractious cats.

Unfortunately for me, the one that got me was a young adolescent cat that seemed friendly enough until we went to do much to him.

Looking back on it, I should have known better than to attempt to restrain him without any other tools like cat gloves or a towel when I saw his flattened ears and dilated pupils but my confidence got the best of me and he tore me up.

Bit and clawed both of my hands, causing tons of swelling and pain, putting me out of commission for a week.

Euthanasia – the shoulder to cry on 

While euthanizing pets isn’t a large part of my job, it is certainly something that happens regularly.

When first starting my career, I had always worried that euthanasias would be the hardest to handle.

Honestly, while it is still incredibly sad and sometimes makes me cry, at the end of the day, I don’t find it terrible.

It is a beautiful thing that we can provide for dying pets.

Ending their suffering and not watching them decline slowly for days, weeks or months is truly a blessing.

Making sure to have a support group to help with any depressed or sad feelings following a stint of euthanasias is extremely important in the veterinary field.

The number of suicides by veterinarians and technicians has increased significantly in the last year.

The veterinary field is now the number one career for suicides.

The unsung heroes

Doctors play a large role in veterinary practices, but ultimately they couldn’t do their jobs without the technicians.

While they have their capes, we have ours too!

Typically in the fashion of picking up the slack, running all the diagnostics, collecting the samples and taking the histories.

Technicians are often not recognized as being the backbone of vet med by those who are unfamiliar with the field, but doctors always know who is there to back them up and save the day. 

Photo by Karsten Winegeart

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