How to Become an Animal Health Technician

What is Animal Health Technology?

Animal health technology, also known as veterinarian or veterinary technology, is the science of providing technological care and assistance to practicing veterinarians. The technological care generally involves hands-on technical assistance, rather than studying new techniques for care. Assistance is given in private clinics, animal hospitals, private visits, and/or laboratories. The field of animal health technology applies to animals small and large, so the techniques involved in providing care can vary.

Animal health (veterinary) technology is a relatively new field. In 1908, veterinary assistants were first trained in England. It wasn’t until 1967 that the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) began to create standards for training veterinary technologists. The last major update in the field came in 1982 when the North American Veterinary Technician Association (NAVTA) was formed to protect and support those in the animal health technology field.

Animal health technology is important to the field of veterinary science. As the number of pets increases in the US, the number of available practitioners will need to increase as well. In 2015, according to the American Pet Products Association, over $15 billion was spent on veterinary care for all animals, including mice, dogs, cats, and horses. While veterinarians are crucial, those practicing veterinarian technology will be equally important for providing care to animals and assistance to veterinarians.

What is an Animal Health Technician?

An animal health technician, or veterinary technician, is an individual who provides technology assistance to animals, under the guidance of a veterinarian. Animal health technicians provide basic medical care to animals, perform medical tests under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian and diagnose minor animal-related injuries and illnesses. They are essentially the veterinary equivalent of what a nurse is to a doctor.

An animal health technician needs less formal training than a veterinarian, but they still perform many similar tasks to those performed by a veterinarian. When they are going through training, they will end up gaining a lot of hands-on experience and will train at a clinic for a period of time. All animal health technicians study through an AVMA certified program for 2-years at a community college or university. An animal health technologist is similar, but has graduated from an accredited from a four-year university through an AVMA accredited program. Usually a technologist will have a higher starting paygrade than a technician as they have received more training.

What is a Certified Animal Health Technician?

All practicing animal health technicians must be certified by an accrediting body, which may include their state veterinary board or another accredited board. Becoming certified is highly dependent on which state the animal health/veterinary technician receives their training in and practices in. For example, in California, a veterinary technician will be certified by the state veterinary board, and will need to conduct 10 hours of continued education each year to maintain their certification. In Vermont, on the other hand, technicians will be certified through a veterinary technician association and will only need 6 hours of continued education each year.

One confusing aspect to becoming certified is that the certifications may come under different names depending on the state. The following names may be used to describe a veterinary/animal health technician but all mean the same thing: certified veterinary technician (CVT), registered veterinary technician (RVT), and licensed veterinary technician (LVT). The NVTA sticks to the term certified veterinary technician to describe a technician in the field.

What Does an Animal Health Technician Do?

As mentioned previously, an animal health/veterinary technician is responsible for many tasks that a veterinarian performs, but with some key differences. Veterinarians are certified to put an animal down, perform invasive surgeries, and give diagnoses. Any other tasks, however, can be performed by either the veterinarian or the veterinary technician. This can include drawing blood, performing x-rays, and speaking directly with the human owners of the animal patient.

Animal health technicians will need to know how to use a variety of different technologies. For instance, lasers are becoming more common in surgeries, and computer axial tomography (CAT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) are commonly performed. It is also important for veterinary technicians to be familiar with emerging technologies and new techniques used in the field. For instance, some veterinary offices use new wearable technology to track the heartrate and blood pressure of animals after they arrive back home.

Job duties and daily tasks may differ depending on what types of animals the technician has specialized training in. For example, if working with typical domestic animals like cats and dogs, the technician will likely work at a clinic or veterinary office, and will perform tasks like dressing wounds, giving medications, or giving routine check-ups. Because the variety of animals in this setting is usually low, tasks may be fairly routine. Veterinary technicians that have been trained with larger animals may find themselves out of a traditional clinic. They may work with livestock, llamas, or horses in rural areas such as farms. With specialized training, a technician may even with work exotic animals at a zoo or other care center. Working with a variety of animals may require more years of training and practice under a certified veterinarian. Additionally, this type of job will likely require being on call and dedicating more time to travel to a site. 

In general, the main duties and responsibilities of the technician involve a variety of tasks and can include the following:

  • Grooming and nail clipping, cleaning cages and feeding animals.
  • Nursing and pre- and post- surgery tasks, including wound cleansing and care, bandaging, maintaining medical records, controlling pain, administering intravenous drips, hydrotherapy or physiotherapy.
  • Dental care including oral hygiene, teeth cleaning and polishing, x-rays and non-surgical extractions and assisting the vet with more advanced procedures.
  • Laboratory work, which could involve sample collecting and the examining of blood, urine, faeces or other body fluids, and identifying parasites.
  • Diagnostic imaging including MRI, x-ray and ultrasounds. This may include operating and maintaining equipment.
  • Communications, such as liaising with the pet owner to disseminate information. This could be nutritional advice, obesity prevention, educating the client on disease prevention and dental care, filling prescriptions, giving out medication and working on the reception, answering the phone, checking and maintaining records and so on.

It is possible to specialize as an anesthetist technician, a dental technician, an internal medicine technician, an emergency care technician or as a behavioral technician. An animal health technician aide may have to deal with distressed animals which can be risky and lead to scratches or bites from the animals. The type of animal the technician will work with will vary depending on the work site. A technician may specialize in working with horses, big cats, or small pets, for example.

Why Do We Need Animal Health Technicians?

Animal health technicians are an important part of veterinary care in all animal clinical settings.  An animal health technician helps provide clinical care for animals under a vet’s supervision. They can perform some nursing, dental, pre-and post- operative care for pets. An animal health technician can take vital signs, administer medications, and feed and comfort a sick animal in their care. They clip toenails, take lab samples and help manage the flow of work. They can also meet with pet owners, get information from owners regarding their pet’s condition, and perform some routine tests under supervision.

This frees up a vet for more difficult clinical care with other animals. It also helps to keep down the cost of animal health care. Finally, it allows an animal to feel cared for from the time it enters a vet’s office until it leaves.  An animal health technician is a boon for a veterinary practice and for the pet and its owners. They are instrumental in creating and maintaining a safe and effective health care environment.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become an Animal Health Technician?

There are varying levels of education that an animal health technician can receive to become certified. The simplest path is to enroll in an accredited two-year program at a community college or university. The resulting degree will be a veterinary technician Associate’s degree. There are a few online programs that offer the technician degree, however those interested should make sure a local veterinary office can offer the hands-on experience they will need.

Students do not need to meet any special admission requirements, however they should be good at biology and math. SAT scores will likely need to be competitive, because the number of students who apply to these programs often exceeds the number of available positions. The number of credits required to complete an animal health technician program varies by program, but will usually fall around 78 credits. To complete the degree in the anticipated two years, students have to work hard to complete the required courses and their training.3

Courses taken by a veterinarian technician will vary slightly from state to state, but are usually similar across the board. These courses will cover topics like anatomy, microbiology, anesthesiology, and animal disease. Some programs offer training in specific areas such as dentistry. The classes will involve many hands-on experiences on and off of the campus, and will include similar tasks to those performed in an actual veterinary setting. Pima Medical Institute, one of the top-ranking animal health technician programs, offers courses for students to gain experience in equine care, exotic animals, and small animals.

For those wanting to expand their training and gain experience dealing with more unique animals like those found in zoos or aquariums, a number of other requirements need to be met. For example, after the associate’s degree is obtained, the individual will need to gain 10,000 hours of work experience, take further courses, and train at a zoo under the guidance of a certified veterinarian.

What are the Licensure and Certification Requirements for an Animal Health Technician?

Gaining the animal heath technician license is a crucial step before being able to work as a technician. Each state regulates the process differently, so individuals will need to check with their state to gain the appropriate information. The most important step is to pay attention during the process of gaining the associate’s degree in courses and during internships. This will reduce the amount of time spent learning on the job and help during the exam. Also, it is vital that the program be accredited through AVMA.

After successfully completing the associate’s degree (or four-year degree if that was chosen), all up and coming veterinary technicians will need to pass a veterinary technician exam. In most states in the US and provinces in Canada, the exam is given by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB) and is called the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE). The exam will take four hours and is multiple choice, which individuals can study for and take online. This is the final step to becoming licensed, however the first few months on the job will likely require additional training.

What Skills are Required for an Animal Health Technician

There are a number of skills individuals should have before they consider becoming an animal health technician. The include skills that are relevant to the animals they will serve, people, and technical and physical knowledge.

  • Great interest in animals: Being interested in all animals, from fish to elephants to dogs is important for properly serving these animals. An interest in only cats and dogs may make helping birds and hamsters more difficult.
  • Kind, calm demeanor: An animal getting prepped for surgery or that is about to receive an MRI needs to be calmed by the veterinary technician. Having a calming voice or touch can help ease the stress the animal may be facing.
  • Empathy: The veterinarian technician will often spend more time speaking with people than the veterinarian. The tech will need to empathize with the animal’s owners particularly if they are ill or need to be put down.
  • Communication: Good communication skills are very important on the job. The veterinary technician will need to communicate with the veterinarian and the animal’s owners as well as follow directions from the veterinarian.
  • Understanding of Technology: While most training will occur in classes and on the job, being technological incompetent will make the job difficult. Techs needs to understand how the MRI and CAT scan machines work, as well as how to administer dosages to patients.
  • Physical Stamina: Being a vet tech may require handling and restraining large animals, especially for those who are working with larger exotic animal breeds. Additionally, technicians will need to be on their feet for long hours. Like doctors and nurses, they may work more than 40 hours per week and take on double shifts.

How Much Does an Animal Health Technician Earn?

According to Payscale.com an animal health technician earns on average about $14/hour, or between $21,500 and $41,200 as a salary. An animal health technician specialist could make an extra $2-$3 more per hour, depending on what they have a certification in. A specialist can gain training in these areas: dentistry, behavior, anesthesia, emergency care, equine medicine, surgery clinical practice, internal medicine, and zoological medicine.

An increase in salary can also be obtained by those who decide to teach or write about their practice on the side. Additionally, having a four-year degree and/or becoming a veterinary technologist may give an individual a boost in pay. A veterinary technologist will have a bit more of an advantage in getting a job since they have been trained with slightly more skills than a veterinary technician.

What are Pros and Cons of Being an Animal Health Technician?

Like any career, there are good and bad aspects that should be considered before considering pursuing the field of animal heath technology.

Pros

  • Work with animals: Many technicians know the cons before starting, but their love of working with animals outweighs the potential bad sides of the job.
  • Personal fulfillment: Helping to heal an injured animal or seeing a smile on an animal owner’s face gives vet technicians a reason to put in long hours at work. The work is rewarding and often comes with thanks.
  • High demand/job security: Due to the increase of pets in the US and elsewhere, those in the veterinary field are in high demand. Job growth is expected to increase nearly 20% in the next decade.
  • Room for advancement: Although there is little room for advancement directly through the job, veterinary technicians can gain training in special fields to increase their pay on the job. They can also opt to work in zoos or aquariums with additional training.
  • Variety of tasks: A typical day of an animal health technician will not be dull by any means. The tasks are various and include caring for animals, cleaning, dealing with paperwork, and speaking with animal owners.

Cons

  • Physically demanding: Veterinary/animal health technicians are required to be on their feet for most of their shift. Some duties will also require lifting heavy animals, as well as scrubbing equipment and tables before surgeries. Combined with long shifts, veterinary techs may find they are tired often.
  • Low pay: Technicians may find it discouraging that their job requires a lot of work for not much pay. They will be working alongside a veterinarian making over twice their salary (average $75,000). Additionally, a registered nurse (the human equivalent of their job) makes twice as much as a veterinary technician.
  • Stress and juggling multiple tasks: Working as the go-to assistant between numerous animals, animal owners, and a veterinarian can be stressful. The technician will need to juggle numerous tasks while still remaining calm around animals and people.
  • Potential for injuries: While most technicians have the skills to handle unruly animals, accidents do happen. Scratches and bites from cats, dogs, and other animals are commonly reported on the job.

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