The standing joke in veterinary medicine is that veterinary technicians and veterinarians are only as good as the person restraining the animal. In other words, if we miss a vein with the catheter, it’s the fault of the restrainer.
But all joking aside, a veterinary assistant who knows how to hold an animal is worth their weight in gold.
What is a veterinary assistant? According to the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA):
“While every position within the veterinary practice team is important, veterinary assistants play a pivotal role, literally … In the course of a single day, an assistant provides help to veterinarians and veterinary technicians, which in turn allows those team members to perform the tasks and responsibilities of their positions. The next minute, the assistant may be helping a client understand why having their pet's teeth cleaned is so important or providing a receptionist with a second set of hands at the front desk. Helping to fill scripts, keeping exams rooms cleaned and prepped, setting up lab work, helping with inventory, updating medical records, assisting with nursing care — there are more things that veterinary assistants do in a day than most people realize.”
There are several other qualities that the best veterinary assistants possess. In no particular order, they are:
1) A Veterinary Assistant is a Great Animal Communicator
I don’t mean you have to be a dog whisperer. The best veterinary assistants I have known, however, have an innate ability to read an animal’s behavior: sense their moods and anticipating their actions. While we joke that the assistant should keep us from being bitten or scratched, the fact is the assistant is usually the one in the position to make sure that no one gets hurt. So the better they are at reading an animal, the better prepared they are to help keep everyone safe. It’s no small feat, and one that takes knowledge and practice, and often a special ingredient that cannot be taught, a sense of an animal, a language shared through body movements and facial expressions, and that animal has communicated to that assistant just as if it said, “hey buddy, I’ll cooperate if you relax your grip a little.”
2) Has Physical Stamina
Just getting through a 10 to 12 hour day is tough on anybody, but it is especially physically grinding on the veterinary assistant. They are required to prepare and present the patient to the technician or veterinarian in a position that person needs, not necessarily a position that is comfortable for the restrainer. Once the best position is found, the next task is to "hold still" … for as long as it takes, often much longer than the human body wants to hold a position. The assistant must have the physical strength to hold down a 130-pound Newfoundland, and the manual dexterity to hold still a 2-pound kitten.
3) Possesses Emotional Resilience
Besides the abuse from the animal patients, the veterinary assistant can also a prime target for the emotional abuse dished out by the rest of the veterinary practice team. The best assistants are cool as a cucumber, no matter what is coming their way. Along the way, they have learned that there is nothing better than a smile and a kind word to help ease the stress of the day, and they hand these out in ample supply. In fact, the veterinary assistant is like the barometer of the practice. If the assistants are stressed out, then likely everyone on the team is as well. But if there is breathing room for the assistants to smile, share a laugh or poke some fun, then there is room for everyone on the team to breath.
4) Has a Sense of Humor
Besides an extra pair of scrubs in their locker, the veterinary assistant knows that a sense of humor goes a long way to making the day bearable, and they have the ability to deliver a well-timed joke to ease the stress on everyone. They are often the keepers of the “inside jokes” known to the practice, and they often remind us not to take ourselves too seriously.
5) Knows how to Interface With Everyone
If you were to look at the job description of a veterinary assistant, it could easily say “a bit of everything” and it would be correct. Husbandry, facility maintenance, client service, patient care, answering phones, loading exam rooms — the list goes on and on. Not to say that everyone on the team isn’t busy — they are for sure. But the veterinary assistant has a mixture of tasks that spans the fringes of everyone else’s jobs as well. They have to interface with everyone else as they perform a variety of duties.
According to the article, “How to Become a Veterinary Assistant,” a veterinary assistant may do many of the following:
- Help administer medication to animals
- Clean animals or their cages
- Draw blood
- Sterilize equipment
- Clean an animal’s teeth
- Do clerical work
6) Has a Willingness to be Present
Until recently, there has not really been a recognized ‘profession’ for veterinary assistants. Often times, there are people who want to be involved in working with animals, but they may be in the midst of deciding what they “want to do when they grow up” to so speak. Yet regardless of where their future path might take them, the best veterinary assistants recognize that while they are working in vet med, they will give it their all, and do the job to the best of their ability. If we can pay them well enough, perhaps they’ll decide to stay, because there are certainly talented and wonderful people out there that would be a shame to lose.
7) Wants to be More
Yes, now there is a path to become an Approved Veterinary Assistant with NAVTA. This is still a relatively new career path, and it will be interesting to see it develop. For those of you who find the position of veterinary assistant rewarding, we hope you will stick around!