What To Expect In Your Vet Tech Career

Many challenges, such as exams, compassion fatigue and continuing education, are common in the vet tech field.

You’ve got the degree … now what?

For many people, the prospect of helping heal animals is an intriguing profession. In our last article, we explained the differences between similar-sounding fields (veterinary technicians, technologists, and assistants), and outlined the different types of secondary education programs for veterinary technicians.

Once you’ve completed a 2- or 4-year degree at the university of your choice, what’s next on the career path?

You’re Not Done Studying Yet

Before a veterinary technician can accept their first job, they must pass the Veterinary Technology National Exam in order to become credentialed.  Credentialing requirements vary (like everything else) by state, and some do not require technicians to pass this particular test to get their licensed, though most do. 

The VTNE is administered by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards and is offered three times per year. The three-hour test consists of 170 multiple-choice questions and costs $300, with additional fees for practice tests. The VTNE covers pharmacology, surgical nursing, dentistry, laboratory procedures, diagnostic imaging, anesthesia, emergency medicine, pain management and animal care/nursing. The VTNE is made more challenging by its general nature—even if you know you’re only interested in practicing in one or two species, you could be asked questions on dogs, cats, birds, horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs—maybe even exotic pets or fish.

For this reason, experts recommend that prospective veterinary technicians spend a day or two at a clinic that deals with species you are less familiar with.  

“Absolutely the best route I think is shadowing someone at a vet clinic, either a tech or a vet … or volunteering,” said Deb Reeder, RVT, VTS-EVN, and executive director of the American Association of Equine Veterinary Technicians/Academy of Equine Veterinary Nursing Technicians.Working at a zoo, or working at a cat-only practice, or a specialty practice … they see a variety of different animals, and our examination covers all animals. Even someone who is geared toward small animal, they really do need to spend a day at a large animal clinic just so they can kind of get an idea of what’s involved.”

After prospective technicians pass the VTNE, they are often required to sit for a separate state board examination in order to become accredited. These tests will include practical skills, as well as questions about the state’s specific rules and regulations, as well its veterinary practice act.

Continuing Education

Even after technicians receive clearance to practice in their state and land a job, the learning isn’t over yet. States require technicians to earn continuing education credits to maintain their credentialed status; for many, somewhere between 5 and 10 hours in a variety of recognized CE activities. CE credit may be earned by attending certain parts of a convention or meeting, by participating in wet labs or even through online courses. Some employers may pay part or all of the costs relating to continuing education, but expenses for these events often fall on the technician.

Technicians interested in a particular area of veterinary practice may also elevate their knowledge of that area by joining a society or an academy. The National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America recognizes five societies, which are aimed at grouping professionals with similar interests and providing forums to encourage collaboration and share ideas. Those five societies include the Society of Behavior Technicians, American Association of Equine Veterinary Technicians, Association of Zoo Veterinary Technicians, Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society, and the Society of Laboratory Animal Veterinary Technicians.

NAVTA also recognizes 11 academies, which are open only to credentialed technicians and mirror the system of specialty academies for veterinarians. Technicians must first apply to study through the academy of their choice, which often requires documenting the number of hours they have spent on the job, and how many of those hours relate to the specialty the technician is seeking.

Applicants will then be asked to spend around a year keeping a case record log of detailed information on the progress of patients they have treated in their area of interest. They will also likely work their way through a list of recommended reading and will be assessed in anywhere from 75 to 150 clinical skills related to their field. After all this, applicants will sit for yet another examination.

Upon completion of all the academy requirements, the technician gains a new series of letters attached to their title in addition to their deepened understanding of their chosen specialty.

The 11 specialties recognized by NAVTA are: dental, anesthesia, emergency and critical care, behavior, zoological medicine, equine veterinary nursing, surgical, clinical practice, nutrition, and clinical pathology.

Challenges of the Profession

As much as most technicians say they enjoy the day-to-day elements of their work, the job is not always an easy one. One of the most frustrating parts about being a technician for longtime professionals like Reeder is a lack of national reciprocity in the profession; in addition to the difficulty of wading through different regulations in each states, technicians find their credentials don’t carry across state lines. If a technician needs to move, they have to sit for the next state’s examination all over again.

Considering the depth of knowledge required of veterinary technicians and the continuing education credits they must maintain, technicians are almost notoriously underpaid. NAVTA’s website cites a 2003 survey which revealed members averaged $30,500 for full-time employment. Currently, experts estimate pay can run around $20 per hour, depending on location, but it doesn’t often increase significantly with specialty certifications.

“For the equine vet techs, there’s a lot of them that are running anesthesia on million-dollar horses and they might be making $18 per hour. So, kind of a disparity there that is a little frustrating,” Reeder said.

Like any profession that deals with long hours and high stress, Reeder says there is also a sizable burnout rate for veterinary technicians. A study released in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in late 2014 found about 35.3 percent of respondents to a survey about job satisfaction were at high risk of burnout, a proportion that researchers said was “concerning.”

“It’s unfortunate because most of these schools will graduate probably 10-20 [students, each] a year. We lose that many,” she said. “Our profession isn’t really gaining in numbers because people get burned out; compassion fatigue is a big problem.”

Long Hours, With Rewards

Fortunately, their education allows veterinary technicians to settle in a variety of settings, not just clinical practice. Technicians’ knowledge, compassion and team-player attitudes are valued in rehabilitation centers, rescue facilities, government agencies, pharmaceutical companies, laboratories, zoos, research and wildlife preservation initiatives. That versatility, combined with the field’s steady growth, is a recipe for success for those willing to put in the time.

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