Animal Medicine’s Unsung Heroes

With as many lives as veterinarians save, it could be veterinary technicians save more lives. That’s because bad behavior likely kills more pets than kidney or heart disease, or cancer. When an animal behaves badly the consequence might be checking into a local shelter. Behavior counseling may be a life and death matter, and increasingly it’s the veterinary technicians who offer that advice.

Of course, no one is auditing who’s saving lives. The point is that veterinary technicians are the unsung heroes of veterinary medicine. In an effort to create awareness, the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) has declared October 12 through 18 is National Veterinary Technician Week.

“Technicians can do pretty much anything a vet can do, except diagnose, prescribe and perform surgery,” says Dean Knoll, president of NAVTA and a technician at Surgi-Vet Inc. in Waukesha, WI (a company that manufactures anesthetics). While most technicians work in private practices, some techs work in private industry, at veterinary colleges and even for the government. Wherever you find veterinarians, you’ll find technicians. Knoll, who is 38, worked in private practice for five years, for ten more years at various veterinary colleges as an instructor and anesthesia supervisor.

Knoll says whenever there’s a surgery ” from a routine dental to cancer surgery ” it’s the technician who administers anesthetics under the watchful eye of the vet. “Applying and monitoring anesthesia is a life and death deal,” says Knoll. “In the right hands, the right anesthetics are very safe. But here is where proper knowledge and training can make a difference.”

Knoll is referring to the lack of training of many technicians. These technicians without formal training can still be called technicians. Historically, technicians’ only had on the job training. There was no certification available. So, it wasn’t unusual for a local dog groomer or even a person who attended cosmetology school with no animal background to get a job as an office receptionist. When the vet tech left the practice, the veterinarian promoted the receptionist to technician with only on the job training.

However, today, there is available certification for technicians, which follows formal education, and in many states passing a required technician exam. However, some vets continue to hire their technicians the old-fashioned way, without any formal training or requirement to attend continuing education.

Why would a veterinarian want uncertified technicians? “Well, for one thing they typically don’t make as much money,” says Linda Chase, a veterinary technician in Atlanta. “But these people (uncertified technicians) drag the entire industry down. Veterinary medicine is always changing, new medications, new equipment, new ideas, and that’s what we learn about through continuing education ” which isn’t a requirement for uncertified technicians.”

According to Patrick Navarre, executive director of NAVTA and technician educator at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, West Lafayette, IN, says according to a recent survey of technicians in Indiana and Illinois, the average salary for certified technicians is $23,000 to $27,000. He says that’s higher than the national average (which has not been tabulated for several years). Many technicians don’t enjoy insurance coverage either. These facts may contribute to why the field remains dominated by women. Navarre says only two per cent of technicians are men.

Getting into vet school is not an easy task, and some techs simply weren’t able to get in, so they’ve chosen an alternative that still allows them to work with animals. Many techs are women who just didn’t want the 24/7 career and responsibility of veterinary medicine. Technicians can have more flexible hours, so many techs work part time while also raising a family.

Chase, who is 30, says, “I love animals and really wanted to make a difference in their lives.” Her favorite part of the job is talking to people. “Veterinarians sometimes talk in medical jargon, they’re very busy, and people respect them so much that they’re up on a pedestal, so very often clients are more comfortable talking to me, and more able to communicate with me.”

Chase and most technicians are your pet’s dental hygienist, they also run laboratory tests (including heartworm, fecal and urinalysis tests), they help to position pets for X-rays and develop the X-rays, and, of course can take your pet’s temperature, blood pressure and other vital information.

Knoll says when animals stay at a clinic post-surgery or for observation, it’s the technicians who are their advocates. The techs monitor for symptoms, give medications, and essentially watch over them.

Also, at an increasing number of practices, whether it’s an issue of Fido swiping food from the garbage or a cat who’s missing the litter box, it’s the technicians who provide behavior advice. “The veterinarian is always made aware of the advice given,” says Chase. “And the vet is involved if drugs are suggested. But increasingly, certified technicians are learning more and more about behavior consultation through continuing education.” Indeed technicians can attend the same sessions as veterinarians at veterinary conferences for continuing education.

Chase says when choosing a veterinarian, one factor to consider may be whether the technicians are certified or not. “Listen, it depends on the standard of care you want for your pet. It does matter.”

You’re not likely to find Hallmark Cards to celebrate the NAVTA veterinary technician’s week. “That’s fine,” says Chase. “Chocolates will do, or even just a thank you.”

Note: This article is copyrighted by Steve Dale and can be used as source material and for reference only. It cannot be reprinted verbatim. Please contact Steve Dale at [email protected] if you have any questions.

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