Veterinary technicians are the unsung heroes of veterinary medicine. “The general public doesn’t know what we do,” says Linda Merrill, a board member of the North American Veterinary Technician Association (NAVTA).
Merrill may be right. In an extremely unscientific poll about the function of veterinary technicians, responses from ordinary pet owners at a Chicago clinic included, “They’re the ones that make office appointments and answer phones,” “Techs clean the exam rooms,” and “They do all the stuff vets don’t have time to do.”
These pet owners were all surprised to hear that whenever their family member with four legs has anesthesia – for anything from routine teeth cleaning to major surgery – it’s a vet tech that administers and monitors the anesthesia. They also draw and examine blood, finding anything under a microscope from a bacterial infection to a parasite to cancer cells. Additionally, veterinary technicians take X-rays, assist in surgical procedures and provide ongoing care for pets undergoing treatment at the clinic.
Not only are vet techs little appreciated by the public, they also struggle to be recognized by veterinarians.
The average pay for a veterinary technician is $27,070, and the average tenure of a vet tech is nine years before finding another career. With 20 years in the field, Merrill is an exception to the rule. She’s says it’s not only the relatively low salary, it’s the lack of recognition from vets that ultimately pushes some out of the field. However, other vet techs never planned to stay more than a few years; they depart to have families. A whopping 96 percent of all vet techs are women.
Veterinary technician has become a sort of overall catch phrase. In truth, there are two distinct kinds of veterinary technicians.
Accredited veterinary technicians typically have two years of training in a program accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association, before taking and then passing Board exams. Non-accredited technicians receive virtually all of their training on-the-job. Veterinarians hire and train these folks to save a few bucks; the average salary of unaccredited vet techs is closer to $20,000. But is it worth the savings?
Several years ago, veterinary technician Maria Bingaman of Northbrook, Ill. (a Chicago suburb) was placing a cat under anesthesia for a simple procedure. Without warning the animal went into respiratory arrest. Bingaman didn’t have the time to think through a solution, look up a treatment in a reference book or call to the veterinarian down the hall. She immediately rendered CPR, and saved the animal’s life.
“Anyone can be trained to use equipment,” says Merrill, “But really understanding what you’re doing is another matter, and so is being able to react to an emergency.”
Bingaman, 32, has been a vet tech for 12 years and is president-elect of NAVTA. She says lack of experience can impact care. Bingamen cited an incident at a cat clinic in Chicago, when an unaccredited vet tech was continually causing injury to feline patients by incorrectly inserting tubing in the animal’s throat for anesthesia. This prolonged the recovery of some cats, never mind the additional and needless post-surgical pain. “But I’m sure clients never knew,” says Bingaman. “It took several months for the vets to find out. Veterinarians do depend on others, just as doctors do.”
When a former beauty operator or dog groomer learns hands-on about being a tech at a practice hiring non-accredited technicians, a veterinarian must do at least some of the training. “I believe it cost vets more to teach (non-accredited techs) because veterinarians’ time is so valuable,” Bingaman says.
Still, the bottom line is, going to a practice that hires accredited technicians is likely to cost the consumer more for some procedures. “I realize this is an individual decision people must make, but they also must be aware that there is a clear difference in quality of care,” says Dr. Phillip Bergman, chief veterinary oncologist at the Donald-Atwood Cancer Center (at the Animal Medical Center) in New York City. “If it’s my pet, I want a trained technician dealing with the problem. I know exactly what training accredited technicians have, I have no idea of what the level of training and/or expertise is of someone who is not accredited. It doesn’t mean that person doesn’t care about pets – but having a good heart doesn’t necessarily save lives. I know in our practice, I personally count on and can trust (accredited) veterinary technicians to cover my bases, and watch over the pets’ best interests.”
Clients do witness some hands-on work technicians typically carry out–obligatory jobs that someone has to do–such as clipping nails and weighing pets, as well as the jobs vets are legendary for hating to do – like expressing anal glands.
Sadly, people have the most interaction with veterinary technicians when it’s time to say goodbye to a pet. While veterinarians, as a group, are spending more time with people before and during actual euthanasia, it’s still vet techs whom pet owners lean on most for support, and who provide information about cremation or pet burial.
“This is the toughest, yet most rewarding part of my job,” Merrill says. “I’ve become a very skilled hugger.”
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