How many of us can think back to our childhood and remember wanting to be a veterinarian? I don’t know for certain, but from my experience (and after a very unscientific search of the internet) it seems as though “veterinarian” scores consistently in the top 10 career aspirations. Now try asking a kid (or most adults for that matter) if they ever thought of being a veterinary technician. Most of them will look at you as though you just fell from the sky.
Some of you will be as curious as those children about what a veterinary technician (or vet tech) actually is and what they do. As a veterinarian, I would like to give some insight into this vital member of any veterinary team. Vet Techs are actually called veterinary nurses in many other parts of the world, and they are generally accepted as the veterinary equivalent of a nurse. They have similar training, and they are regulated in a similar way — vet tech graduates write a national examination in order to become Registered Veterinary Technicians (RVTs) in much the same way that graduate nurses write a national exam to become Registered Nurses (RNs). And, like nurses, they provide the majority of patient care while receiving too little of the credit.
Consider this scenario: you bring Lily, your six-month-old Golden Retriever puppy, to your veterinary hospital for a spay (or ovariohysterectomy in medical speak). When you walk in the door you are greeted by a veterinary assistant, then a tech — let’s call her Lisa — who comes to ask you questions about Lily to make sure she is healthy enough for surgery. She will also explain the procedure and answer any questions you may have about what to expect before, during, and after the surgery. For the rest of the day, Lisa is your primary contact if you want updates on how Lily is doing or if you have any other concerns while Lily is in the clinic.
You say goodbye to Lily and head off to work. In the meantime, Lisa brings Lily to the treatment area, where she completes a physical assessment, including vitals (TPR — temperature, pulse, and respiration), auscultation (listening to the heart and lungs), and assessment of hydration and mentation (mental state). If she has any concerns, she tells the veterinarian once s/he has arrived. Lisa recruits another technician or an assistant, and together they take a blood sample before settling Lily in her comfortable kennel to wait for a final examination by the veterinarian. She then takes the blood sample to the lab, runs it through specialized blood machines, and prints out the results for the veterinarian. Meanwhile, she calculates the doses of each drug that Lily will require for anesthesia and pain management, including any drugs she might need if an emergency arises during surgery. After preparing the drugs, she sets up the surgical suite, prepares all the equipment and supplies necessary for intubation and IV fluids, and tests the anesthetic machine to make sure it is working properly. And all this happens before the veterinarian even enters the building!
Once the vet has determined that Lily is a good candidate for surgery, Lisa sedates her, places an IV catheter, starts IV fluid therapy, induces anesthesia with injectable drugs, and places a breathing tube in her trachea to protect her airway and deliver the anesthetic gas. She prepares the surgery site and moves Lily into the surgical suite, where she continuously monitors all of Lily’s vitals to make sure she is stable under anesthesia. The veterinarian comes in and performs the surgery while Lisa makes adjustments to the anesthesia and fluid therapy as needed. After the procedure is done, Lisa stays with Lily while she recovers, making sure she is warm and comfortable. For the rest of the day, she checks on Lily frequently to ensure she recovers well and is pain-free. When you arrive to pick Lily up, Lisa tells you all about her day, explains what to do and expect during her recovery, and gives you instructions for her at-home pain medication.
Phew! I’m exhausted just typing that. And vet techs do this kind of thing every day for several patients. What I haven’t mentioned yet is that they do it all with love — there is no shortage of pats and cuddles, soft words and gentle praise for your dear pet. Vet techs are truly the heart of the veterinary practice. For all those kids who love animals and want to care for them every day, consider the many positions available at a veterinary practice, including a veterinary technician. And for all those adults out there who never knew what vet techs do behind the scenes, maybe give your RVT a pat on the back or a big “thank you” the next time your pet needs to spend time in a veterinary hospital.
Written by: Dr. Emily Reiner, DVM