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THE VET TECH F.A.Q.

Q: what does a vet tech do?

A: we do everything the doctor doesn't do. We restrain animals for examination, record histories from the owners, do labwork, administer treatments like subcutaneous fluids and oral medications, prep surgical patients and assist with surgeries, mix medications, sweep and mop, run the front desk, answer phones and keep the place running. In larger practices we branch out into other jobs including inpatient care, assistance with x-rays and the like.

The core of the job, however, is restraining and managing patients and being an extra pair of hands and eyes for the doctor.

Q: how much schooling do you need for that?

A: officially, a VT is by definition certified through a state exam or the Veterinary Technician National Exam, which requires 2 to 4 years of study. The UK equivalent (Veterinary Nurse) also requires certification by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

In practice, there are a lot of techs working now that have no formal training, and you can still find a tech position without training if you have animal experience. (Note that having a lot of pets does not count as animal experience.) Some of these people have been working in veterinary medicine for decades and know as much about animal medicine as just about any vet.

According to the AVMA, these people are properly designated Veterinary Assistants. I think in most small animal practices at least, everybody who does tech work is called a technician, and the ones who have passed the VTNE or state exams add a "Certified" to their title.

Q: my daughter loves animals. We think she's going to be a vet.

A: that's not a question. But since I hear it two or three times a week, I'll comment on it.

Loving animals is one of the basic requirements for this job. But it is not the only one. Every ten-year-old girl wants to be a vet. I think it's part of the whole "nurturing mother" complex we put girls through from age zero. Maybe it's biological, but a lot of young boys have the same instinct. Either way, simply loving animals is not enough.

This job involves contact with blood, feces, urine, vomit and parasites every single day. It includes animal abuse and criminal neglect cases, sometimes with owners who are absolutely positive they are doing the right thing for their pets and the doctor is out to screw them. Most vet techs will see three or four cases a week where euthanasia is the only humane option, as well as the occasional case where an owner has to be talked out of euthanising a sick animal.

This is an emotionally and occasionally physically demanding job that will bring you face to face with the worst things that can go wrong with our bodies and some very ugly aspects of human behavior. The burnout rate here is staggering.

Q: you're a depressing bastard. Do you even like your job?

A: I love my job more than you can imagine, and your daughter might like it, too. (Come back, kid. I didn't mean to make you cry). We see a lot of cute critters, and we save lives. I'm just trying to make it clear that we don't do it by waving a wand and sprinkling fairy dust. We centrifuge their urine, poke through their shit, do skin scrapings to look for mites, draw blood from their jugular veins, mop up their vomit, pull ticks off them, let them bite us and argue with their owners. If you really love animals enough to do all that, this is an awesome job.

Q: hmm, okay. So, do you ever get scratched?

A: have you looked at my arms? I get a good scratch once a week on average. Usually not bad enough to form a permanent scar, but I have a few of those too. Proper restraint keeps scratching to a minimum, but won't completely eliminate it.

Q: what about bites?

A: I've been bitten a few times, mostly by cats and rodents. Once or twice big dogs have mouthed me hard enough to bruise my skin, but not draw blood.

Q: how do you handle those really big dogs?

A: very carefully! Sorry, old joke. Seriously, "those big dogs" are not as difficult as you think, provided the owner lets us handle them. Usually your German Shepherd or Rottie does just fine if its owner just talks to it calmly while we work on it.

Small dogs and cats are far more difficult to handle. Nearly all of the bad scratches I get are from chihuahuas, pugs and cats. Pugs and chihuahuas just plain freak out when immobilized or when their paws are touched, and it's very difficult to hold them still without hurting them. Cats tend to wiggle and try to scratch, especially when they're having blood drawn.

Q: oh, don't worry about my Princess. She's declawed.

A: Thanks for warning me. Every one of my serious cat bites was given to me by a declawed cat. Cats who lose their primary weapons tend to get defensive, and they get VERY good at using their fangs.

Q: er, let's go back to dogs then. Do you have to use a muzzle?

A: very rarely. A lot of dogs go crazy when they have a muzzle on. Then you may be safe from bites, but you've a hundred-pound dog bucking and scratching wildly. The dog's blood pressure, heart rate and temperature soar, which is bad for diagnostics, and people get scratched. If the technician knows how to hold the critter properly, it's usually better to leave the muzzle off.

Q: should I help you hold Fluffy?

A: do you help your mechanic change a gasket? Do you help your kid's teacher grade essays? Probably not.

A lot of owners think they should help hold the dog. This is a really bad idea. Even if your dog is naturally responsive to you, you do not know how to immobilize him properly while we poke him with needles or clip his nails. Improper restraint can result in the doctor, the dog or the well-meaning owner getting hurt.

If you want to help, keep out of the way in front of your dog so he can see you, and talk to him calmly. You are, hopefully, your dog's alpha, and he takes his cues from you. If you are nervous about what we are doing, he will be, too.

Sometimes it's better if the owner just leaves the room.

Q: what's the worst thing you've seen on the job?

A: this is the question everybody asks. It's a tossup between an autopsy on a cancer victim, the horrific neglect suffered by the 37 pit bulls, and a cat with a broken skull and a face full of maggots.

Q: so that must be the worst part of the job, right?

A: no, the worst part is dealing with humans who don't follow our advice, modify their medications, don't come in for followup visits, call us two months later at five minutes before closing time when the dog is nearly dead and blame us for not fixing their dog.

Q: and the best part?

A: saving lives, no question. You don't get a lot of dramatic beat-the-clock heroics like the folks on ER and Scrubs, and there are no one-man rescues, because medical work is usually a team effort, and the doc is unquestionably the most important member of the team. But once in a while you spot something crucial in a patient's history, check vitals just in time to prevent a disaster, or simply give a client a piece of advice that turns an animal's life around.

And when those dramatic emergencies do show up, it's always a big adrenaline rush. When emergency surgery goes perfectly it's like winning a basketball game against a powerful rival team... under machine gun fire... in an earthquake. It's draining as hell, but it's addictive.

There are cats and dogs that are alive and happy today because of our work. Dogs that I saw at death's door are coming in for yearly checkups with their tails wagging. Nothing in the world beats that.

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