Veterinary Surgical Technician

Vet tech holding a dog on an examination table
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Pets are becoming an increasingly bigger part of the American family. Roughly 68% of households in the U.S. reported owning a pet, according to the 2017-2018 study conducted by the National Pet Owners Survey. That's about 85 million families who own a dog, cat, fish or small animal. And it's expected that number will continue to increase. That means people who work in animal care are going to be in high demand — from groomers and trainers to veterinarians and veterinary surgical technicians.

Veterinary surgical technicians are specially trained and certified to assist vets with surgical procedures.

Here's a look at some of the most important facets of this career.

Duties

Veterinary surgical technicians are qualified to assist veterinarians with a variety of surgical procedures. Daily duties may include tasks like performing pre-surgical diagnostic lab tests, preparing and scrubbing surgical sites for sterile procedures, assisting the veterinarian during surgeries, handing out necessary surgical tools during procedures, bandaging wounds, changing wound dressings as needed, placing catheters, and taking radiographs or x-rays.

Other duties may include operating and maintaining surgical equipment, administering fluids, giving intravenous or intramuscular injections, drawing blood, updating patient charts, filling prescriptions, assisting with regular exams when no surgeries are scheduled, and advising pet owners on post-operative care and medication dosages.

Vet techs — including surgical vet techs — may be required to work nights and/or weekends depending on the schedules of the clinic. They must also be aware of the risks inherent in working with animals and take proper safety precautions to minimize the potential for injury from bites, scratches or kicks.

Career Options

Veterinary surgical technicians may find employment with large animal vets, small animal vets, equine vets or exotic vets. They may work in a variety of locations such as animal hospitals, veterinary clinics, zoos, aquariums, and research facilities.

Veterinary surgical techs may also work primarily for a surgeon who is a specialist in a particular surgical field such as neurology, ophthalmology or orthopedics.

Some veterinary technicians transition to other careers in the animal health industry. Veterinary pharmaceutical sales is a popular choice for those with experience in the field. Surgical veterinary techs may also find employment with companies that manufacture and sell veterinary surgical equipment, tools or other medical devices.

Education and Licensing

There are more than 220 veterinary technician programs as of 2016 in the United States that grant two-year associates degrees in the field. After completing an accredited training program, vet techs must also be licensed to practice in their specific state. In most cases, achieving state certification involves successfully completing the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE), though specific requirements may vary from state to state.

The National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) recognizes 14 specialties for veterinary technician specialist (VTS) certification. The recognized specialties for veterinary technicians are anesthesia/analgesia, surgery, internal medicine, dental, emergency and critical care, behavior, zoo, equine, clinical practice, clinical pathology, nutrition, clinical pathology, dermatology, ophthalmology and the Academy of Laboratory Animal Veterinary Technicians and Nurses, which was officially recognized in 2016.

The Academy of Veterinary Surgical Technicians (AVST) offers VTS certification to vet techs who have at least 10,000 hours (5 years) of documented vet tech work experience — with at least 6,000 of those hours consisting of surgical work. Certification in this specialty area was first announced in 2010. Veterinary technicians meeting the significant prerequisite hours of experience may take the specialty exam offered every year at the American College of Veterinary Surgeons Symposium (ACVS).

Vet clinics may place particular value on job candidates who hold surgical or anesthesia specialty certification, as these individuals will have significant experience with surgical procedures required to achieve VTS certified status. The new VTS surgical certification should become increasingly important for job seekers in the veterinary surgical technician field.

Qualities

Being a vet tech isn't for everyone. Because they work with animals, they need to possess certain qualities and characteristics in their job.

  • Communication skills: Techs spend a lot of time communicating with others including surgeons, staff members, and pet owners, so they need to have great communication skills. This also factors into some of their other duties, including counseling and advising on animal behavior, dosing, and nutrition.
  • Compassion: This is something all members of the medical field must have, whether they work with humans or animals. Because they are dealing with sick pets, they should be sensitive and treat patients and their owners with compassion.
  • Attention to detail: Due to the nature of the job, techs must be able to pay attention to detail, especially while taking precise and accurate notes, dosing medication and running certain diagnostic tests.
  • Physical strength and manual dexterity: Vet techs must be physically fit and able because of the heavy lifting or and precise tasks like x-rays or dental work that come with doing the job.

Salary

According to SimplyHired.com, veterinary surgical technicians earned an average salary of $32,203. This is just below the $33,400 ($16.06 per hour) median annual wage for all veterinary technicians reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For the job category of veterinary technicians and technologists, the BLS also reported the lowest 10 percent earned less than $22,880, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $49,350.

Benefits for veterinary technicians may include a variety of perks such as health and dental insurance, paid vacation days, a uniform allowance for scrubs, and discounts on veterinary care for their pets.

Career Outlook

According to the BLS, there were 102,000 vet techs employed in 2016, with roughly 2,040 new vet techs expected to enter the profession each year between 2016 and 2026. The BLS predicts the profession will expand at a rate of 20% between 2016 and 2026 — much more rapid growth than the average for other professions.

The BLS projects the overall job prospects for future vet techs will be good because of the potential for growth in the number of jobs. Furthermore, a supply of new vet techs will not be able to meet the demand for their services by veterinary employers. Due to the relatively few vet tech graduates entering the field each year, and the even smaller number of vet techs that will achieve surgical specialty certification, job prospects should be very strong for veterinary surgical technicians over the next decade.