What is a Veterinary Assistant?

Job Description

veterinarian's office
••• John Burke/Stockbyte/Getty Images

A veterinary assistant cares for animals in an animal hospital or clinic. Working under the supervision of a veterinarian or veterinary technician, he or she is responsible for feeding, bathing, and exercising animals, and restraining them during examinations and treatment. 

Vet assistants, as they are often called, clean and sterilize examination and operating rooms, as well as the equipment used in them.

Some also perform lab work, which includes drawing blood and collecting urine samples, and administering medicine and vaccinations. Veterinary assistants perform clerical duties as well. Another job title for this occupation is veterinarian assistant.

Quick Facts About Veterinary Assistants

  • Veterinary assistants earn a median annual salary of $26,140. Their hourly wages are $12.57 (2017).
  • About 83,800 people work in this occupation (2016).
  • Veterinary hospitals and clinics employ most of them.
  • This occupation has an outstanding job outlook. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment will grow much faster than the average for all occupations between 2016 and 2026.

How to Become a Veterinary Assistant

You will need a high school or equivalency diploma to get a job. Most employers provide on-the-job training, but some will only hire those who have prior experience working with animals.

Veterinary assistants may apply for the Approved Veterinary Assistant (AVA) designation from the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA).

This voluntary certification requires graduation from a NAVTA-approved training program and passing an exam. This credential may help make you a more a competitive job candidate.

What Soft Skills Do You Need to Succeed in This Career?

The following soft skills—personal qualities with which you were either born or acquired through life experiences—are instrumental to your success in this field:

  • Active Listening: Strong listening skills are necessary to understand and follow veterinarians' and veterinary technicians' instructions.
  • Monitoring: The ability to notice changes in animals' conditions will allow you to take appropriate action.
  • Service Orientation: Veterinary assistants need a strong desire to help others.
  • Problem Solving: You must be able to identify and solve problems.
  • Critical Thinking: When making decisions or solving problems, this skill will allow you to determine what your options are, evaluate them, and then choose the one with the most promising outcome.

The Truth About Being a Veterinary Assistant

  • Some of your patients may be aggressive or frightened. You will be at risk for having an animal in your care bite or scratch you. 
  • Since many clinics and hospitals are open 24/7, night and holiday shifts may be part of your regular work schedule.
  • You will have to assist veterinarians when they euthanize animals and dispose of remains.
  • Some of your patients may be victims of abuse or will be very ill.

Differences Between a Veterinary Assistant and a Veterinary Technician

The most substantial difference between these two occupations lies in their educational requirements and subsequently their job duties.

Unlike assistants, who need just a high school education and on-the-job training, technicians must complete a two-year postsecondary program in veterinary technology. They typically earn an associate degree upon completion and then must become licensed by the state in which they want to practice. This additional training allows them to perform tasks equivalent to the ones nurses do in human healthcare. For example, they administer medication, anesthesia, and vaccinations. The duties of assistants and technicians differ by state. See the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) website for a state-by-state guide to specified duties of assistants and technicians.

What Will Employers Expect From You?

Here are some requirements from actual job announcements found on Indeed.com:

  • "Must love dogs and cats...and people too!"
  • "A devoted team player who thrives in a collaborative environment"
  • "Must have excellent communication and interpersonal skills"
  • "Remain calm in a busy environment"
  • "Able to lift up to 50 lbs unassisted"

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

Consider your interestspersonality type, and work-related values when choosing a career. If you have the following traits, consider becoming a vet assistant:

Occupations With Similar Tasks and Activities

 DescriptionMedian Annual Wage (2017)Minimum Required Education/Training
Nursing AssistantProvides basic care to hospital and nursing home patients$27,520H.S. or Equivalency Diploma and state-approved training program
Physical Therapist AidePerforms non-therapeutic duties in a physical therapy practice$25,730H.S. or Equivalency Diploma; on-the-job training
PhlebotomistDraws blood from patients$33,670Certificate or Diploma from a one-year postsecondary phlebotomy training program
Medical AssistantPerforms clerical and clinical tasks in a doctor's office$32,480Minimum of a H.S. or Equivalency Diploma; most have a postsecondary certificate in medical assisting

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,  Occupational Outlook Handbook; Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor,  O*NET Online (visited September 13, 2018).