What is a Vet Assistant and What Do Vet Assistants Do?
With the recent explosion of organic pet foods, handsewn costumes, and psychiatric medicines for people’s furry, feathered, and scaly companions, it’s clear that pets hold a privileged position in many households. In fact, an annual survey by American Pet Products Association (APPA 2016) found that 65 percent of US households have pets, up from 56 percent in 1988. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC 2016) has repeatedly emphasized the positive effects of animals on lowering people’s blood pressure, cholesterol, triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness. For animal-lovers seeking a career with minimal training, becoming a veterinary assistant can be a fulfilling option.
So what is a veterinary assistant? And what do these animal care specialists do? According to O*NET (2016)—a data organization affiliated with the US Department of Labor—vet assistants are on the front lines of animal caretaking, taking on responsibilities such as managing the everyday needs of animals (e.g., feeding, bathing, exercising); restraining animals during examinations and procedures; assisting with non-invasive medical procedures; disinfecting cages and kennels; scheduling medical appointments with pet-owners; sterilizing equipment and surgical rooms; monitoring veterinary patients’ health status (e.g., taking weight or temperature); and educating pet-owners. They may help veterinary technicians and veterinarians in more advanced capacities such as administering medication, processing laboratory samples, and performing medical tests (e.g., x-rays). Veterinary assistants are typically employed by animal clinics and veterinary hospitals, sometimes working nights, weekends, and holidays to meet the needs of their veterinary patients.
While veterinary technicians and technologists may need state registration, certification, or licensure in addition to a two- to four-year degree prior to seeking employment, veterinary assistants require less formal training.
Read on to discover how to become a veterinary assistant—including information on requirements, education, and professional certification—as well as how much money these animal caretakers can make, their projected career outlook, and how they can join related professions.
Requirements to Become a Veterinary Assistant
In order to become a veterinary assistant, candidates typically need at least a high school diploma to qualify. O*NET (2016) found that 34 percent of responding veterinary assistants and laboratory animal caretakers has a high school diploma as their highest academic credential, and 33 percent held associate degrees.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA 2016), veterinary assistants support the clinical activities of veterinary technicians and veterinarians by performing clerical work, animal restraint, and daily caretaking of veterinary patients. Although there are some quality training programs in this field, there is no formal credentialing exam for veterinary assistants. On the contrary, many are trained on-the-job, although the required education and scope of practice for these animal caretaking professionals varies by state (AVMA 2015). Georgia, for instance, defines a veterinary assistant as “a person who engages in certain aspects of the practice of veterinary technology but is not registered by the board for such purpose,” performing his or her work only under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian. Texas, by contrast, has established a state certification process for vet assistants through the Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA). Other states such as New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Hawaii specify no state-mandated restrictions on the scope of practice of veterinary assistants.
Overall, for aspiring veterinary assistants, it can be advisable to pursue a formal training program to enhance one’s resume, job candidacy, and salary prospects. The renowned Ohana Pet Hospital in Ventura, California actually prefers vet assistant candidates with an associate degree in veterinary technology (or an equivalent registered veterinary technician [RVT] program). Other typical requirements to join this profession include strong communication skills, compassion, punctuality, basic math skills, and the ability to lift at least 30 lbs.
Steps to Become a Veterinary Assistant
There are varied paths to becoming a veterinary assistant. Some choose to seek employment directly at veterinary clinics and get trained on-the-job. For those interested in greater responsibilities, opportunities for advancement, and possibly higher pay, enrolling in a training program may be a preferable alternative.
Here is one possible path to becoming a veterinary assistant:
- Graduate from high school. As mentioned above, a high school diploma is a typical prerequisite to employment in this profession. Aspiring vet assistants are encouraged to excel in courses such as biology which is a prerequisite to some certificate and degree programs. At this stage, students are encouraged to volunteer in local animal hospitals, veterinary clinics, farms, laboratories, and other environments to garner hands-on experience working with animals.
- (Optional) Enroll in a veterinary assistant program (1 year). According to the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA 2016), there are currently 25 programs—including three distance-based options—approved by NAVTA to become an approved veterinary assistant (AVA). Although this credential is not essential for employment, it can enhance one’s job prospects among employers. Typical application requirements for these programs include having a high school diploma or GED and completing prerequisite courses either before or concurrently with the program (e.g., biology, medical terminology). The Animal Behavior College (ABC) based in Santa Clarita, California offers a NAVTA-approved online program which typically takes one year to complete. With 10 discrete stages of training in animal restraint, examination room procedures, small animal nursing, and radiology & ultrasound imagining, this program exposes students to the basics of veterinary technology. Additionally, students must complete a local externship at the end of their program to put their newfound abilities to practice. Ashworth College also provides a NAVTA-approved online veterinary assistant program comprising five units: orientation, office management, veterinary anatomy & pharmacology, small animal nursing, and clinical procedures. The program includes a one-year membership to NAVTA and “virtual field trips” to enhance training, in addition to a 120-hour supervised externship. Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, Colorado offers a variety of on-campus veterinary technician and laboratory animal care programs, including a 1-2 semester certificate for aspiring veterinary assistants. With classes such as veterinary medical terminology, surgical nursing & care, and a 72-hour internship, this 13-credit program gives an introductory overview to veterinary medicine. Finally, Carroll Community College in Westminster, Maryland provides an on-campus veterinary assistant certificate program with core courses in outpatient care, diagnostics & pharmacy, and surgery & anesthesia.
- (Optional) Seek professional certification (timeline varies). Following the completion of a qualified NAVTA-approved veterinary assistant program, students receive a code to take the exam for the approved veterinary assistant (AVA) credential. Students enter the code into the VetMedTeam website, which provides a proctor for the 100-question exam. Students have 150 minutes to complete the test once the exam window has been opened and must pass with a score of at least 75 percent. The AVA credential is valid for two years. Although professional certification is not mandatory, it can serve as an indicator of a job applicant’s knowledge of veterinary caretaking. As mentioned above, some states provide veterinary assistant certification. For example, the Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA) offers the certified veterinary assistant (CVA) designation. Similarly, the Florida Veterinary Medical Association (FVMA) provides a CVA credential to qualifying vet assistants. Please check with local state boards of veterinary medicine to verify requirements and scope of practice restrictions, a list of which is provided by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA 2015).
- (Optional) Maintain AVA certification (every 2 years). In order to keep AVA certifications active, vet assistants must complete 10 credits of continuing education (CE). Opportunities for CE include attending classes, conferences, online courses, and onsite seminars.
Veterinary Assistant Salary
The salary for veterinary assistants varies by level of experience, region, employer, and even source of data. Since this is a profession requiring minimal formal qualifications, the average annual salary is somewhat lower than the average for all occupations. By illustration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2014) found that among 71,060 veterinary assistants and laboratory animal caretakers, the annual average salary was $25,370 compared to $47,230 for all professions. The salary ranges were:
- 10th percentile: $17,500
- 25th percentile: $19,750
- 50th percentile (median): $23,790
- 75th percentile: $29,240
- 90th percentile: $36,200
In hourly terms, this equates to:
- 10th percentile: $8.41 per hour
- 25th percentile: $9.50
- 50th percentile (median): $11.44
- 75th percentile: $14.06
- 90th percentile: $17.41
By comparison, Salary.com (2016) found slightly higher salary percentiles among its HR-reported data as of January 2016:
- 10th percentile: $17,967
- 25th percentile: $23,020
- 50th percentile (median): $28,570
- 75th percentile: $34,462
- 90th percentile: $39,826
Finally, Payscale (2016)—an aggregator of self-reported salaries in common professions—found the highest salary ranges among its 86 vet assistant respondents:
- 10th percentile: $18,000
- 25th percentile: $21,000
- 50th percentile (median): $27,805
- 75th percentile: $35,000
- 90th percentile: $51,000
Not surprisingly, Payscale (2016) also found that pay tends to increase with time on the job, with late-career veterinary assistants making 31.8 percent more on average than entry-level professionals. Here are the self-reported median annual salaries of respondents according to years of experience:
- Entry-level (0-5 years): $22,000
- Mid-career (5-10 years): $26,000
- Experienced (10-20 years): $28,000
- Late-career (>20 years): $29,000
Payscale (2016) also found that skills such as inventory management and experience with anesthesia, phlebotomy, and radiology tended to increase a vet assistant’s earning potential.
As mentioned above, veterinary assistant salaries also vary substantially by region, with higher salaries generally located in coastal regions. The BLS (2014) found that the top-paying states in this field were mainly concentrated on the east coast:
- District of Columbia: $34,110 annual mean salary
- Massachusetts: $32,280
- Connecticut: $29,760
- California: $29,640
- Maine: $29,210
These states, however, were not necessarily the top-employing states for vet assistants, a factor which tended to vary more by state population size (BLS 2014):
- California: 9,710 vet assistants employed
- Texas: 4,800
- Florida: 4,350
- New York: 3,660
- Virginia: 3,080
The top-paying metropolitan areas were also largely concentrated on the east coast (BLS 2014):
- New Haven, CT: $38,660 annual average salary
- Ithaca, NY: $38,420
- Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA: $36,050
- Oakland-Fremont-Hayward, CA: $35,890
- Norwich-New London, CT-RI: $35,670
By contrast, the lowest paying states and metropolitan areas were located all over the US:
- Utah: $19,140 annual mean salary
- Puerto Rico: $19,550
- Kentucky: $19,950
- Mississippi: $21,430
- West Virginia: $21,430
- Provo-Orem UT: $16,810
- Northeast Alabama nonmetropolitan area: $18,100
- Lexington-Fayette KY: $18,160
- Southern West Virginia nonmetropolitan area: $18,550
- Waco, TX: $18,600
It’s important to note that while these differences in pay seem stark, the cost of living also varies considerably between regions. In fact, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERC 2015) found that the top five most costly states are Hawaii, District of Columbia, New York, California, and Alaska. The most affordable states are Mississippi, Indiana, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.
Finally, for veterinary assistants interested in receiving a top salary in this field, seeking employment in government or the pharmaceutical industry may be advisable. The BLS (2014) reported that the top-paying industries for veterinary assistants and laboratory animals caretakers were the following:
- Local government: $40,260 annual average salary
- Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing: $36,390
- General medical and surgical hospitals: $36,110
- Colleges, universities, and professional schools: $34,160
- Scientific research and development services: $32,050
Vet Assistant Employment & Salary By State (2014)
|State||Vet Assistant Jobs (2014)||2014 Salary Data|
|Low Salary (10th %ile)||Average Salary (Median)||High Salary (90th %ile)|
|District of Columbia||170||$20,090||$30,650||$47,830|
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Career Outlook and Progression for Veterinary Assistants
There’s good news for aspiring veterinary assistants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2015), openings in this profession are expected to swell 9 percent between 2014 and 2024, a stronger growth projection than what’s anticipated for all occupations during that time period (7 percent). The expected addition of 6,600 positions in this field is enhanced by increasing rates of pet ownership and pet expenditures across the US. By illustration, the American Pet Products Association (APPA 2016) found that 79.7 million homes have pets and in 2014, an incredible $58.04 billion was spent on American pets.
In addition to veterinary assisting, there are several careers which animal-lovers can pursue with additional education, training, and professional certification. Here are a few animal healthcare careers for ambitious veterinary assistants to consider:
Laboratory animal technician or technologist
The American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS) offers three specialized certifications: assistant laboratory animal technician (ALAT), laboratory animal technician (LAT), and laboratory animal technologist (LATG). Each of the certifications requires a mix of education and experience on-the-job. Candidates with a high school diploma, for instance, can qualify for ALAT certification with one year of laboratory animal science experience, LAT (three years), and LATG (five years). Qualified candidates must pass an exam. Certification is not mandatory to work in this field, but can enhance a person’s candidacy for a job.
Veterinary technician or veterinary technologist
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA 2016) distinguishes between vet assistants and vet techs, stating that vet techs typically pursue two to four years of postsecondary education and have a greater scope of practice than vet assistants, giving support to veterinarians during complex surgical procedures and performing laboratory analyses to help diagnose medical conditions. Technicians generally have associate degrees, whereas technologists have bachelor’s degrees, and both are encouraged to seek out veterinary technology programs accredited by the AVMA. These programs feature courses such as mammalian anatomy & physiology, veterinary pathology, parasitology, animal nursing, diagnostic imaging, and research methods. Following the completion of a qualifying program, prospective vet techs typically take the national Veterinary Technician National Examination (VTNE), a test administered by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB). Additionally, depending on the region of practice, vet techs may have to become certified, licensed, or registered by the state. Here is a comprehensive guide to vet tech licensing and renewal by state. These credentials must be maintained with renewal applications and the fulfillment of continuing education (CE) requirements. Finally, there are various specialties for veterinary technicians and technologists to consider, which can be pursued following the completion of additional coursework, training, experience, and passing an exam:
- Veterinary dental technician: Seek additional certification through the Academy of Veterinary Dental Technicians (AVDT)
- Veterinary emergency and critical care technician: Seek additional certification through the Academy of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Technicians (AVECCT)
- Veterinary nutrition technician: Seek additional certification through the Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Technicians (AVNT)
- Veterinary radiology technician: No established certification body available as of January 2016
- Veterinary avian technician: No established certification body available as of January 2016
- Marine and aquatic vet technician: No established certification body available as of January 2016
- Large animal and equine vet technician: Seek additional certification through the American Association of Equine Veterinary Technicians (AAEVT)
Veterinary technician anesthetist
After becoming a veterinary technician or technologist, a person may seek out opportunities to administer anesthesia. Following the completion of 6,000 supervised working hours in a veterinary clinics—75 percent of which (i.e., 4,500 hours) must be used giving anesthesia—a person may qualify for the credentialing exam through the Academy of Veterinary Technician Anesthetists (AVTA). For more information on how to join this career, please visit the how to become a vet tech anesthetist page.
Animal psychologist or behaviorist
This subfield of veterinary science typically requires at least a two-year graduate degree in animal behavior or a related field. The Animal Behavior Society (ABS) provides two levels of certification to experience-qualified candidates who pass an exam: the associate certified applied animal behaviorist (ACAAB) credential to master’s-prepared candidates, and the certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB) credential to doctoral-prepared candidates. For more information on this subfield of veterinary medicine, please visit the how to become an animal psychologist page.
Finally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2015), veterinarians must complete a doctor of veterinary medicine (i.e., DVM or VMD)—the terminal degree in the discipline—as well as pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE) and applicable state licensure exams. Additionally, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recognizes 38 specialties, including surgery, neurology, microbiology, virology, and internal medicine. Please note that advanced certification requirements vary by specialty.