In the world of human medicine, certain medical needs require the knowledge and expertise of specialist physicians who are supported by specialist nurses. What is true for people’s medicine is also true for animal medicine. This is wonderful news for vet techs looking to create a niche, advance their knowledge and skills, and potentially, earn more than an animal nursing generalist.
The pathway to industry-recognized vet tech specializations is maintained by the National Association of Vet Techs in America (NAVTA)—an organization recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). NAVTA provides guidance to specialization “academies” on how to build formalized advancement pathways for vet techs who wish to become veterinary technician specialists (VTS) or veterinary nurse specialists (VNS). While some of the following speciality pathways developed by NAVTA academies are only provisionally recognized, the following is a list of available vet tech specializations:
- Emergency and Critical Care
- Internal Medicine
- Anesthesia and Analgesia
- Zoological Medicine
- Laboratory Animal (provisional)
- Veterinary Behavior (provisional)
- Clinical Pathology (provisional)
- Clinical Practice (provisional)
- Dermatology (provisional)
- Equine (provisional)
- Physical Rehabilitation (provisional)
- Veterinary Nutrition (provisional)
- Ophthalmology (provisional)
- Surgical (provisional)
- Diagnostic Imaging (provisional)
The academies overseen by NAVTA use guidance to develop their own curriculum, skill set requirements, practicums, knowledge lists, and examinations to train vet techs in each speciality. Any candidate up for a technical certification in a specialized field must complete these courses of study and pass an examination. This requirement is in addition to the standard two years it takes to complete a vet tech program at the community college level. Upon successful completion of all studies and examinations, a vet tech will become a VTS or VNS.
To help vet techs looking to advance their careers through a veterinary specialization, this article breaks down which vet tech specializations have the highest salaries, and what training is required to become a VTS in that discipline.
The Importance of Vet Tech Specialization
The importance of a vet tech lies in their ability to extend the capacity of a veterinarian further than if the vet were working alone. By completing medical support tasks, routine clinical and laboratory tasks, and customer-facing tasks, vet techs get to care for furry and human clients while freeing veterinarians to complete high-level medical tasks like diagnosis, surgery, and determining treatment plans. This can be seen in the definition of a veterinary tech as set by NAVTA:
“Veterinary technicians and technologists are educated to be the veterinarian’s nurse, laboratory technician, radiography technician, anesthetist, surgical nurse, and client educator.”
Because every certified or licensed veterinary technician is qualified to provide these services, specialization can be a way to stand out when applying for vet tech jobs. Working to earn higher-level expertise as a tech also shows potential employers commitment to the field and a willingness to learn and grow beyond the minimum expectations for a standard vet tech.
In addition, choosing to advance one’s careers through a specialization does often translate into a higher salary than if one completes the minimum educational requirements. In short, vet tech specializations are important because they can be a pathway to a higher-paying, secure position in a veterinary medicine discipline that the vet tech is passionate about.
Generalized Veterinary Technician Salaries
In order to understand how a specialization impacts salary, it can be helpful to know what a generalized vet tech has the potential to earn. According to Payscale.com (2021), a veterinary technician has the potential to earn between $23,000 and $50,000 per year, with an average salary of $34,829. This salary data is based on 3,610 vet techs who reported their salary to the site. The ballpark for this salary is similar to the data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021).
With these average figures as a general baseline, it is important to note that the salaries listed for the vet tech specialties below are an estimate based on vet techs who self-reported having speciality skills on Payscale.com. The rates do not distinguish between regional differences or years of experience. As a result, whenever possible, the percentage of salary increase is included with the resultant flat rate, so that individuals can better estimate potential salaries based on their region, experience, and specialization.
Emergency & Critical Care Vet Tech Salary
Health issues that require immediate attention can happen at any time, and vet techs who specialize in emergency and critical care can make the difference between life and death for the animals in their care.
The almost 800 vet techs, LVTs, and CVTs who reported their salaries to Payscale.Com (2021) reveal that skills in emergency and critical care can result in salary boosts over generalists that are anywhere from two percent to 28 percent. The resultant median salaries reported range from $32,080 to $44,000 per year. The 17 vet techs who reported salaries as certified emergency and critical care veterinary nurses earned a median $77,511—223 percent higher than the 3,610 vet tech salaries reported on the site.
The Academy of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Technicians and Nurses (AVECCTN) is the NAVTA-recognized certifying body for emergency vet techs. To earn certification techs must have mastered 29 of 38 essential skills. Necessary skills include recognizing the signs of acute medical issues; the capacity to perform common emergency medicine procedures (placing a catheter, performing CPR, performing lavage, placing feeding tubes, resuscitating newborns after birth, etc); and the ability to set up, use, monitor, and maintain medical technology and equipment (ECGs, defibrillators, chest drainage systems, etc).
To apply to become AVECCTN certified in emergency and critical care, a vet tech needs to complete a two-part application that includes:
- Proof of education and licensure
- Proof of three years of full time work with a minimum 5,760 hours of emergency and critical care completed with five years of the application date
- Proof of 25 hours of CE related to emergency and critical care
- Two letters of recommendation from a VTS or board-certified emergency veterinarian
- Proof of mastery of 29 of 38 essential skills through certified VTS signatures and photos
Oncology (Internal Medicine) Vet Tech Salary
Unfortunately, animals get cancer too, and VTS oncologists are the animal nurses that assist oncology vets in bringing these animals treatment and respite.
According to the more than 20 salaries reported on Payscale.com (2021), having a speciality in internal medicine focused on oncology can result in moderate to significant increases in salary.
Vet techs, licensed vet techs (LVT), and certified vet techs (CVT) reported that having oncology skills resulted in median wages between $35,500 and $46,800 per year. These rates are 29 percent higher than reported vet tech salaries, 6 percent higher than reported CVT salaries, and 37 percent higher than reported LVT salaries.
The pathway to becoming a veterinary technician who specializes in oncology is done through the NAVTA-recognized Academy of Internal Medicine for Veterinary Technicians (AIMVT). The skills needed to become a vet tech oncologist include performing bone marrow aspirates, tissue sample tissue gathering, and the ability to accurately calculate drug doses.
Oncology vet techs also require knowledge of chemotherapy and radiotherapy agents, protocols, handling, mixing, delivery, disposal, safety, side effects, and side effect amelioration. To become an VTS in oncology, techs must also demonstrate understanding regarding the variety of different tumors, basic cell biology, and how to perform workups.
To qualify for the oncology specialization exam, vet techs need to submit the following to AIMVT:
- Proof of diploma or certificate from state credentialing agency
- Proof of graduation
- Proof of three years and 6,000 hours of experience in internal medicine as a certified vet tech
- Three potential exam questions (with answers)
- Two letters of recommendation from an AIMVT VTS or a board-certified veterinarian
- 40 hours of CE (70 percent must be in internal medicine)
Surgical Vet Tech Salary
Some medical conditions can’t be solved through more conservative treatments like meds or behavioral changes. When healing an animal requires invasive options, surgical vet tech specialists are there to make sure the vet has all the support they need for the surgery, and that the animal gets proper preparation and post-operative care.
The 48 vet techs and LVTs who reported salaries to Payscale.com (2021) reported that skills in general surgery resulted in median salaries anywhere from 1 to 14 percent higher than generalized techs, for a median annual salary of $34,540 per year.
The Academy of Veterinary Surgical Technicians (AVST) has provisional recognition from NAVTA to certify VTS in the realm of surgery. The skills and knowledge required to become a surgical VTS include mastery of aseptic technique; mastery of operating room techniques; understanding of, set-up, maintenance, and troubleshooting for a range of surgical equipment; the ability to use, care for, maintain, and sterilize surgical instrumentation; the capacity to prepare and position patients for surgery; advanced understand of surgical procedures; skill with bandaging and wound care, and the ability to properly use antimicrobial agents postoperatively.
The AVST VTS (surgery) application requires techs to submit the following to qualify for the exam:
- Proof of licensure or certification in state of practice
- Proof of graduation from an AVMA accredited program
- Proof of participation in 50 to 75 cases (case log)
- Four detailed case reports
- Proof of mastery of 78 required skills
- Proof of 40 hours of CE
- Letter of Intent
- Two letters of recommendation: one from a VTS, one from a veterinarian
- Five copies of the completed application submitted on a USB flash drive
Anesthesia & Analgesia Vet Tech Salary
Because some conditions require treatments that would be painful if the animal were fully lucid, vet tech specialists who understand anesthesia can keep pets comfortable and alive during less conservative treatment methods.
Reporting to Payscale.com (2021), A combined 3,010 vet techs, LVTs, and CVTs reported that having skills in anesthesia & analgesia may result in a small pay bump. Vet techs with anesthesia experience earned median salaries between $30,920 and $34,300 per year—1 to 2 percent higher than the average.
The NAVTA-recognized Academy of Veterinary Technicians in Anesthesia & Analgesia (AVTAA) provides vet techs with the requirements to become a credentialed VTS in this discipline.
AVTAA-certified techs are required to prove 90 percent mastery over core skills such as pharmacology, physiology and physiologic response, equipment use and understanding, laboratory sample collection and analysis, anesthesia- and analgesia-specific skills and techniques. Anesthesia techs must also prove 50 percent mastery over supplemental skills like setting up specialty equipment, performing techniques on species outside dogs and cats, administering class IV substances, and specialty procedures.
To qualify to sit for the AVTAA credentialing exam, vet techs must submit the following:
- Proof of licensure
- Professional history and experience form proving 8,000 hours of work experience and a minimum of four years experience
- Proof that 6,000 experience hours involved anesthesia care
- Letter of good standing from the veterinary medical board
- Letter of Agreement signed by a board certified vet or VTS
- Case log of 50 to 60 anesthesia cases in the year prior to application
- Four in depth case reports
- Proof of 40 hours of CE related to anesthesia
- Either a large OR small animals skills list