Veterinary Assistant vs. Veterinary Technician

Students interested in veterinary medicine may wish to “test the waters” to see if a veterinary career is right for them without having to commit to becoming a veterinarian and fulfilling the relatively steep educational requirements associated with that career. For such students, it may make sense to become a veterinary assistant or veterinary technician instead, or first.

Both veterinary technicians and assistants work closely with veterinary doctors, and both may perform a host of similar tasks, but despite that the two roles differ significantly in terms of requirements, responsibilities and scope of practice. A full understanding of each is important for someone deciding between the two.

Similarities, Differences and Overlap

The similarities between the roles and responsibilities of veterinary technicians and veterinary assistants are numerous, and because of that, people often confuse or conflate them. Individuals in both roles assist the veterinarian with his or her duties, and carry out his or her requests. Neither the veterinary technician nor the veterinary assistant may diagnose illnesses, nor may they prescribe treatment or medication for animals. Furthermore, because veterinary technicians and veterinary assistants work directly with veterinarians, they may both find themselves working in a similar setting, such as a clinic or other animal hospital.

Beyond this, however, the responsibilities and qualifications of these two roles differ significantly. To begin, while veterinary assistants don’t require any specific licensure and may start working in this role after obtaining a high school diploma (or GED), veterinary technicians must obtain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree from a two- or four-year college or university and further pass a credentialing examination, as described by the American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMA).

Generally speaking, veterinary assistants are more likely to perform clerical work and office support, as well as helping with animal restraint and answering client questions. A veterinary assistant will often deal as much with humans as with animals, if not more. A veterinary technician (vet tech), on the other hand, is much like an animal nurse in that he or she may care for wounds, assist with tasks related to patient surgery, fill and dispense prescription medications, and perform lab work like blood work, urinalysis, and parasitic identification.

Unlike veterinary assistants, veterinary technicians often have the option to pursue additional specialties during their education, such as those in anesthesia, dental technology, emergency and critical care, internal medicine, equine veterinary nursing, zoological medicine, and animal behavior. Overall, while it takes more education and the pursuit of licensure (in most states) to begin working as a veterinary technician, those working in such a capacity generally have more responsibility for patient care than do veterinary assistants.

Vet Tech vs. Vet Assistant: Side-by-Side Comparison

To shed further light on the similarities and differences between veterinary assistants and veterinary technicians, we have provided a side-by-side comparison of the two professions below. While perusing this information, keep in mind that, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job growth for veterinary technologists and technicians is projected at 19% over the next decade, while this number sits at only 9% for veterinary assistants and laboratory animal caretakers. Both numbers are higher than the average (7%) for all careers over that same period, so both are growing careers, but the demand for vet techs is outpacing by a significant margin. While this isn’t a guarantee of future employment opportunities, it is certainly something to keep in mind.

  Veterinary Technician Veterinary Assistant
Number practicing in the U.S. The BLS claims that there were 95,600 veterinary technicians working in the U.S. in 2014. According to the BLS, 73,400 veterinary assistants were employed nationwide in 2014.
Pay The median pay for veterinary technicians was $31,070 per year ($14.95 per hour) in 2014, according to the BLS. BLS statistics show that the median wage for veterinary assistants in 2014 was $23,790 per year, or $11.44 per hour.
Expected job growth From 2014 to 2024, there is a projected employment growth of 19 percent. The BLS expects a nine percent growth in job opportunities in this field from 2014 to 2024.
Anticipated number of new positions available by 2024 17,900 6,600
Meeting the Requirements
Degree requirements Veterinary technicians must first obtain an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in veterinary technology before being eligible to work in the field. Veterinary assistants do not require any higher education beyond a high school diploma (or GED)
Degrees available A veterinary technician can seek either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree; however, the AVMA asserts that those with a four-year degree usually receive higher salaries and greater level of job responsibilities. A veterinary assistant may choose to pursue a degree in any field and at any level; however, this is not a prerequisite to work in this field. Some training programs, often undergraduate certificate programs, are available for veterinary assistants, while others may be trained on the job.
Program details Veterinary technician programs will cover courses on a variety of subjects, including biology, pathology, medical math and terminology, physiology, veterinary pharmacology, toxicology, animal nutrition, and a number of other courses related to animal health. Depending on any specializations the student pursues, he may take additional courses on various subjects. A veterinary assistant program will provide the student with hands-on experience assisting veterinarians and dealing with animals. The student will also develop a variety of other administrative skills, including those required to interact with clients, run the front desk at an office, and assist in keeping an orderly veterinary office.
School accreditation Schools may obtain probationary accreditation, initial accreditation, or full accreditation by applying through the AVMA Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities (CVTEA). While there is no accreditation process, the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) has a list of “approved” veterinary assistant programs wherein students can obtain training in this field.
Certification and Licensing
Licensing/Certification Each state regulates veterinary technicians differently; however, candidates in most states must take and pass the Veterinary Technician National Examination, which is offered by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards, although this organization does not license or certify veterinary technicians. Instead, each state has a board that will license potential candidates. There is no licensing or certification requirement for veterinary assistants.
Re-licensing or re-certification In some cases, a veterinary technician may have to pursue re-licensing or re-certification on a routine basis, or if they have not adhered to the requirements of their individual state’s licensing board. Because there is no certification requirement for veterinary assistants, a re-certification process does not exist either.
Details About the Job
Practice Framework Per a fact sheet provided by AVMA, all veterinary technicians work under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian. Veterinary assistants are required to work under the supervision of a veterinary technician or licensed veterinarian.
Tools and equipment used According to information presented by O*NET OnLine, veterinary technicians should expect to use the following types of tools and equipment on a routine basis while working:

  • Animal catching devices
  • Animal husbandry equipment
  • Emergency medical services suction units or accessories
  • Laryngoscopes or accessories
  • Nebulizer or accessories

If a veterinary technician chooses to specialize during his or her education, he or she may become proficient at operating a wider array of equipment or machinery. For example, those who specialize in veterinary dental medicine must routinely utilize dental equipment, while those who pursue a veterinary surgery specialization may receive training regarding the use of surgical instruments as well.

In addition to the aforementioned tools, veterinary technicians may be required to interact with the following types of technologyl:

  • Database user interface and query software
  • E-mail software
  • Medical software
  • Office suite software
  • Spreadsheet software
Veterinary assistants will likely use a variety of different tools and pieces of equipment on the job, including the following, as described by O*NET OnLine.

  • Animal shearing or clipping equipment
  • Medical x-ray film or cassette
  • Medical x-ray units for general diagnostic use
  • Urinalysis analyzers
  • Veterinary injection or suction units or accessories.

Here, it is important to understand that a veterinary assistant may not use all of these during the course of his or her career, and he or she will likely require additional (and possibly formal) training in order to operate some of the machinery. In addition, use of any of these tools will be likely supervised by a trained veterinarian.

Furthermore, veterinary assistants may need to be proficient using certain types of technology, including office suite software, spreadsheet software, medical software, and label making software, in some cases.

Opportunities for specialization In many cases, students of veterinary technology may choose to pursue a number of specialties, including veterinary dental medicine, veterinary surgery, veterinary nutrition, animal behavior, emergency and critical care, and a number of others as described by NAVTA. Because there is no formal association required for veterinary assistants, specialization is generally not available. However, depending on the practice wherein the veterinary assistant works, he or she may be assigned responsibilities of varying levels regardless of his or her education.
Responsibilities on the job The responsibilities of a veterinary technician may vary depending on the practice; however, O*NET OnLine presents the following as tasks routinely required of veterinary technicians:

  • Administering first-aid to animals in need
  • Maintaining a controlled drug inventory
  • Caring for and monitoring the condition of animals, especially those recovering from surgery
  • Restraining animals during exams or procedures
  • Administering amnesia to animals
Per information presented by O*NET OnLine, veterinary assistants offer retain the following responsibilities while on the job:

  • Holding or restraining animals when required
  • Monitoring animals recovering from surgeryy
  • Assisting veterinarians in examining animals
  • Cleaning or maintaining kennels, animal holding areas, or other areas throughout the clinic or practice
Barry Franklin (Editor)

Barry is the Managing Editor of VetTechColleges.com, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures Partners LLC, which he co-founded. Previously, Barry served as a VP at a Silicon Valley software company. In addition to running editorial operations at Sechel, Barry also serves on the Board of Trustees at a local K-8 school, and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University. He presently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family and their black maltipoo.