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 committing 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.

Both veterinary technicians and assistants work closely with veterinary doctors, and both may perform a host of similar tasks. Still, despite that, the two roles differ significantly in terms of requirements, responsibilities, and scope of practice.

Therefore, a complete understanding of each career is essential for someone deciding between the two.

Vet Tech vs. Vet Assistant: 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 positions assist the veterinarian with their duties and carry out requests. However, neither the veterinary technician nor the veterinary assistant may diagnose illnesses or 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 are very different. To begin, veterinary assistants don’t require any specific licensure and may start working in this role after obtaining a high school diploma (or GED). By comparison, veterinary technicians must get 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).

In general, veterinary assistants are more likely to perform clerical work and office support, help restrain animals during evaluation and answer client questions. A veterinary assistant will often deal as much with humans as with animals. On the other hand, a veterinary technician (vet tech) serves as an animal nurse caring for wounds, assisting with tasks related to patient surgery, filling and dispensing prescription medications, and performing lab work like blood work, urinalysis, and parasitic identification.

Unlike veterinary assistants, vet techs often pursue additional specialties during their education, such as anesthesia, dental technology, emergency, and critical care, internal medicine, equine veterinary nursing, zoological medicine, and animal behavior. Overall, while more states require vet techs to have more education and hold licensure, vet techs have more responsibility for patient care than veterinary assistants.

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

In the coming decade, both vet tech and vet assistant careers are poised for faster than average career growth. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows job growth for veterinary technologists and technicians is projected to grow by 15 percent between 2020 and 2030 (BLS 2021). The career outlook is equally strong for veterinary assistants and laboratory animal caretakers, with a projected growth rate of 14 percent in the same period (BLS 2021). Both these numbers are higher than the national average (8 percent) for all careers over that same period.

As a result, people considering an investment in education and training for a vet tech or a vet assistant career can be reasonably confident that future employment opportunities are likely in high demand in this field.

A side-by-side comparison of the two professions is below to shed further light on the similarities and differences between veterinary assistants and veterinary technicians. Unless otherwise stated, the data in this table is sourced from the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the BLS.

  Veterinary Technician Veterinary Assistant
Number practicing in the U.S. The BLS claims that there were 114,400 veterinary technicians working in the U.S. (BLS 2021). According to the BLS, 107,200 veterinary assistants were employed nationwide (BLS 2021).
Pay According to the BLS, the median pay for veterinary technicians was $36,260 per year ($17.43 per hour) in 2021. BLS statistics show that the median wage for veterinary assistants in 2021 was $29,930 per year or $14.39 per hour.
Expected job growth From 2020 to 2030, there is a projected employment growth of 15 percent. The BLS expects a 14 percent growth in job opportunities in this field from 2020 to 2030.
Anticipated number of new positions available by 2030 17,100 15,300
Vet Tech and Vet Assistant Job Requirements
Degree requirements Veterinary technicians must first obtain a two-year associate’s degree or a four-year 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 levels of job responsibilities. A veterinary assistant may choose to pursue a degree in any field. However, this is not a prerequisite for employment. The AVMA states that 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 various subjects, including biology, pathology, medical math and terminology, physiology, veterinary pharmacology, toxicology, animal nutrition, and several other courses related to animal health.

Depending on any specializations the student pursues, he may take additional classes 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 various 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 (VTNE).

The American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB) does not license or certify vet techs but keeps a list of state regulatory boards in 62 jurisdictions and states in the United States and Canada.

There is no universal licensing or certification requirement for veterinary assistants.

However, vet assistants who complete a two-year program approved by the National Association of Veterinary Technicians Assistants (NAVTA) are eligible to take the Approved Veterinary Assistant (AVA) examination to earn the AVA designation.

Re-licensing or re-certification In most states, a veterinary technician will have to pursue re-licensing or re-certification on a routine basis through their individual state’s licensing board. To keep AVA credentials active, a vet assistant will have to complete 10 units of continuing education every two years.
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 veterinary technicians specialize during their education, they may become proficient at operating a more comprehensive array of equipment or machinery. For example, those who specialize in veterinary dental medicine must routinely utilize dental equipment. In contrast, those who pursue a veterinary surgery specialization may receive training regarding the use of surgical instruments.

In addition to the tools mentioned above, veterinary technicians may be required to interact with the following types of technology:

  • Database user interface and query software
  • E-mail software
  • Medical software
  • Office suite software
  • Spreadsheet software
Veterinary assistants will likely use various 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 their career. Instead, they will likely require additional (and possibly formal) training to operate some machinery. In addition, the use of any of these tools will probably be 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, veterinary technology students may choose to pursue many specialties, including veterinary dental medicine, veterinary surgery, veterinary nutrition, animal behavior, emergency, critical care, and many 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, they may be assigned responsibilities of varying levels regardless of their 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 maintain the following responsibilities while on the job:

  • Holding or restraining animals when required
  • Monitoring animals recovering from surgery
  • Assisting veterinarians in examining animals
  • Cleaning or maintaining kennels, animal holding areas, or other areas throughout the clinic or practice
Rachel Drummond (Writer)

Rachel is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).