Just as in human medicine, there are entire teams of veterinary medical professionals that all work together to help treat and cure sick and suffering pets and animals. Also, like in the human medicine world, many veterinary medical professionals contribute to the health and wellbeing of patients through support roles, instead of through direct patient care. While veterinary assistants sometimes work with animals as a part of their role, the “assistant” designation speaks mostly to how they assist veterinarians and veterinary technicians.
Vet assistants do all the work in the background that makes space for vet techs and veterinarians to provide the best quality care to animals possible. Vet assistants provide services like staffing front desks, doing billing, speaking to insurance companies, greeting human owners of animal patients, providing education to animal owners on meds and general health issues, cleaning and stocking exam rooms, preparing rooms for surgery, and making sure animals are well-fed and well-supplied. Vet assistants need good people and communication skills as they often spend more time working with people than they do working with animals.
Because the role does not require a professional to complete advanced medical procedures, the training-to-work pipeline is the shortest of any other veterinary medicine role. Requiring only months of training, becoming a veterinary assistant is the most cost and time-effective route to working in veterinary medicine. The lack of advanced medical responsibilities also means that there are currently no legal certification or license requirements to work as a veterinary assistant.
Despite this lack of legal requirement, the veterinary medicine field is seeing advances in the expectations for support roles like those held by veterinary assistants. In response, the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) created the Approved Veterinary Assistant (AVA) designation. In order to become an AVA, veterinary assistants need to graduate from a three- to twelve-month NAVTA-approved veterinary assistant training program, and then sit and pass the AVA examination. While passing the exam is not necessary to work, becoming an AVA can make a veterinary assistant more competitive in the job market, or may qualify them to earn more than non-AVA professionals.
Requirements for Veterinary Assistant Certification
The requirements for a veterinary assistant certification are almost identical from state to state. Since the field has just recently begun to move towards standardizing the education of veterinary assistants, most of the certification guidelines are maintained by NAVTA. Although there are some exceptions, in states like California and Texas for example, in most states adhering to these guidelines is the only way to obtain a veterinary assistant certification.
Step 1: Complete a NAVTA-Approved Vet Assistant Program
Training programs that qualify vet assistants to sit for the AVA exam must adhere to NAVTA requirements. In addition to being task-oriented, and taught by credentialed veterinary professionals, NAVTA-accredited programs require assistants to complete at least 150 didactic hours (lectures, labs, etc.), and 100 hours of a clinical externship outside the school facility working on unfamiliar animals. Working with live small animals is required, and working with large or exotic animals is optional but encouraged.
Step 2: Pass the AVA
The second key ingredient to obtaining a vet assistant certification is taking and passing the national exam. Most states require a passing score on the Approved Veterinary Assistant Examination (AVA) as an element to become a certified veterinary assistant. The test consists of 100 questions to be completed in 150 minutes. Students passing with 75 percent or better are considered Approved Veterinary Assistants (AVA). Official certification in most states requires a passing score on the AVA exam and a certificate or diploma from a NAVTA-approved training program.
Notable State Exceptions
There are some exceptions to this general process. For example, the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) offers an alternative certification program to the AVA designation. Through their Certified Veterinary Assistant (CVA) program, students are held to a much higher standard than the NAVTA program. Requirements include 600 hours of hands-on training, a California-based mentor veterinary technician or veterinarian and a 100-question certification exam.
The Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA) offers a hands-on certification process that can be completed while working at a veterinary hospital. To become certified, veterinary assistants in Texas must complete 500 hours of work under a licensed vet or vet tech, and complete the level I certification exam at a 70 percent pass rate. CVAs must then continue working to earn Level II CVA certification, which requires 500 additional hours of work and passing another certification exam at 70 percent.
Similarly, the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA) provides an alternative to the AVA designation. Students must complete 90 days of work experience under the supervision of a veterinarian or registered veterinary technician and must show 100 percent competency in the required skill sets to pass the certifying exam.
The Approved Veterinary Assistant Exam
The Approved Veterinary Assistant (AVA) Exam consists of 100 multiple choice questions which an AVA candidate has 150 minutes to complete. A passing grade on the exam is 75 percent or higher, and candidates have a total of five attempts to achieve a passing score. Each AVA attempt costs $100. The test is closed book, and no outside materials can be used during the exam.
Topics in the exam may include questions that address the following:
- Office and hospital procedures
- Communication and client relations
- Pharmacy and pharmacology
- Exam room procedures
- Small animal nursing
- Surgical preparation and assisting
- Laboratory procedures
- Radiology and ultrasound imaging
Value of Vet Assistant Certification & Specializations
The main value of certification is that it demonstrates high-level competence—it shows the vet assistant knows what they’re doing. As a result, someone with certification may find it easier to gain employment than an untrained vet tech with a high school degree. In fact, some employers may prefer or require an AVA certification prior to employment. In addition to being more competitive in the job market, graduating from a NAVTA-accredited program and passing the AVA exam may lead to higher pay rates than those who have not attained AVA status.
Specialization is when a veterinary assistant focuses their knowledge and skills on one specific aspect of veterinary medicine. Currently, there are no official specialization programs for veterinary assistants. However, a vet assistant can use information about veterinary technician specializations as a guide to understanding where specialized knowledge and skills are needed. Vet assistants who specialize may find it easier to transition to the veterinary technician role, earn a higher salary, or get hired in the first place.
Veterinary Assistant State Licensing Boards
Although individual bodies certify vet assistants, at this time there are no required licenses to work as a veterinary assistant. The National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) identifies programs that meet their requirements and offers an evaluation exam for those interested in being certified as an Approved Veterinary Assistant (AVA).
The California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), the Texas Medical Veterinary Association (TMVA), and the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA) provide similar education and assessment before conferring the Certified Veterinary Assistant (CVA) designation.
Of all of these certifying bodies, NAVTA is the most widely recognized and valued. Once students have passed the Approved Veterinary Assistant Examination (AVA), their education and skills are at a nationally recognized level. This makes them much more competitive for the highest-paying veterinary assistant jobs.