According to the 2021-2022 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, 70 percent of U.S. households own a pet, which equates to 90.5 million homes.
For those who are interested in working with animals, a career in animal medicine can be an engaging option. Professionals who are looking forward to assisting veterinarians and working in animal healthcare should consider becoming veterinary nurses.
Veterinary nurses play an important role and are crucial in assisting licensed veterinarians with several tasks, including monitoring animal patients after an operation and performing safety procedures. Learning about the role and duties of veterinary nurses and how to become one can help candidates determine if this is the career they would like to pursue. This piece discusses the duties of a veterinary nurse, the requirements and steps to becoming one, their career outlook, and their salary prospects.
But before we dive into the details, let us first understand the difference between a veterinary nurse and a veterinary technician. The term veterinary nurse typically refers to either veterinary technologists or veterinary technicians. It’s a matter of personal preference the term used to describe the work performed. There is hardly any difference between these two jobs (vet nurse vs. vet tech) as they both perform almost the same duties.
There is, however, a difference between technicians and technologists. Technicians generally have at least an associate degree, while technologists are typically bachelor’s prepared. Technicians usually work within privately owned clinics, while technologists will have the option of working in more research-based facilities. Whether a tech or a technologist, they both fall can under the category of a veterinary nurse. A veterinary nurse is just a new name for veterinary technicians.
For example, Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine states that licensed veterinary technicians, also called veterinary nurses, are crucial members of the veterinary healthcare team.
What is a Veterinary Nurse and What Do Veterinary Nurses Do?
As mentioned above, a veterinary nurse is a healthcare professional who helps veterinarians with providing treatment for animals. These professionals work in veterinary offices with veterinary doctors and other veterinary staff, including administrative assistants and technicians.
They can have various responsibilities, such as assisting licensed veterinarians during surgery, providing physical therapy to animals, analyzing laboratory specimens, and administering medication.
The typical duties of veterinary nurses include:
- Preparing animal patients for surgeries and other surgical procedures
- Assisting veterinarians in operating theatres
- Providing support to owners and their animals before, during, and after operations
- Administering fluid therapy and medications to patients
- Carrying out consultations as veterinary nurses
- Applying bandages to fractures and wounds
- Observing and record vital signs of patients such as their temperature, respiration, pulse, and pain
- Assisting in emergency procedures
- Educating owners on preventative care and nutrition and provide basic behavioral advice
- Taking radiographs
- Carrying out several diagnostic tests in practice laboratories such as urine and blood samples
- Supporting and managing teams
- Dispensing medication and showing owners how to use them
Requirements to Become a Vet Nurse
The requirements for becoming a vet nurse or a vet tech vary by specialty and state. Several regional laws are defining the scope of practice in this field. For instance, New Jersey does not require their veterinary nurses or vet techs to be professionally credentialed, while others such as Indiana or Tennessee require them to be registered or licensed, respectively.
For states that require professional certification, licensure, or registration, the requirements would typically include completing postsecondary education at approved institutions which requires two to four years and maintaining the credential through continuing education (CE) hours.
O*NET (2022) states that there are several reported job titles for veterinary technologists and technicians and a veterinary nurse (vet nurse) is one of them. It found that 41 percent of responding veterinary technologists and technicians have a high school diploma as their highest academic credential, followed by an associate’s degree at 26 percent.
Steps to Becoming a Vet Nurse
Becoming a veterinary nurse has varied paths. Some might directly seek employment at veterinary clinics and receive on-the-job training. For applicants who are interested in advancement opportunities, greater responsibilities, and possibly higher salaries, enrolling in a formal training program may be a preferable option.
Here is one possible path to becoming a veterinary nurse:
Step 1: Graduate from high school (four years)
For admission to a veterinary school, applicants must have a high school diploma or must have earned a GED. They must have completed a science-focused education enrolling in science and biology courses as these subjects hold importance in the veterinary field.
As many veterinary nurse positions require hands-on work in laboratories, candidates must also be comfortable working with sensitive scientific instruments and conducting tests. At this stage, some candidates may choose to volunteer at animal shelters, clinics, or other healthcare facilities that handle feathered, scaly-skinned, or furry patients.
Step 2: Complete an accredited program in animal science or veterinary technology (two to four years)
As mentioned above, the requirements for becoming a veterinary nurse vary by one’s state of residence. It is advisable for applicants to complete an associate or a bachelor’s degree program accredited by the CVTEA (Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities), a branch of the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association). The CVTEA evaluates several factors such as the student outcomes, a program’s comprehensiveness of curricula, quality of facilities, admission processes, and finances.
Admission requirements generally include official high school transcripts (showcasing courses specified above); a background check; official SAT or ACT scores and TOEFL scores for non-native speakers of English; proof of health insurance and immunizations; and an application fee. Some programs might also require students to have veterinary experience and provide letters of recommendation, or interviews as well.
Typical courses may include anatomy and physiology; introduction to veterinary nursing; pathology; animal nutrition and management; laboratory animal science; veterinary nutrition; pharmacology; surgery and radiology; animal dentistry; principles of medicine; anesthesia; critical care; specialty medicine; and veterinary medical ethics.
There are both online and on-campus CVTEA accredited programs available. It is important to mention that some states may waive off the education requirement if veterinary nurses have several years of work experience.
Step 3: Pass the Veterinary Technician National Examination – VTNE (timeline varies)
Offered by the AAVSB (American Association of Veterinary State Boards), this examination is a typical requirement for certification, registration, or licensure as a veterinary nurse in most U.S. states. As a proxy for program quality, national law mandates that schools must disclose their three-year, VTNE first-time passing rate among program graduates.
Most provincial agencies and states use the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE) for evaluating the competency of entry-level veterinary nurses and requires a passing score for veterinary nurses to be credentialed.
Applicants are encouraged to check the passing rate of their program on this exam to verify that past graduates have met the necessary national standards. This three-hour exam consists of 170 multiple-choice questions and costs $330.
This exam tests candidates’ knowledge in nine distinct domains:
- Pharmacy and pharmacology
- Surgical nursing
- Laboratory procedures
- Animal care and nursing
- Diagnostic imaging
- Emergency medicine or critical care
- Pain management or analgesia
Step 4: Apply for state credentialing (timeline varies)
The credentialing standards for veterinary nurses vary by state, typically involving official transcripts from CVTEA-accredited programs; submission of VTNE scores; and paying an application fee.
States such as Washington also require students to take the state examination, while others may ask for passport photos, a background check, and official proof of citizenship.
Step 5: Renewing credentials and completing continuing education requirements (timeline varies)
Vet nurses must maintain their professional certifications, licensures, or registrations through the completion of continuing education (CE) hours. Completion of CE hours can be fulfilled through online coursework, publications, qualified conferences, presentations, and other such methods. The type of approved CE varies by region.
Becoming a Veterinary Nurse Specialist (VNS) or a Veterinary Technician Specialist (VTS)
The NAVTA Committee on Veterinary Technician Specialties helps veterinary nurses and technicians in attaining a higher level of recognition for their advanced skills and knowledge in specific disciplines.
Candidates who receive certification from a NAVTA-approved academy will be able to use the Veterinary Technician Specialist (VTS) or Veterinary Nurse Specialist (VNS) logo with the addition of the text delineating their specialty area of certification.
The NAVTA has several different specialty options that can further enhance an applicant’s career advancement and earning potential. By focussing on a specific specialty veterinary nurses can possess an in-depth understanding of a particular species.
Career Outlook for Vet Nurses
In the United States, the future looks very bright for aspiring veterinary nurses and veterinary techs. As proof of point, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2020) expects vet tech openings nationwide to swell 15 percent between 2020 and 2030, much faster than the average growth projected for all occupations during that time (8 percent).
The expected addition of 17,100 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 2021-2022) found that 90.5 million homes had pets and in 2020, an estimated $109.6 billion was expected to be spent on American pets in 2021.
How Much Do Vet Nurses Make? Veterinary Nursing Salary
The salary for veterinary nurses varies by region, level of experience, employer, and even source of data. Since this career requires minimal formal qualifications, the average annual salary is somewhat lower than the average for all occupations ($56,310).
By illustration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2020) found that among 109,490 veterinary techs or nurses nationwide, the annual average salary (mean annual wage) was $37,860.
In more detailed terms, American vet techs (or nurses) had the following salary percentiles:
|Number of Veterinary Technicians Employed||109,490|
|Annual mean wage||$37,860|
|50th Percentile (median)||$36,260|
Based on the annual mean wage, the following five states offer the highest salaries to vet techs or nurses (BLS May 2020):
|State||Number of Jobs||Annual mean wage|
|District of Columbia||160||$66,850|
While some high-paying states, like California, also have many employment opportunities, the states with the most opportunities do not always offer the highest salaries. The states with the most opportunities for vet nurses are as follows (BLS May 2020):
|State||Number of Jobs||Annual mean wage|
When looking at the breakdown of veterinary nurse salaries geographically, it’s important to consider the cost of living. Generally, states with higher costs of living will offer wages higher than the national average, and those with a lower cost of living will offer wages that fall below national averages.
According to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2022), the most affordable states in which to live are Mississippi, Kansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Georgia. The most expensive regions in the United States are Hawaii, the District of Columbia, California, New York, and Massachusetts.
As mentioned above, these figures also vary based on the source of data. By illustration, Indeed (2022) found an average annual salary of $23,192 among United States veterinary nurses, and Payscale (2022)—a data aggregator of self-reported salaries in common occupations—found the following percentiles nationally:
- 10th percentile: $25,000
- 50th percentile (median): $44,962
- 90th percentile: $68,000
Accredited Veterinary Nursing Programs
Harcum College offers an associate of science (AS) degree program in veterinary nursing preparing students to enter the workforce as veterinary nurses or technicians in zoo or wildlife medicine, private veterinary practices, pharmaceutical sales, teaching, biomedical research, humane societies, raising livestock, or anywhere that the welfare of animals is concerned. The program also includes two 12-week practicums: one at New Bolton Center (large-animal hospital) and one at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (small-animal hospital).
Made up of 92 to 93 credits, the program includes courses such as anatomy and physiology of domestic animals; laboratory animal science; pharmacology and anesthesia; intensive care rotation; critical care rotation; advanced nursing skills; and anesthesia rotation.
The first-time pass rate for Harcum graduates on the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE) was 84 percent between 2018 and 2021.
- Location: Bryn Mawr, PA
- Accreditation: AVMA-CVTEA; Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- Expected Time to Completion: Six semesters
- Estimated Tuition: $825 per credit
Independence Community College offers an associate of applied science degree in veterinary nursing providing training to students in the form of hands-on field experiences, classroom instruction, and professional internships in animal care facilities. Students will work with real animal patients tackling real-life situations which will provide them with essential preparation to work as veterinary nurses.
Comprising 81 credits, the program includes courses such as introduction to vet nursing; anatomy and physiology of domestic animals; veterinary nursing practices; microbiology; radiology, ultrasound, and diagnostic imaging; veterinary pharmacology; veterinary surgical nursing; and large and small animal healthcare and nursing.
Independence Community College graduates had a 53 percent first-time pass rate on the VTNE between 2018 and 2021.
- Location: Independence, KS
- Accreditation: AVMA-CVTEA; The Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Expected Time to Completion: Four semesters
- Estimated Tuition: In-district ($142 to $162 per credit); out-of-district ($148 to $168 per credit); out-of-state ($155 to $175 per credit)
Truckee Meadows Community College’s associate of applied science (AAS) degree in veterinary nursing prepares students to practice as licensed veterinary nurses or technicians. Graduates will be ready to find opportunities in general or specialty private practices, research facilities, pharmaceutical companies, veterinary teaching hospitals, or other agencies where veterinary nurse skills are needed.
Consisting of 73 credits, the program includes courses such as introduction to veterinary nursing; veterinary medical terminology; clinical anatomy and physiology; veterinary office and clinical procedures; animal nursing; diagnostic imaging; surgical anesthesia, nursing and dental procedures; and directed veterinary nursing practice.
This four-semester program has produced impressive results among its graduates on the Veterinary Technician National Examination (VTNE). In fact, between 2018 and 2021, 94 percent of Truckee Meadows Community College’s graduates passed the VTNE on their first attempt.
- Location: Reno, NV
- Accreditation: AVMA-CVTEA; Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
- Estimated Tuition: Lower division ($109.75 per credit); upper division ($180 per credit)
Murray State College offers an associate in applied science degree in veterinary nursing helping students gain the required skills that encourage professionalism and lifelong learning. Graduates will become excellent providers of quality healthcare for animals and provide much-needed veterinary services.
The program consists of 78 credits including classes in veterinary medical terminology; physiology of domestic animals; anatomy of domestic animals; diseases of domestic animals; veterinary imaging; veterinary hospital management; and anesthesia and surgical nursing. Impressively, between 2018 and 2021, 95 percent of Murray State College’s graduates passed the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE) on their first attempt.
At the end of the program, graduates can pursue opportunities in pharmaceutical companies, zoological parks, veterinary hospitals, veterinary clinical laboratories, non-profit organizations, veterinary supply companies, and many such places.
- Location: Ardmore, OK
- Accreditation: AVMA-CVTEA; Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
- Estimated Tuition: OK resident ($140 per credit); non-resident ($301 per credit)