Veterinary technology is one career with many specializations. Just registered nurses (RNs) can choose to work in pediatrics, trauma, or oncology, so too can a vet tech decide to work with small or large animals, in a research facility, or pet clinic, or after-hours emergency care. With a baseline of educational and certification qualifications, a vet tech can pursue their passions in assisting in veterinary surgery and become a surgical vet tech.
Not all positions require certification, but as with most careers, having training and credentials positions a surgical vet tech to access more positions and command higher salaries. The National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NATVA) recognizes 16 veterinary technician specialist (VTS) academies, including the Academy of Veterinary Surgical Technicians (AVST), which offers the Veterinary Technician Specialist in Surgery, or VTS (Surgery) credential.
Beyond entry-level vet tech qualifications, earning the VTS (Surgery) credential requires 10,000 hours, or approximately five years, of professional experience in veterinary surgery. This rewarding career field is predicted to be in demand from 2020 to 2030. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) shows an occupational growth rate of 15 percent for veterinary technicians and technologists, which is twice as fast as the national average.
For vet techs who feel drawn to help animals and pet owners in times of unexpected trauma, becoming a surgical vet tech can be a rewarding and satisfying career. Read on to learn more about becoming a surgical vet tech, including requirements, a step-by-step pathway, and career outlook and salary.
Requirements to Become a Surgical Vet Tech
Before considering a career as a surgical vet tech, one must pursue a career as a veterinary technician or vet tech for short. Vet tech educational programs take two to four years to complete and lead to a two-year associate’s or four-year bachelor’s degree.
In some cases, vet techs earn on-the-job training with a high school diploma. According to O*NET Online (2022), a source from the U.S. Department of Labor, 41 percent of vet techs had a high school degree, while 41 percent learned skills through an associate’s degree or a postsecondary certificate program.
However, the BLS (2021) shows that education and certification requirements for vet techs vary from state to state. Most states require vet techs to take and pass the Veterinary Technician National Examination (VTNE) from the American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB). The AAVSB keeps an updated list of all state veterinary board requirements.
For example, Oregon requires vet techs to take and pass a state-specific test with a score of 100 percent. In 2022, this exam cost $75. In addition, Oregon requires vet techs to take and pass a national exam to work legally.
Finally, after passing state-level vet tech requirements, a surgical vet tech must earn a minimum of five years of surgery experience to earn the Veterinary Technician Specialist in Surgery or VTS (Surgery)credential.
Steps to Becoming a Surgical Vet Tech
Being a certified member of a veterinary surgical team takes approximately seven years. Most of this time is spent learning in school (two to four years) and gaining professional experience as a surgical tech (at least five years).
Step One: Graduate from High School (Four Years)
High school students who know they want to pursue a surgical vet tech career should take biology, chemistry, and communications classes to prepare for college-level courses in veterinary technician programs. If possible, students can seek an internship or part-time employment opportunities in their local communities to learn more about the profession and stand out on vet tech college applications.
Step Two: Enroll in an AVMA-Accredited Vet Tech Program (Two to Four Years)
While some vet techs learn by on-the-job training, earning a degree in veterinary technology positions students to legally work in most states, be eligible for more positions, and make more money and responsibilities in the lifetime of their careers. Most schools offer two- and four-year degrees, and to be eligible for licensure, these programs must be accredited by the AVMA.
Here are two AVMA-accredited on-campus and online veterinary tech programs.
Northern Virginia Community College (on-campus) offers an associate’s of applied science (AAS) degree in veterinary technology. This on-campus program prepares students to work in various veterinary settings in vet clinics, laboratories, institutional or pharmaceutical animal colonies, zoological parks, and federal and state inspections. Upon completing this program, students are eligible to take the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE).
- Location: Annadale, VA
- Duration: Two years
- Accreditation: American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
- Tuition: $181 per credit
St. Petersburg College (online and on-campus) offers three veterinary technology programs: a veterinary practice management certificate, an associate of applied science (AAS), and a bachelor of applied science (BAS) degree program to become a vet tech. The certificate program is designed for AS degree holders wanting to learn management skills. The AAS and BAS programs are accredited by the AVMA and lead to a two- or a four-year degree in veterinary technology.
Students in the AS program can choose to attend on-campus and gain 100 hours of clinical hours per semester in the state-of-the-art vet tech facility. Online students must complete 280 hours of clinical experience with a credentialed mentor at a vet facility. The BAS program offers three sub plans in advanced clinical applications, veterinary hospital management, and clinical and hospital management.
- Location: St. Petersburg, FL
- Duration: 1.5 to four years
- Accreditation: American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
- Tuition: $111.75 to $425.79 per credit
Please visit our Online Veterinary Technician Schools page to learn more about online AVMA-accredited vet tech programs.
Step Three: Take and Pass Vet Tech Exams (Timeline Varies)
Every state has unique licensing requirements for vet techs. Most but not all states require vet techs to pass the VTNE exam to be eligible to work. Some states require state-specific exams in addition to the national exams.
Here are the two national exams for vet techs and the organizations that administer them:
- North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE) issued by the International Council for Veterinary Assessment (ICVA)
- Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE) issued by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB)
The NAVLE is for vet techs and veterinarians. This is a computer-based exam that includes 360 multiple-choice questions. The NAVLE is offered three times a year in the U.S. and Canada, and the fee is $720.
The VTNE is for entry-level vet techs. This computer-based exam consists of 170 multiple choice questions and must be completed in three hours. The VTNE is offered three times per year, and the fee is $330.
Step Four: Earn Professional Experience (Five or More Years)
Becoming a surgical vet tech is a specialized field of veterinary medicine. In fact, those interested in pursuing surgical vet tech certification are required to earn 10,000 hours (or five years) of vet tech experience before applying to take the surgical vet tech exam.
The Academy of Veterinary Surgical Technicians (AVST) requires applicants to be employed for at least 6,000 hours, or three years, in a small or large animal surgical environment. In addition, applicants must prove that 4,500 of those 6,000 hours were devoted to veterinary surgical duties to begin the exam application process.
Step Five: Apply for Surgical Vet Tech Certification (timeline varies)
Once a vet tech has earned 10,000 hours of surgical experience, they can apply in earnest to earn the Veterinary Technician Specialist in Surgery or VTS (Surgery) from AVST. Applicants must complete a rigorous application process including:
- Application form
- Form 1: Professional Experience and History
- Form 2: Case Log
- Form 3: AVST Small Animal Advanced Surgical Skills
- Form 4: Waiver, Release, and Indemnity Agreement
- Form 5: Continuing Education Record
- Letters of recommendation
- Resume or CV
All documents must be saved as PDFs, saved on USB flash drives, and mailed to a physical address. In 2022, required fees include a $50 application fee, a $100 examination fee, and a $40 AVST membership fee.
Once accepted, applicants can take the VTS (Surgery) exam and have three chances within three years to pass the exam.
Career Outlook for Surgical Vet Techs
Careers in veterinary technology are poised for massive growth in the coming decade. The BLS (2021) shows that veterinary technologist and technician careers will grow 15 percent in the coming decade, twice as fast as the national average. This will lead to 17,100 new positions from 2020 to 2030. The median pay for these positions is $36,260 per year.
Surgical vet techs are one of many specialized positions in veterinary medicine. For those who hold an entry-level AAS or BAS degree and certification in veterinary technology, here are some related specialty careers in veterinary medicine to consider.
Veterinary Anesthesia & Analgesia Technician
The Academy of Veterinary Technicians in Anesthesia & Analgesia (AVTAA) is one of the 16 specialty agencies recognized by NAVTA and offers a VTS (Anesthesia & Analgesia credential to vet techs with current state licenses. This exam includes 200 multiple choice questions and short answer questions measuring clinical competency.
A second option to consider is the Anesthesia VTS credential offered by the AVST, which features advanced knowledge for vet techs to perform anesthesia on animals. It’s possible to earn this certification on the pathway to becoming a surgical vet tech.
According to PayScale (2022), vet techs with anesthesia skills earn $16.13 per hour or $38,994 per year based on 1,279 self-reported salary profiles.
Veterinary Dental Technician
The Academy of Veterinary Dental Technicians (AVDT) offers the Veterinary Technician Specialist in Dentistry, or VTS (Dentistry). Applicants must have 25 hours of wet lab training and 15 hours of advanced dental procedures to be eligible. In addition, a two-year mentorship and documentation of categorical and chronological case logs in specific veterinary dentistry is required in addition to other requirements.
There is no specific salary data for veterinary dental technicians. However, since this specialization requires more years of experience, it’s safe to assume professionals with these credentials can earn on the higher end of the salary spectrum. According to the U.S. News & World Report, in March 2022, the top 75 percent of vet techs earned $43,890 per year.
Please visit our Veterinary Dental Tech page for more detailed information on how to pursue this vet tech specialty.
Veterinary Emergency & Critical Care Technician
For vet techs who stay calm under pressure, the Academy of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Technicians and Nurses (AVECCTN) offers the Veterinary Technician Specialists in Emergency and Critical Care VTS(ECC) certification. Applicants must submit documentation of work history, hours, license history, education, and professional references.
According to PayScale (2022), vet techs in emergency critical care earn $19.23 per hour or $79,000 per year based on 16 reported salary profiles.
To learn more about the most lucrative vet tech specialties, please visit our Top Paying Vet Tech Specialist Careers.
How Much Do Surgical Vet Techs Make?
Salaries for vet techs vary widely based on education, certification, and experience. Candidates that meet state education and licensure requirements are more likely to have access to more job opportunities and earn higher salaries compared to those with less training and experience.
The BLS does not have salary data for surgical vet techs but does show that veterinary technologists and technicians earn average annual salaries of $38,250 (BLS May 2021). This number represents the average salary for two positions with different educational requirements – vet techs require two-year degrees, and vet technologists need four-year degrees.
The salary profiles for vet technologists and technicians are as follows (BLS May 2021):
- 10th percentile: $28,370
- 25th percentile: $29,810
- 50th percentile (median): $36,850
- 75th percentile: $45,750
- 90th percentile: $48,100
In 2022, PayScale, a self-reported aggregator of salary data, showed similar salary data specifically for veterinary techs with anesthesia skills at $38,994 per year based on 1,279 salary profiles.
When considering salary data, the cost of living is an essential factor to consider. The Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC) provides a composite cost of living index showing the states that are the most and least expensive places to live. MERIC calculates the cost of essential goods and services such as groceries, housing, utilities, transportation, and healthcare and ranks states for most to least affordable.
For context, based on the MERIC data, vet technologists and technicians living in Nevada (ranked #35) can enjoy a more relatively affordable standard of living compared to vet techs in the District of Columbia, which ranks #50.