These two questions are extremely controversial and volatile in the world of vet tech work.
The first question, Do you have to graduate from a four year vet tech university program to be a vet tech?, has no easy answers. I’ll try to explain why.
After addressing the first question, I’ll tackle the second, Can you learn how to be a vet tech on the job?, in the latter half of this blog post.
In an ideal world, federal and state laws would mandate vet techs graduate from four year university programs and then take and pass the VTNE (Veterinary Technician National Exam) in order to work as a vet tech.
The reality is that if this were law and policy the veterinary industry would suddenly be paralyzed due to the low numbers of people who are willing to enroll in four year vet tech programs, pay the tuition, undergo the four years of intense and grueling study and tests/exams, and take the national exam . . . and then be hired as a vet tech that likely starts at around $15/hr or lower depending on where they are and what kind of clinic or hospital they apply to work in. You can be hired at a wage higher than $15/hr, but I think that is not the norm based on what I’ve seen and heard on the Internet, and while looking at a lot of job ads.
The general public already complains about the costs of veterinary bills. In order to make vet tech work attractive to more people the industry would need to raise the pay scales to equal those of nurses that work with human patients. This would likely also result in veterinary doctors rightfully demanding their salaries become equal to doctors that work with human patients. The sudden spike in salaries for veterinary doctors and vet techs would raise veterinary medical service costs . . . and there would be probably be a dramatic plunge in the number of people visiting clinics and hospitals with their pets because they either cannot afford to pay the higher prices, or just outright refuse to . . . and the biggest fallout from all of this, in my opinion, would be the animals’ quality of life becoming much worse due to vaccinations being skipped, annual check-ups being neglected, etc.
I write more about this topic and related issues in my book, So You Wanna Be a Vet Tech.
For people who are not sure if they want to make a career as a vet tech, who might not be able to afford the university tuition and costs of living while studying without going into debt with student loans, and other variables . . . they can get hired as kennel techs or veterinary assistants.
A “kennel tech” is someone who works in animal boarding facilities, rescue shelters, or veterinary clinics. Typically, they work with dogs and cats. Their primary tasks are cleaning and taking care of the animals’ non-medical needs.
A “veterinary assistant” is someone who works in a veterinary clinic or hospital and has no vet tech college/university education, no formal training of any kind in veterinary medicine, and is not licensed/certified/registered.
Someone who has not graduated from a four year program and passed the licensing exam may also be hired as an unlicensed “vet tech.” Technically, and legally, this person should not call themselves a “vet tech” because they are, by definition, a “veterinary assistant.” Some (many?) clinic and hospital managers and doctors will, however, tell these people to call themselves “vet techs.”
Vet techs who have graduated from the four year program and passed the licensing exam will ALWAYS use one of the following job titles:
RVT: Registered Vet Tech, LVT: Licensed Vet Tech, CVT: Certified Vet Tech, or a combination of registered/licensed/certified vet nurse.
A vet tech student enrolled in a four year training program will study intensively the following 10 areas:
1. Basic Animal Nursing Care, 2. Anesthesia training, 3. Biochemistry, 4.Vet Anatomy
and Physiology, 5. Animal Diseases, 6. Vet Pathology, 7. Pharmaceutical Training, 8. Surgical Nursing for Animals, 9. Clinic/Lab Work, and 10. Practicum (Hands-on experience working in a clinic).
If you go on YouTube there are vet tech student vlogs you can watch where students talk about how brutally hard the four year program is for them. The volume of information you have to memorize is enormous. Then you have to demonstrate that you can apply that knowledge on tests and exams. The stress is incredibly high for most if not all of the students who often say they had no idea the program would be so hard.
Contrast a vet tech who has successfully graduated from a four year vet tech training program with a vet tech who is starting from zero knowledge and will be learning on the job . . . there is no comparison to be made. They are completely different. It’s like trying to compare a NASA space shuttle with a propeller driven airplane. They are both capable of flying, but the performance abilities are radically different.
Can you learn how to be a vet tech on the job?
The answer to this question is yes, but the complexity of the answer demands that the question be re-framed in order to raise awareness about how different the learning is for someone who doesn’t do the four year university program.
Can you learn the basic skills and minimum amount of medical knowledge required to do vet tech work on the job?
Yes. But there are significant differences that need to be mentioned.
Learning in an exam room from a veterinary doctor or senior vet tech while the client and patient are present can be very challenging.
Vet techs do many different jobs: 1. Nurse, 2. Lab Technician, 3. Pharmacy Technician, 4. Radiology Technician, 5. Dental Hygienist, 6. Surgical Technician, 7. Anesthetist, 8. Grief Counselor . . . and more.
For each of these jobs there are dozens of micro-skills you have to learn, practice, and try to master. You also have to try to learn the medical knowledge that is married to the different skills and procedures you need to do.
I talk about what it’s like to be a new vet tech, technically a vet assistant, in my book So You Wanna Be a Vet Tech. In the book, there are many pictures that show you what the different tasks look like in real life. I also go into detail about what it’s like learning on the job, and offer tips and strategies for managing the stress that comes with learning when it’s not in a classroom or laboratory setting with pre-study for the topic and task done in a textbook, listening to a lecture, and then practicing in a controlled setting without a client, doctor, and/or other vet techs present watching you as you try something new for the first time with little to no practice.
Of the two paths to becoming a vet tech, learning on the job has a very different set of challenges and stresses.
It is possible to do. Many have done it. I hope that this blog, and my book, will be useful to those that choose to take the learning on the job path.