What Is a Vet Assistant and What Do Vet Assistants Do?
With the recent explosion of organic pet foods, handsewn costumes, and psychiatric medicines for people’s furry, feathered, and scaly companions, it’s clear that pets hold a privileged position in many households. In fact, an annual survey by American Pet Products Association (APPA 2020) found that 67 percent of US households have pets, up from 56 percent in 1988.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC 2021) has repeatedly emphasized the positive effects of animals on lowering people’s blood pressure, cholesterol, triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness. For animal-lovers seeking a career with minimal training, becoming a veterinary assistant can be a fulfilling option.
So what is a veterinary assistant? And what do these animal care specialists do? According to O*NET (2021)—a data organization affiliated with the US Department of Labor—vet assistants are on the front lines of animal caretaking, taking on responsibilities such as managing the everyday needs of animals (e.g., feeding, bathing, exercising); restraining animals during examinations and procedures; assisting with non-invasive medical procedures; disinfecting cages and kennels; scheduling medical appointments with pet-owners; sterilizing equipment and surgical rooms; monitoring veterinary patients’ health status (e.g., taking weight or temperature); and educating pet-owners.
These professionals may help veterinary technicians and veterinarians in more advanced capacities such as administering medication, processing laboratory samples, and performing medical tests (e.g., x-rays). Veterinary assistants are typically employed by animal clinics and veterinary hospitals, sometimes working nights, weekends, and holidays to meet the needs of their veterinary patients.
While veterinary technicians and technologists may need state registration, certification, or licensure in addition to a two- to four-year degree prior to seeking employment, veterinary assistants require less formal training.
Read on to discover how to become a veterinary assistant—including interviews with the experts and information on requirements, education, and professional certification—as well as how much money these animal caretakers can make, their projected career outlook, and how they can join related professions.
Requirements to Become a Vet Assistant
In order to become a veterinary assistant, candidates typically need at least a high school diploma to qualify. O*NET (2021) found that 78 percent of responding veterinary assistants and laboratory animal caretakers have a high school diploma as their highest academic credential.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA 2021), veterinary assistants support the clinical activities of veterinary technicians and veterinarians by performing clerical work, animal restraint, and daily caretaking of veterinary patients. Although there are some quality training programs in this field, there is no formal credentialing exam for veterinary assistants. On the contrary, many are trained on-the-job, although the required education and scope of practice for these animal caretaking professionals varies by state.
Georgia, for instance, defines a veterinary assistant as someone who has on the job training or a single year of formal training. Texas, by contrast, has established a state certification process for vet assistants through the Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA). Other states such as New Hampshire and Hawaii specify no state-mandated restrictions on the scope of practice of veterinary assistants.
Overall, for aspiring veterinary assistants, it can be advisable to pursue a formal training program to enhance one’s resume, job candidacy, and salary prospects. The renowned Ohana Pet Hospital in Ventura, California actually prefers vet assistant candidates with an associate degree in veterinary technology (or an equivalent registered veterinary technician [RVT] program). Other typical requirements to join this profession include strong communication skills, compassion, punctuality, basic math skills, and the ability to lift at least 30 lbs.
Steps to Becoming A Vet Assistant
There are varied paths to becoming a veterinary assistant. Some choose to seek employment directly at veterinary clinics and get trained on-the-job. For those interested in greater responsibilities, opportunities for advancement, and possibly higher pay, enrolling in a training program may be a preferable alternative.
Here is one possible path to becoming a veterinary assistant:
Graduate from high school (four years). As mentioned above, a high school diploma is a typical prerequisite to employment in this profession. Aspiring vet assistants are encouraged to excel in courses such as biology which is a prerequisite to some certificate and degree programs. At this stage, students are encouraged to volunteer in local animal hospitals, veterinary clinics, farms, laboratories, and other environments to garner hands-on experience working with animals.
Enroll in a veterinary assistant program (one year). According to the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA 2021), there are currently 51 programs—including four distance-based options—approved by NAVTA to become an Approved Veterinary Assistant (AVA). Although this credential is not essential for employment, it can enhance one’s job prospects among employers.
Typical application requirements for these programs include having a high school diploma or GED and completing prerequisite courses either before or concurrently with the program (e.g., biology, medical terminology). Here are four exemplary veterinary assistant programs:
|Animal Behavior College (ABC)
Santa Clarita, CA
|Yes||With 10 discrete stages of training in animal restraint, examination room procedures, small animal nursing, and radiology & ultrasound imaging, this program exposes students to the basics of veterinary technology. Additionally, students must complete a local externship at the end of their program to put their newfound abilities to practice. It typically takes one year.|
|Yes||This NAVTA-approved online veterinary assistant program comprises five units: orientation, office management, veterinary anatomy & pharmacology, small animal nursing, and clinical procedures. The program includes a one-year membership to NAVTA and “virtual field trips” to enhance training, in addition to a 120-hour supervised externship.|
|Front Range Community College
Fort Collins, CO
|No||FRCC offers a variety of on-campus veterinary technician and laboratory animal care programs, including a two-semester certificate for aspiring veterinary assistants. With classes such as veterinary medical terminology, surgical nursing & care, and a 72-hour internship, this 16.25-credit program gives an introductory overview to veterinary medicine.|
|Carroll Community College
|No||This on-campus veterinary assistant certificate program has core courses in outpatient care, diagnostics & pharmacy, and surgery & anesthesia.|
Seek professional certification (timeline varies). Following the completion of a qualified NAVTA-approved veterinary assistant program, students receive a code to take the exam for the Approved Veterinary Assistant (AVA) credential. Students enter the code into the VetMedTeam website, which provides a proctor for the 100-question exam. Students have 150 minutes to complete the test once the exam window has been opened and must pass with a score of at least 75 percent.
The AVA credential is valid for two years. Although professional certification is not mandatory, it can serve as an indicator of a job applicant’s knowledge of veterinary caretaking. As mentioned above, some states provide veterinary assistant certification. For example, the Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA) offers the certified veterinary assistant (CVA) designation. Similarly, the Florida Veterinary Medical Association (FVMA) provides a CVA credential to qualifying vet assistants. Please check with local state boards of veterinary medicine to verify requirements and scope of practice restrictions.
Maintain AVA certification (every two years). In order to keep AVA certifications active, vet assistants must complete 10 credits of continuing education (CE). Opportunities for CE include attending classes, conferences, online courses, and onsite seminars.
Career Outlook for Vet Assistants
There’s good news for aspiring veterinary assistants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020), openings in this profession are expected to swell 16 percent between 2019 and 2029, a stronger growth projection than what’s anticipated for all occupations during that time period (4 percent). The expected addition of 15,700 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 2019) found that 84.9 million homes had pets and in 2019, an incredible $99 billion is expected to be spent on American pets in 2020.
In addition to veterinary assisting, there are several careers which animal-lovers can pursue with additional education, training, and professional certification. Here are a few animal healthcare careers for ambitious veterinary assistants to consider.
Laboratory Animal Technician or Technologist
The American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS) offers three specialized certifications: assistant laboratory animal technician (ALAT), laboratory animal technician (LAT), and laboratory animal technologist (LATG).
Each of the certifications requires a mix of education and experience on-the-job. Candidates with a high school diploma, for instance, can qualify for ALAT certification with one year of laboratory animal science experience, LAT (three years), and LATG (five years). Qualified candidates must pass an exam. Certification is not mandatory to work in this field, but can enhance a person’s candidacy for a job.
Veterinary Technician or Technologist
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA 2021) distinguishes between vet assistants and vet techs, stating that vet techs typically pursue two to four years of postsecondary education and have a greater scope of practice than vet assistants, giving support to veterinarians during complex surgical procedures and performing laboratory analyses to help diagnose medical conditions.
Technicians generally have associate degrees, whereas technologists have bachelor’s degrees, and both are encouraged to seek out veterinary technology programs accredited by the AVMA. These programs feature courses such as mammalian anatomy & physiology, veterinary pathology, parasitology, animal nursing, diagnostic imaging, and research methods. Following the completion of a qualifying program, prospective vet techs typically take the national Veterinary Technician National Examination (VTNE), a test administered by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB).
Additionally, depending on the region of practice, vet techs may have to become certified, licensed, or registered by the state. Here is a comprehensive guide to vet tech licensing and renewal by state. These credentials must be maintained with renewal applications and the fulfillment of continuing education (CE) requirements.
Finally, there are various specialties for veterinary technicians and technologists to consider, which can be pursued following the completion of additional coursework, training, experience, and passing an exam. Once a vet tech has fulfilled all credentialing requirements, he or she may qualify as a vet tech specialist (VTS) in dentistry, nutrition, radiology, emergency & critical care, or equine nursing, among others.
For more information, please check out the how to become a VTS page.
Veterinary Technician Anesthesiologist
After becoming a veterinary technician or technologist, a person may seek out opportunities to administer anesthesia. Following the completion of 8,000 supervised working hours in veterinary clinics—75 percent of which (i.e., 6,000 hours) must be used giving anesthesia—a person may qualify for the credentialing exam through the Academy of Veterinary Technician Anesthetists (AVTA).
For more information on how to join this career, please visit the how to become a vet tech anesthetist page.
Animal Psychologist or Behaviorist
This subfield of veterinary science typically requires at least a two-year graduate degree in animal behavior or a related field. The Animal Behavior Society (ABS) provides two levels of certification to qualified candidates who pass an exam: the associate certified applied animal behaviorist (ACAAB) credential to master’s-prepared candidates, and the certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB) credential to doctoral-prepared candidates.
For more information on this subfield of veterinary medicine, please visit the how to become an animal psychologist page.
Finally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), veterinarians must complete a doctor of veterinary medicine (i.e., DVM or VMD)—the terminal degree in the discipline—as well as pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE) and applicable state licensure exams. Additionally, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recognizes 38 specialties, including surgery, neurology, microbiology, virology, and internal medicine. Please note that advanced certification requirements vary by specialty.
How Much Do Vet Assistants Make?
The salary for veterinary assistants varies by level of experience, region, employer, and even source of data. Since this is a profession requiring minimal formal qualifications, the average annual salary is somewhat lower than the average for all occupations. By illustration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019) found that among 97,030 veterinary assistants and laboratory animal caretakers nationwide, the annual average salary was $29,690.
National annual salary percentiles for vet assistants in 2019 were:
|50th Percentile (Median)||$28,590|
Based on median salary, the following five states offer the highest salaries to vet assistants:
|State||Number of Jobs||50th Percentile (Median) Salary|
While some high-paying states, like California, also have many employment opportunities, the states with the most opportunity do not always offer the highest salaries. The states with the most opportunities for vet assistants are as follows:
|State||Number of Jobs||50th Percentile (Median) Salary|
When looking at the breakdown of vet assistant 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 2021) the most affordable states in which to live are Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Alabama. The most expensive regions in the United States are New York, Oregon, California, the District of Columbia, and Hawaii.
Here’s a detailed breakdown of the numbers of vet assistants employed and the expected salary ranges by state.
Vet Assistant Employment & Salary by State
|State||VET ASSISTANTS EMPLOYED (MAY 2019)||2019 SALARY DATA|
|Annual 10th Percentile Wage||Annual Median Wage (50th Percentile)||Annual 90th Percentile Wage|
|DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA AREA||2,420||$21,520||$28,360||$39,230|