What is a Veterinary Technician and What Do Vet Techs Do?
A veterinary technician—a trained nurse for animals—carefully opens a sleeping dog’s mouth. They reveal two rows of sharp teeth and start taking x-rays to show weaknesses where the enamel has worn down over time. They document their observations from the diagnostic image and prepare the patient file. This particular veterinary technician is a specialist (a VTS) and has been specially trained in canine dentistry. They may assist the veterinarian if the patient needs a tooth extracted. When becoming a veterinary technician, a professional may find themselves enacting important roles like this in a clinic or animal hospital.
For animal-lovers seeking an accelerated degree program—one which is more affordable and less time-consuming than attending veterinary medical school—becoming a veterinary technician (vet tech) can be an excellent option.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), vet techs play a crucial role in veterinary settings by monitoring the health conditions of animal patients; taking diagnostic images with sophisticated equipment; providing veterinarians with surgical, dental, anesthetic, and other types of assistance; restraining animals during routine examinations; processing laboratory samples; liaising with pet-owners; preparing vaccines and serums; maintaining clinic inventory; and ensuring the smooth functioning of the veterinary office.
The professional dedication in this field is reflected in the Veterinary Technician’s Oath, which is quoted here in full from the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA):
“I solemnly dedicate myself to aiding animals and society by providing excellent care and services for animals, by alleviating animal suffering, and by promoting public health. I accept my obligations to practice my profession conscientiously and with sensitivity, adhering to the profession’s Code of Ethics, and furthering my knowledge and competence through a commitment to lifelong learning.”
The following is a comprehensive guide on how to become a veterinary technician. Keep reading to learn more about veterinary technicians working in the field, vet tech scope of practice, details on how to become a veterinary technician specialist, and a breakdown of the licensure and certification requirements to become a credentialed veterinary technician.
Interviews with the Experts: Three Prominent Vet Techs
“Be certain that you are taking ownership of your own nursing practice and do not be afraid to pursue what fulfills you the most.”
Kenichiro Yagi, NAVTA “Vet Tech of the Year”
Three outstanding vet techs and educators graciously agreed to an exclusive interview, sharing why they became veterinary technicians or technologists, their greatest professional challenges, and their advice for those seeking to join this high-growth, impactful career.
Mr. Yagi is a multi-talented vet tech specialist who serves as the Program Director for the RECOVER CPR Initiative and the simulation lab manager of the Tetlow and Roy Park Innovation Laboratory at Cornell University. Up until 2018, Mr. Yagi served as the blood bank manager and ICU supervisor at Adobe Animal Hospital in Los Altos, CA. He holds VTS certifications in emergency and critical care and small animal medicine. He has provided over 700 lectures and workshops, imparting his knowledge to others in his field.
Mr. Yagi has lectured internationally and holds prominent leadership positions in NAVTA, the Veterinary Emergency Critical Care Society, and the Academy of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Technicians. He finished his master’s degree in biomedical sciences, veterinary medicine, and surgery from the University of Missouri.
What made you decide to become a vet tech?
I actually had not originally planned on becoming a veterinary technician, but it was once I started to work with our patients that I realized how much of a difference I can make on a one-on-one basis for each of the animals in our care. Now I enjoy helping create the best environment and providing the tools for others to serve in this role by being an active lecturer and author.
What are some of the greatest challenges in your profession?
One of the greatest challenges in the profession lies in the fact that we cannot save all of our patients. There are various factors that come into play that lead to an outcome for a patient. We can do our best to prepare ourselves in the ability, knowledge, preparation, teamwork, and diligence to give the patients their best chance and quality of life possible given any situation.
Do you have any advice for aspiring vet techs?
Be certain that you are taking ownership of your own nursing practice and do not be afraid to pursue what fulfills you the most. Whether that means you put yourself in a practice that will utilize you to the fullest or aiming to become a veterinary technician specialist, do what you love to do, and you’ll have a successful career.
Ms. Sheffield received her bachelor’s degree in animal science with a specialization in dairy science from the University of Maryland and her master’s of education from the University of Illinois. She’s been a professor at Colorado Mountain College since 2002 and is an avid hiker, cyclist, and bird-watching enthusiast. Notably, she was the recipient of the Colorado “Vet Tech of the Year” award in 2013.
What made you decide to become a vet tech?
From a young age, I knew I wanted to work with animals, but at that time, it seemed becoming a veterinarian was the only viable option for a career involving animals. One year after graduating from high school and totally by chance, I discovered that my local community college, Blue Ridge Community College, had a well-established program in veterinary technology. Being an animal “nurse” was exactly what I wanted to do.
What are some of the greatest challenges in your profession? And how do overcome them?
I think one of the greatest challenges in this profession is educating the public about everything veterinary technicians do to improve the health and lives of animals. Most people have no idea about the level of training and the breadth of knowledge, skills, and abilities veterinary technicians contribute to the care and well-being of our patients.
Do you have any advice for aspiring vet techs?
From the moment you decide on this profession, get every bit of experience you can, however you can. Volunteer if you have to. Everything you see, touch, hear, and smell will contribute to your knowledge base. And remember that veterinary medicine requires a commitment to lifelong learning. The best veterinarians and veterinary technicians I know are quick to say that they learn something new every single day.
Ms. Bertholf received her bachelor’s of science in veterinary technology with cum laude honors, and her master’s in organizational leadership from Mercy College, where she now serves as an instructor and assistant professor. She teaches courses including the introduction to veterinary science, surgical nursing and radiography, and small animal disease treatment. She’s currently in practice at Animal Medical of New City, where she’s served as an LVT for more than 20 years.
What made you decide to become a vet tech?
I decided to become a veterinary technologist because I always had a love for animals and I really enjoy working with my hands, problem-solving, and being part of a team. Ironically enough, I was enrolled and scheduled to go to college for audio engineering when I realized my passion was really for animals. At the time, I didn’t know there was such a thing as becoming a licensed vet tech. In 1994, I couldn’t do a Google search, as it wasn’t the age of information.
My mother was a nurse and I always admired how she dedicated her life to caring for people. Once I found out there was such a thing in the veterinary field, I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted a career where I could make a difference, not just a job. It was so exciting to know that I would be able to affect the lives of each animal I worked with.
What are some of the greatest challenges in your profession? And how do overcome them?
There are many challenges in this field, but I think some of the greatest ones are preventing compassion fatigue and advancing within the field. I think both of these factors [shorten the typical workspan] of many technicians in clinical practice, which is generally five to ten years—a startling statistic. To prevent compassion fatigue, I think it’s crucial to recognize that many of our patients have short lifespans, especially when we compare them to our human counterparts in the human medical profession.
Our patients don’t live as long, so we are going to be exposed to more death on a daily basis. I have been able to focus on how I have been able to be a part of improving the lives of my patients. Even during euthanasia, I am thankful that I am able to be a part of the process, ensuring they are treated with love and respect, making it peaceful, loving and pain-free.
If I can aid in that process, even at the end of their life, I see that as a success, rather than a failure. I see it as a gift of peace and I have been able to develop a healthy perspective about it, focusing on what I can give in each situation, what I can learn, and how that will help my future patients. I strive to look forward, rather than dwell on the past and what I couldn’t change, and I also celebrate the ways I was able to comfort that animal and the owner of that pet, even in the worst of times.
I know finding opportunities for advancement within the field is cited by many as an issue for vet techs. I have been able to overcome this by always thinking about what other responsibilities I can take on, what additional skills—technical, administrative, and leadership-oriented—I can obtain to be more valuable.
Do you have any advice for aspiring vet techs?
My advice for aspiring veterinary technicians would be to focus on math and science in the years leading up to college, as it is a big part of what we do every day in practice. [These skills] will help them be successful in a vet tech program. Many students cringe at the thought of math, but I encourage my students to recognize what a big part math will play in helping animals, such as alleviating pain, calculating anesthetic dosages, and giving life-saving medication.
To me, it’s all about mindset. Once it’s something that is important to you, it changes your view about it. I wasn’t exactly passionate about math in high school, but once I realized how important it was in relation to my ability to help an animal in need, it changed everything. Critical thinking and problem-solving are a big part of our job, and being able to develop these skills will allow you to provide better care for your patients and make you a more valuable team member, allowing you to do wonderful things for these animals who are relying on you for help.
Scope of Practice for Vet Techs
When thinking about how to become a vet tech, it’s important to illuminate the reality that NAVTA distinguishes between veterinary technicians and vet technologists. Veterinary technicians typically have a two-year associate degree, while technologists have a four-year bachelor’s degree and may take on greater responsibilities in a clinic.
In both fields, the scope of practice and laws governing professional credentialing vary widely by state. Several states, for example, allow non-veterinarians to perform equine dentistry. These include Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Texas, to name a few. Other states do not allow vet techs to fulfill this function.
Additionally, a majority of states require their vet techs to secure state licensure, certification, or registration, while others do not regulate professional credentialing. Scope of practice for each state can be found at Veterinary State Board Websites.
How to Become A Veterinary Technician
As mentioned above, the requirements to become a vet tech vary by state and specialty. There are different regional laws that define the scope of practice in this field. For example, states such as New Jersey do not require their vet techs to be professionally credentialed. Other states such as Tennessee or Indiana require that these animal healthcare workers be licensed and registered, respectively.
For areas requiring professional certification, registration, or licensure, the requirements typically involve completing two to four years of postsecondary education at an approved institution, in addition to paying an application fee and maintaining the credential through the completion of continuing education (CE) hours.
Here’s a detailed step-by-step guide for how to become a vet tech:
STEP 1: Graduate from high school or get a diploma-equivalent like a GED. In addition to a love of animals and empathy, vet techs typically have strong backgrounds in science with high marks in classes such as biology, physiology (if offered), and chemistry. Due to the hands-on lab work involved in many vet tech positions, students must be comfortable handling sensitive scientific instruments, conducting tests, and interpreting results. Some people at this stage may find it useful to volunteer in animal clinics, shelters, or other facilities handling furry, feathered, or scaly-skinned patients.
STEP 2: Complete an accredited degree program in veterinary technology or animal science (two to four years). Regardless of one’s state of residence, it’s advisable to seek out associate or bachelor’s degree programs accredited by the Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities (CVTEA), a branch of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). The CVTEA evaluates factors such as a program’s comprehensiveness of curricula, student outcomes, quality of facilities, finances, and admissions processes.
Admissions committees at CVTEA-accredited programs generally call for official high school transcripts (with coursework specified above); official test scores (SAT or ACT, and TOEFL for non-native speakers of English); undergoing a background check; providing proof of immunizations and health insurance; and paying an application fee.
Some of the more competitive programs may call for veterinary experience, letters of recommendation, or candidate interviews as well. Typical courses in these veterinary technology programs include mammalian anatomy & physiology; veterinary medical calculations; pathology; parasitology; veterinary clinic management; research methods; animal nursing; anatomy & physiology; microbiology; pharmacology; diagnostic imaging; animal dentistry; clinical toxicology; anesthesia; and veterinary medical ethics.
There are both on-campus and online vet tech schools available. It’s crucial to note that some state credentialing entities may waive the education requirement if a vet tech has several years of experience. Please verify regional requirements with local boards, a list of which is provided by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVB), or reference the “Vet Tech Licensing & Renewal By State” chart below.
STEP 3: Pass the Veterinary Technician National Examination (timeline and state requirements vary). This test—commonly referred to as the VTNE—is offered by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB). The VTNE is a typical requirement for licensure, certification, or registration as a vet tech 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.
Prospective students are encouraged to check out their program’s pass rate on this important exam to verify that past students have met national standards. This $320 exam is offered during three monthlong periods annually and tests candidates’ knowledge in nine distinct domains: pharmacy & pharmacology; surgical nursing; dentistry; laboratory procedures; animal care and nursing; diagnostic imaging; anesthesia; emergency medicine; and pain management.
STEP 4: Apply for state credentialing (timeline and state requirements vary). As mentioned above, vet tech credentialing standards vary by state but typically involve sending official transcripts from a CVTEA-accredited program; submitting VTNE scores; and paying an application fee. Some states such as Washington also require a state examination as part of their credentialing process, and others ask for official proof of American citizenship, passport photos, or a background check.
States also vary by the nomenclature of their credentialing in the profession, whether it be registered veterinary technician (RVT), certified veterinary technician (CVT), or licensed veterinary technician (LVT). For more information on the professional credentialing process, please reference the section below or individual state program pages.
STEP 5: Renew credential and complete continuing education (CE) requirements (timeline and state requirements vary). Vet techs must maintain their professional licensure, registration, or certification through the completion of CE hours. These can be fulfilled through qualified conferences, publications, presentations, online coursework, and other methods. The types of approved CE vary by region. A list of every state’s credentialing requirements, agencies, and CE information is in the vet tech licensing chart below.
How to Become a Veterinary Technician Specialist (VTS)
In addition to location and years of experience, obtaining a specialized certification is one way to increase earning potential in this field. The National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) provides 12 specialties that can further enhance a candidate’s earning and career advancement potential. Vet tech specialists (VTS) possess a deeper medical understanding of a particular species or field of care. In some cases, an area of specialization may lead to a higher-paying position. Please note that to be credentialed by NAVTA specialty academies, candidates must typically submit the following:
- An application (including a resume and a processing fee)
- Copy of official licensure, registration, or certification as a vet tech in their state
- Proof of 1,000-10,000 hours of experience in the specialty area
- Verifiable hours of continuing education (CE)
- Letter(s) of recommendation
- A skills assessment (typically signed by a supervising vet)
- A portfolio of case logs and detailed case studies
- Pass an exam
Here are the pathways to become various types of veterinary technician specialists (VTS):
Become a Veterinary Anesthesia & Analgesia Technician
Veterinary anesthesia techs help provide pain management during animal surgical procedures. These specialists are credentialed by the Academy of Veterinary Technicians in Anesthesia and Analgesia (AVTAA) after accumulating 4,500 hours in administering anesthesia; completing at least 50 case logs; writing four in-depth reports; submitting 40 hours of continuing education (CE); and passing an exam.
Become a Veterinary Behavior Technician
Animal behavior technicians perform research and assist animals in overcoming common behavioral (and psychological) issues. After accumulating 4,000 hours of verified experience in this field, they may be eligible for recognition by the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians (ABVT).
Included as part of the application process, aspiring vet behavior techs must also send their CV; proof of membership in the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) and the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians (SVBT); two letters of recommendation; a skills assessment form; proof of 40 hours of CE; a case log with 50 patients; and five in-depth case reports. Also, they must publish a peer-reviewed article.
For more information about this field, please visit the following pages: veterinary psychologists and animal behavior programs, how to become an animal psychologist, and top 15 animal behavior professors.
Become a Veterinary Clinical Pathology Technician
These specialists have targeted training in the collection and analysis of biological samples such as bodily fluids to diagnose health conditions. They may be credentialed by the Academy of Veterinary Clinical Pathology Technicians (AVCPT) after completing 4,000 hours and 3 years of relevant experience; 40 hours of CE; a skills assessment; a case log; and three detailed case reports. Additionally, applicants must submit two letters of recommendation and pass a comprehensive exam to become members.
Become a Veterinary Clinical Practice Technician
Veterinary clinical practice technicians have targeted skills working in an animal healthcare clinical setting, typically with a specific species. The Academy of Veterinary Technicians in Clinical Practice (AVTCP) offers three specialized VTS credentials in this area: canine/feline, exotic companion animal, or production medicine.
To qualify, candidates must provide proof of state vet tech credentialing; have 10,000 hours of experience (with 75 percent in chosen specialty); complete 40 hours of CE; submit a skills assessment & knowledge list; provide five completed examination questions; send a case log with at least 50 cases & four case reports; get one letter of recommendation; and pay an application fee. The annual exam gauges candidates’ knowledge in areas such as anesthesia & analgesia, behavior, general medicine, imaging, and surgical nursing.
Become a Veterinary Dental Technician
Veterinary dental techs help veterinarians in animal dental hygiene and surgical procedures. The Academy of Veterinary Dental Technicians (AVDT) provides a credentialing process in this field.
To qualify, candidates must have 6,000 hours (i.e., three years) of experience as a vet tech (including 1,000 hours in dental assisting); establish a VTS (Dentistry) mentor who can sign off on completed requirements; complete specialty training (25 hours in a wet lab, 15 hours in advanced dental procedures); submit two case logs; complete two intra-oral radiological scans (one dog, one cat); fulfill equipment and reading list requirements; and pass a three-part exam. For information on some of the most talented instruction in this field, please visit the vet dental professors page.
Become a Dermatology Veterinary Technician
These animal skin specialists comprise one of the newest specialties for vet techs. The Academy of Dermatology Veterinary Technicians (ADVT) offered its first VTS (Dermatology) credentialing exam in 2017. To qualify, applicants must submit proof of relevant education and work experience, as well as achieve a passing score on an exam. The certification is valid for three years.
Become a Veterinary Emergency & Critical Care Technician
Veterinary emergency & critical care (ECC) technicians are trained to assist veterinarians with acute, critical care, and emergency situations with animals. The Academy of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Technicians (AVECCT) credentials these specialists.
To qualify, aspiring VTS (ECC) must have NAVTA membership; submit a copy of current vet tech license, registration, or certification in their state of practice; provide proof of having worked a minimum 5,760 hours in ECC; complete 25 hours of relevant CE; send 50 case logs & four case reports; get two letters of recommendation; complete a skills checklist; and pass an exam.
Become an Equine Veterinary Technician
Equine vet techs provide surgical assistance, tooth floating, vaccinations, and midwifery to horses. The Academy of Equine Veterinary Nursing Technicians (AEVNT) requires prospective members to submit a letter of intent; a resume; proof of state vet tech credential; at least 50 case logs; five detailed case reports; two letters of recommendation; a skills checklist; a CE form; and an application fee. Additionally, applicants must pass a comprehensive exam.
Become an Internal Medicine Veterinary Technician
These specialists are experts in non-surgical diseases and conditions in animals. The Academy of Internal Medicine for Veterinary Technicians (AIMVT) credentials applicants following the submission of a state vet tech license, certification, or registration; a CV; proof of qualifying CE; a skills form; a knowledge checklist; a case log form; four detailed case reports; two letters of recommendation; three electronically completed potential exam questions; and an application fee. Applicants must also pass an exam with five major domains: oncology, small animal medicine, large animal medicine, neurology, and cardiology.
Become a Veterinary Nutrition Technician
The main credentialing entity in this field is the Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Techs, which requires candidates to show proof of state vet tech credentialing; have at least 4,000 hours of relevant experience; complete 40 hours of qualifying CE; and provide evidence of advanced competence through case logs, in-depth case reports, and letters of recommendation. This VTS specialty can be completed in either clinical or research areas.
Become a Veterinary Surgical Technician
Veterinary surgical technicians—the group requiring the most rigorous training—must have 10,000 hours (i.e., five years) of experience as a vet tech prior to seeking credentialing through the Academy of Veterinary Surgical Technicians (AVST). At least 6,000 of these hours must have been in a surgical environment with 4,500 dedicated exclusively to performing surgical duties.
Additional application requirements include 40 hours of CE; a skills form; a case log of at least 50 cases; four detailed case reports; two letters of recommendation; and passing an exam.
Become a Veterinary Zoological Medicine Technician
Veterinary zoological medicine technicians provide healthcare services (e.g., phlebotomy, pharmacology, emergency care, diagnostic imaging, etc.) for exotic animals. There are many hands-on exotic animal vet tech programs across the US that may qualify candidates to work in zoos, animal sanctuaries, park services, research centers, and wildlife refuges.
The Academy of Veterinary Zoological Medical Technicians (AVZMT)—the main credentialing organization in this subfield—requires candidates to have at least 10,000 hours working in zoological medicine. Additionally, applicants must submit a CV; proof of 40 hours of CE; 13 advanced skills checklists; 40 case logs; and five detailed case reports. Finally, they must pass an exam which is offered annually.
How to Become a Credentialed Veterinary Technician – Licensure and Certification Requirements
To minimize confusion among state-based licensure, certification, and registration processes for vet techs, the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) prefers the term “credentialed veterinary technician” to cover all options.
While not all states require vet techs to become credentialed, it may be advisable to enhance one’s job candidacy, earning potential, and opportunities for career enhancement and specialization. Please see the in-depth vet tech credentialing chart for specific information about how to become a vet tech in alignment with state-based requirements, credentialing entities, and continuing education (CE) requirements.
The typical requirements to becoming a credentialed vet tech include:
- Submitting proof of having graduated from a program accredited by the Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities (CVTEA)
- The program-approval body established by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
- Passing the Veterinary Technician National Examination (VTNE)
- Paying an application fee
Some of the competencies tested on the VTNE, a $320 exam given during three monthlong windows per year, include:
- 9 Domains
- 38 Task Area Statements
- 50 Knowledge Area Statements
The nine domains—primary areas of responsibility— are:
- Pharmacy and Pharmacology
- Surgical Nursing
- Laboratory Procedures
- Animal Care and Nursing
- Diagnostic Imaging
- Emergency Medicine (Critical Care)
- Pain Management (Analgesia)
Finally, to maintain active credentials, veterinary medical boards and other credentialing entities typically require vet techs to complete hours of CE. Here are some resources for CE hours:
- National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA)
- Colorado State University Continuing Education
- Ohio State University Continuing Education
- VetMed Team
- Veterinary Support Personnel Network (VSPN)