Like doctors and dentists, veterinarians work most effectively when they have an efficient support staff to help them with the routine duties of their practice. As a veterinary technician you'd be responsible for much of the animals' direct care and for interacting with their owners. The stronger your clinical skills, the more valuable you'll be to your veterinarian.
Helping the veterinarian make a fast and accurate diagnosis is one of your most important duties. A thorough nose-to-tail examination can take a long time, but your observations will often help the vet focus quickly on any pertinent symptoms or visible injuries. You'll also interview the owner, asking questions to draw out any usable information about the animal's behavior and apparent symptoms. In some cases, you might also collect urine, stool or tissue samples for testing. When you're finished, the vet should have all the information necessary to arrive at a diagnosis.
Some technicians acquire advanced clinical skills, either through on-the-job training or formal courses. For example, you might take control of the anesthesia process once your veterinarian has sedated the animal. That frees the veterinarian's attention to focus on the surgery itself. Laboratory testing skills can also be valuable to a veterinarian. For example, some conditions can be diagnosed best through microscopic examination of cell samples from the animal. That's called cytological examination, and it means you'll need to understand how to prepare slides and stain them to make the cell structure visible. By examining the cells under a microscope, you can screen the animal for diseases such as cancer.
Often, the biggest contribution you can make to the practice is competent handling of routine care. That can include administering medications to the animals under treatment, monitoring their condition during recovery, or assessing the progress of a care or weight-loss program. If further tests are required, you can also collect the appropriate tissues or samples for later analysis.
You'll need to earn a two-year associate degree in veterinary technology to practice as a technician, and you'll also need to pass a licensing exam. If you take a four-year bachelor's degree you'll qualify as a technologist, rather than a technician, and have the skills for more-advanced diagnostic tests and procedures. In practice there can be little difference between the two. It comes down to the needs of the practice, and the veterinarian's willingness to train you on the job. Once you're trained and licensed, your employment prospects will be exceptional. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects 52 percent job growth by 2020, several times higher than the 14 percent average for all occupations.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.