Puppy dogs with long floppy ears, cats with soulful eyes and horses with flowing manes -- you love them all and want to work in veterinary health care. It’s the hands-on stuff that rings your chimes, and even the thought of cleaning out cages doesn’t deter you. You’ve narrowed down the choices: veterinary tech -- which could mean a technician or a technologist -- or veterinary assistant. Although the occupations are similar in some ways, they also have differences.
To some extent, there’s a hierarchy in veterinary support work, much as there is in medicine. The veterinarian is at the top, followed by the veterinary technologist. Veterinary technologists often work in animal research labs, although they may also work in a veterinarian's office. A veterinary technologist needs a bachelor’s degree. She may work under the supervision of a scientist or veterinarian. Her daily tasks include giving medication, preparing tissue samples, and daily animal care. She may also administer anesthesia during surgery.
Veterinary technicians are sort of like the middle sister in the group. You’ll need an associate degree and are more likely to work in a private clinical office than a research lab. You might perform lab tests or take X-rays, teach pet owners about basic care, perform dental cleanings or assist in surgery. Depending on the practice, you might work mostly with small pets such as cats, dogs and birds, or with large farm animals such as cattle, sheep and horses. You’ll need to know how to handle them safely in all situations and assure that they are treated humanely.
Although there are no specific educational requirements for a veterinary assistant, most have a high school diploma. Veterinary assistants usually learn on the job, although some employers prefer that you have some experience working with animals. A similar occupation is that of laboratory animal caretaker; you might perform similar duties but work in an animal research lab rather than a veterinarian’s office. You’ll work under a veterinarian, although your direct supervisor might be a vet tech. Among your daily duties: feeding animals, cleaning cages and sterilizing surgical equipment. You might also give medications or collect blood and urine samples for lab tests.
Salaries and Job Outlook
Before you make your decision, consider the potential to find a job and your probable income. Veterinary technicians and technologists are likely to have the edge when it comes to finding jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that demand is expected to grow 32 percent between 2010 and 2020 -- almost twice as fast as average. You’ll also do better economically; the BLS says the average annual salary for veterinary technicians and technologists in 2011 was $31,570. Veterinary assistants had an average annual salary of $24,430 in 2011.
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