Tasha McNerney, BS, CVT, CVPP, VTS (anesthesia and analgesia)
Tasha McNerney has been working in the veterinary field since 1998, with a special interest in sighthound and brachycephalic anesthesia as well as pain management. She has been a featured speaker on anesthesia and pain management at a number of veterinary conferences and is the creator of the popular Facebook group Veterinary Anesthesia Nerds, which has nearly 60,000 members.
When I was 7 years old, my dad took me to see the movie Turner and Hooch in the theater. I hope I'm not spoiling the movie for anyone, but there's a big dramatic scene where Hooch's dad takes him to the veterinarian, and the veterinarian can't save him. I clearly remember the devastation I felt. I decided from that point on I was going to save all the animals. That was it for me — my future was decided.
Most veterinary technicians are the same way. We didn't get into this field so we could hop in bed with Big Pharma or Big Pet Food or whatever the internet conspiracy du jour is — we just want to help animals. Recently I assisted with a leg amputation on a tiny feral cat, and today I got a video of her walking on three legs, adjusting beautifully and getting ready to join her adoptive family. Moments like these are why I chose this career.
But there are many difficult things about being a veterinary technician. It's not only physically demanding; it's mentally and emotionally demanding as well. Days filled with euthanasias and cranky clients are common, and subsistence-level pay for many of us makes it difficult just to survive. Add to that employers who don't trust us or train us to use our clinical skills — but at the same time demand long hours — and the situation soon becomes unsustainable.
COVID has blown these issues out of the water, from below the surface to front and center. The result? We are in crisis in veterinary medicine. This is not code yellow; we are in code red. Many technicians are burnt out and either taking a break or leaving the profession permanently. Too many are struggling with mental health issues. Some are even dying by suicide.
I don't have all the answers, but as a technician who's bucked the trend and been in the field for 18 years — and planning to do it for the rest of my life — I think a few changes could go a long way toward keeping technicians in the profession long-term. Here are some ideas.
Utilize technicians fully
Personally I've been very lucky, because in my first job, the clinic owner was highly pro-technician. From day one he said he wanted me to do absolutely everything I could according to our state's practice act. For example, toward the end of a surgery he'd say, "Hey, you can close this incision up. It's well within your scope of practice. I'll come and check your sutures afterward, but you can handle it."
Plus, once he found out I was interested in anesthesia, he did everything he could to help me pursue that interest, whether it was sending me to an anesthesia conference or identifying an online CE opportunity. Because I had that high level of autonomy and support, I thrived. I ended up staying at that practice for 14 years.
Technicians want to be utilized. Obviously we need to stock the drawers and make sure the rabies vaccines are in date, but we don't want to spend our entire day checking inventory and holding animals while somebody else takes blood. In practices where technicians get to use their skills, learn new things and experience mentorship, they tend to stay much longer. When they are treated like replaceable widgets whose only value is in stocking shelves, they don't.
Understand the impact of low pay
When it comes to keeping technicians in the profession, I want to say it's not about the money. But it is a little bit about the money. I know some credentialed veterinary technicians who get paid just $11 or $12 an hour, and that's rough. I don't know of anywhere in the country where someone can make it on those wages in terms of paying rent, managing bills and having enough food to eat — to say nothing of raising a family.
So if you're working in a job where you only make $12 an hour, and on top of that you're not being mentored, you're not having your mind challenged, and you're not being utilized, you're going to go work at Whole Foods instead. Or you're going to go to the clinic down the road that pays $2 more an hour and offers a CE allowance.
Continue to address burnout and mental health issues
The good news is that the profession is paying more attention to issues that affect veterinary professionals' well-being, and changes are happening. Initiatives like Not One More Vet (nomv.org), the suicide awareness network, and many fantastic Facebook groups are helping veterinary professionals support each other, which is encouraging to see.
Yes, there are still toxic workplaces and bullying going on in some practices, but as we become more aware of those issues, we become less tolerant of them. I'm hoping we continue to see those things change for the better.
Adapt to the new normal
I was recently talking to a technician friend who hasn't gotten out of work on time for three weeks. Three weeks! She's been putting in an average of 70-something hours per week.
Unfortunately, this isn't unusual in veterinary medicine, especially right now. COVID and the accompanying increased workload have simply made life crazy in veterinary practice. Plus, too often we're made to feel that if we leave a patient and don't see a case all the way through to the end — and we don't help the next one after that, and the one after that — we obviously don't care about animals. But you cannot pour from an empty cup!
The thing is, we have the brightest, most amazing people in this field who are going to carry veterinary medicine into the future. The next generation is here now — and we cannot afford to burn them out. We need to take care of them and make sure they stick around to help animals and train the next generation to be caring and compassionate. That doesn't just mean being kind and caring to our patients; it means taking care of ourselves and our colleagues.
Bottom line, we have to stop thinking, "Once we get back to normal..." No. This is our new normal. It's going to be crazy all. the. time. So we need to staff appropriately and figure out ways to gain efficiencies so we get out of crisis mode and into a sustainable way of working.
"[We] have to stop thinking, 'Once we get back to normal...' No. This is our new normal."
Institute title protection
Our credentialed technicians need title protection. Here's why: If I'm a practice owner and a certified veterinary technician (CVT) applies for a job in my practice who is highly educated and commands a certain wage, but technically I don't have to hire a CVT — I can get someone off the street for $3 less an hour — then I'm probably going to go the cheaper route.
And that's OK. But I think we need to move away from OK. We want to do the best we possibly can for our patients, and that means having trained — certified, registered, licensed, whatever — technicians providing nursing care. Consider anesthesia monitoring, for example. There's a reason animal anesthesia has a 10 times higher mortality rate than human anesthesia.1 It's because veterinary medicine doesn't require standardized systems and training like human medicine does.
If the push for standardization and title protection is successful, I believe it will cause a major shift in our profession and in our practices. If that shift happens, pay will follow. And if pay follows and technicians can earn a living wage, more people will stay in this field and look at it as a long-term career.
Looking to the future
I really do love what I do, and I can't imagine doing anything else. This is not the most glamorous work, but ultimately it is rewarding. We need passionate people who love animals to join in — now more than ever. If someone comes to me asking what they need to know before seeking a career as a technician, my advice to them is to be realistic, get their financial plan in order and make sure they have a good support system.
That way when they do jump into this pool, they can stay in it for a long time. I want them to be excited and fulfilled and here for the long haul. And I want them to have a good quality of life. That may mean earning enough to send their kid to summer camp or it may mean never having to deal with burnout.
I see little things where it's getting better, and I know we can keep moving in a positive direction.
- Bille C, Auvigne V, Libermann S, et al. Risk of anaesthetic mortality in dogs and cats: An observational cohort study of 3546 cases. Vet Anaesth Analg. 2012;39(1):59-68.