Vet tech pay: Would you like fries with that?

Mary Berg, BS, RVT, LATG, VTS (dentistry)

Mary Berg is a charter member of the Academy of Veterinary Dental Technicians (AVDT). Berg worked in research for 13 years and continues to consult on dental products. She also was the practice manager and dental technician specialist at a general practice for seven years. With over 15 years of experience teaching dentistry to veterinary teams, Berg is currently an adjunct at two distance veterinary technology programs and is president of Beyond the Crown Veterinary Education. In addition, she is a speaker and wet lab instructor at numerous state and national conferences. Berg was named the NAVTA Veterinary Technician of the Year in 2020 and received the AVDT's Excellence in Dentistry Education in 2019.

I still see credentialed veterinary technicians earning less than a starting wage at McDonald's. I wish I had the answer for why that is, but I do think part of it is that a lot of people don't understand the role of a credentialed veterinary technician.

These days everybody calls themselves a "vet tech," including people who were working at McDonald's last week and have no veterinary education or experience. But a veterinary technician is actually someone who's graduated from a two- or four-year program and passed the state and national boards to become credentialed.

An easy way to break down the difference between a credentialed vet tech and a veterinary assistant is that a veterinary assistant knows how to perform skills and a vet tech also understands the why behind those skills. That's not to say veterinary assistants aren't valuable or knowledgeable. I know some excellent trained-on-the-job veterinary assistants who are very proficient. But if something goes wrong medically, they may not understand why or what to do next.

Here's an example. The veterinarian is in a hurry, like we all are, and she miscalculates a dose of medication. A technician has the training to notice. She can say to the veterinarian, "This dose seems really high. Do you want to double-check the calculation?" Veterinary technicians have the education to know when to take a second look. The veterinarian can't do it all — and doesn't have to. In fact, the veterinary technician could perform the calculations for the veterinarian to free up more of the doctor's time.

Make the most of what you've got

I've been talking about technician utilization for almost 20 years, and I'd like to stop. It would be awesome if every veterinary hospital in America had the AVMA CVTEA Veterinary Technology Student Essential and Recommended Skills List. Then veterinarians could see the skills that every veterinary technician program graduate is capable of doing.

"Another challenge is that many veterinary schools overemphasize teaching future doctors how to perform technical skills such as drawing blood, setting a catheter and taking radiographs."

In school, veterinary students are not being taught how to utilize technicians. At a recent meeting for the Academy of Veterinary Dental Educators, I was talking with Andrew Mccabe, DVM, MPH, JD, of the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges about the need for veterinary colleges to include veterinary technicians in the curriculum. If every veterinary school had credentialed techs doing some of the educating and working side by side with veterinary students, veterinarians would come to value vet techs' capabilities because they'd experience them firsthand.

Another challenge is that many veterinary schools overemphasize teaching future doctors how to perform technical skills such as drawing blood, setting a catheter and taking radiographs. Yes, veterinarians do need to know how to place a catheter, but they also need to know that technicians can and should complete these skills in practice.

Show your worth

Veterinarians want proof technicians can handle a skill, so technicians need to develop trust. I hate the phrase, "I'm just a tech." Vet techs must promote themselves and show what they can do. The next time a veterinarian completes a technical skill, step up and say in a polite, respectful, helpful way, "This is one of the AVMA essential skills that I learned in tech school. How about next time, you watch me do it?" After one or two times demonstrating under supervision, the veterinarian will probably say, "Yeah, you're really good at this. Go ahead and do it." I know this can be a hard conversation for a tech, but we cannot sit back and be content with restraining animals.

Creating a practice culture that makes technicians feel comfortable speaking up is important, because technicians' jobs include patient advocacy. The technician might notice that a postsurgical patient is uncomfortable. That technician must be comfortable saying, "You know, Dr. Jones, Jax seems like he's really uncomfortable. Is there anything more we can give him for pain?"

Educating pet owners on the role and value of technicians is also helpful. Pet owners want to know who's monitoring the anesthesia on their pet, what that person's training is, and whether she knows what to do if the pet's blood pressure drops. A lot of pet owners think only the veterinarian is taking care of their pet's anesthesia and postsurgical care. So I guarantee you that, at the very least, pet owners assume that person is a trained professional. Is that true at your practice?

Pay them or lose them

Veterinarians and practice managers still don't understand how much more efficient their practice could be if they utilized techs to the best of their ability. A 2010 study showed a veterinarian could make $93,311 more a year for each additional credentialed veterinary technician per doctor.1 That was back then. Think what that could be in 2021.

It goes back to properly utilizing technicians. If the clinic could see more patients in a day and make more money, that could trickle down to the technicians. Practices don't have to raise their prices to pay their technicians more.

"If the clinic could see more patients in a day and make more money, that could trickle down to the technicians."

I was a practice manager, so I know a practice's biggest expenditure is salaries and wages. It's expensive, but we have to pay our people so they'll stay. Technicians may love working with animals, but they can't support their family on $14 an hour. Veterinary Emergency Group announced a credentialed veterinary technician pay scale ranging from $23 to $40 an hour. This is fantastic, but it can still be hard to support a family even on $23 an hour.

The value of a dollar — or a doughnut

Money is important, but it's not always everything. We have to admit that there are a lot of reasons technicians are leaving the profession. Some people will stay at a practice if they're treated well. This can be something as simple as hearing, "Hey, thanks for today." Some practices invite a food truck to come by and serve ice cream or give their employees a $5 gift certificate for coffee. Thanking technicians can go a long way.

Another idea is helping technicians maintain their credentials. That may be helping them pay for continuing education, helping them pay their registration and licensing dues, or covering membership dues for professional organizations. Many veterinary practices cover these expenses for the veterinarians, but they don't think about the credentialed technicians even though maintaining credentials is just as important for technicians. These things that may seem small can make a big difference.

Specialty status: Passion over pay

As a technician specialist in dentistry, people often ask me what I can do differently than a CVT, LVT or RVT. My answer is, "Absolutely nothing." I still can't diagnose. I still can't prescribe. And I still can't do surgery. My veterinary technician specialty (VTS) is valuable because dentistry is my passion. I've had additional education and testing to prove I know what I'm doing. The VTS has allowed me to educate other people, which is what I really love to do. But getting a specialty doesn't mean you're going to be rich. When I got my VTS, I got an "atta boy" and an article in the newspaper.

Deciding whether to specialize shouldn't be about money. It has to be about passion. You can't just think that you kind of like dentistry. A specialty must be an area that you really want to dive into — where you want to eat, sleep and drink. It's an area that you have to be totally dedicated to, and the value is probably going to be more internal than monetary.

  1. Fanning J, Shepherd AJ. Contribution of veterinary technicians to veterinary business revenue, 2007. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2010;236(8):846.

Mary Berg, RVT, VTS (dentistry), instructs fellow technicians in capturing digital dental radiographs. Taking radiographs is one of the many skills technicians should undertake to make the most of their knowledge, save the veterinarian time and, ideally, earn higher pay.

- Al

I don’t work in the industry, but did a lot of reading as I considered it. I see parallels with other areas of health care.

Lots of MDs resist increasing the scope of Physician Assistants.
Lots of MDs resist Pharmacists having a path to diagnosing and prescribing.
Lots of Physical Therapists have resisted Physical Therapy Assistants growing in scope.
Not sure if many Occupational Therapists resisted Occupational Therapy Assistants growing.

It is interesting that in all of those cases the licensed assisting position was called an assistant. Technicians are unlicensed in PT and OT. In the medical professions technicians are specialists, e.g. surgical, radiology, respiratory, etc. They each have a distinct educational and career path often with their own specialties.

In the end I think it will come down to money. People often have to choose between their pet and the human members of their family. While some pet owners have simplistic beliefs regarding expensive treatments for their pets, the fact is life is not simple.

On a tangent, I’ve seen veteriarian websites talking about fish care on their websites then offering bad advice and linking to sites that offer bad advice. As a fish owner I find it sickening. There are MSc and PhD level certified fish pathologists that are legally allowed to diagnose, but these vets that have recently taken and interest want to pretend that they are the authorities in my country. Worse they ignore information that is freely available on line and in books from people with decades of experience caring for more fish than those vets have laid eyes on. It really leaves me thinking it is just a money grab on the part of most American vets going into fish care.

- Michelle

I’ve been an RVT for 30 years and have said everything in this article for most of those years. Sadly, little has evolved.

In fact, it’s gotten worse. Essentially, the new trend of hiring VAs (either from a 6-month program or off the street and training them on the job) and paying them almost the equivalent of my RVT salary to do tasks I’m highly trained to perform and have been credentialed in performing. This is NOT safe practice for patient care and if clients knew this was happening, they would be livid. Many clients already mistrust vets as “money grabbers” and still consult their breeder/groomer/FaceBook comment section prior to seeking real veterinary advice so when they find out VAs are performing nursing, monitoring, dentals and anesthesia tasks, there will be more mistrust than ever in veterinary medicine.
Furthermore, there is no defined scope of practice for RVTs where I live which is another issue, so a VA could have been working at McDonalds last week but is monitoring anesthesia this week – and this is perfectly legal under the current Veterinary Bylaws in my province! The vets are well aware of this since they vote the Bylaws and excuse the need for RVTs by saying, “there aren’t enough of them.” There are and there were. Schools are still pumping them out. What there is a shortage of is trained and experienced RVTs willing to work 60 hours a week for what one can earn serving fries at McDonalds. In fact, McDonalds in my city is paying a starting wage of $17.50 per hour while I was making $17 per hour at the last clinic where I worked – a specialty hospital, despite having 30 years experience as an RVT!

I don’t get why vets don’t “get it.” For being such smart people, they lack trust in their trained staff but issue trust to people hired off the street and pay us both similarly. The issues I addressed years ago regarding tech underutilization and underpayment are still just as relevant today. Vets need to relinquish the reins so to speak and allow credentialed RVTs to perform our duties. That would be the day, in human medicine, that an MD would be drawing blood specimens, taking radiographs or doing lab work! Seems absurd to even think about it yet DVMs are “fighting” to perform tech duties instead of hiring competent people for the role, utilizing them and paying them appropriately.

This system is so broken and needs a major overhaul. It seems this won’t happen in my lifetime and the sadder part is that suicide will claim many more lives or talented people will walk away from this practise, just like I did 7 years ago without regret. There are red flags all over vet med right now, for so many reasons, and sticking one’s head in the sand didn’t work years ago and still doesn’t work now.

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