Meet the Heroes Who Fight Dog Cancer Without a Veterinary License
Sometimes it feels like it's just you and your dog fighting cancer, but that's not true. Your veterinarian is important, of course, but there are many other cancer fighters on your healthcare team. Meet the many folks dedicated to your dog's health who aren't licensed veterinarians.
- Veterinarians do not handle most of the medical procedures performed in a veterinary clinic. Veterinary technicians most often draw blood, examine samples, and administer medicines.
- Licensed veterinary technicians have completed a collegiate training program and passed a national exam. They are equivalent to nurses in human medicine: they cannot legally diagnose illness or prescribe medicine, but they are medical professionals.
- Some veterinary technicians undergo advanced training and become specialists. Oncology techs are an incredible resource for dogs with cancer.
- The assistants and front office staff at a veterinary practice are critical for triage and assisting with your dog’s care.
- Other medical professionals like pharmacists are also there to support you and your dog.
Dog lovers sometimes assume veterinarians do all the work of a veterinary clinic. But that’s not true. There are many non-veterinarian health care team members who work together with the veterinarians.
Just like doctors have nurses, veterinarians have veterinary technicians. And just like nurses do most of the “hands-on” care for human patients, veterinary techs do most of the “hands-on” care for dogs.
Veterinary technicians provide nursing care of all kinds and help bridge the gap between client and veterinarian. And they are needed more than ever.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) the percentage of U.S. households that own at least one dog increased from 38% to 45% between 2016 and 2020.1 With more pets needing care, many veterinary hospitals are utilizing veterinary technicians like never before to maintain standards of patient care.
Veterinary Technicians Perform Many Medical Tasks
Veterinary techs are responsible for everything happening in the clinic involving animal care. By law, the only things a veterinary technician cannot do are:
- diagnose a problem
- prognose the severity of that problem
- prescribe specific medications
However, every other task in the veterinary hospital can be performed by veterinary technicians and assistants!
For example, when your dog needs surgery, a veterinary technician may be the one:
- running the bloodwork
- placing the IV catheter
- monitoring your dog under anesthesia
- comforting them in recovery
Veterinary technicians are also an essential part of the communication link when it comes to checking on the progress of patients.
While your veterinarian is seeing patients in appointments, the technicians monitor pets in the hospital.
Veterinary technicians are an integral part of the veterinary healthcare team. You may think “why isn’t the veterinarian talking to me?” but in reality, veterinary technicians may be the best communicators of all the non-veterinarian health care team members because they work so closely with your dog.
Veterinary Technician Credentials
Veterinary technicians complete a two-year collegiate-level training program and then must pass a national exam to obtain licensing credentials.
The exact credentials vary by state – for example, New York has Licensed Veterinary Technicians (LVT), Pennsylvania has Certified Veterinary Technicians (CVT), and Hawaii has Registered Veterinary Technicians (RVT). The general term for this profession is veterinary technician, often shortened to vet techs.
Not all states have the same requirements for vet techs. Some states specify in their State Practice Act what tasks a vet tech can legally perform. Those tasks are then protected – meaning that only individuals with the proper training are legally allowed to perform those tasks. This helps to protect your dog by ensuring that the technician can perform medical tasks safely and effectively.
Other states allow for on-the-job training, which can be inconsistent. These individuals may or may not be able to get credentials.
Not sure what the rules are in your state? The American Association of Veterinary State Boards provides a list of regulated and non-regulated states and jurisdictions as well as the credentials that a technician can carry in your state.
Veterinary Technician Specialists
Some technicians choose to become specialized in areas such as anesthesia, emergency care, and oncology. To become a veterinary technician specialist (VTS) veterinary technicians undertake a challenging two-year program, with each academy responsible for passing and testing its own members.
Technicians with a VTS in oncology are members of the Academy of Internal Medicine for Veterinary Technicians. This select group of veterinary technicians can provide more specialized care, such as understanding drug pharmacology and side effects (important when dealing with chemotherapeutic agents). To earn a VTS in oncology, applicants must demonstrate proficiency in an extensive list of oncology-specific tasks and knowledge areas, submit case reports, and pass an additional exam.
There are only about 40 VTS in oncology in the U.S. right now, but these individuals are extremely valuable resources both to support veterinary oncologists and our dogs with cancer.
Veterinary hospitals function similar to human hospitals in that the veterinarians are the doctors and the credentialed veterinary technicians are like registered nurses. All other staff helping to assist the veterinary team and the patient are veterinary assistants.
Veterinary assistants typically do not have formal training, but in some areas, you can become a certified veterinary assistant via online certification and classes.
Like veterinary technicians, vet assistants are not allowed to diagnose, prognose, prescribe, or perform surgery. If your state regulates veterinary technicians, there will be tasks that vet assistants are legally prohibited from doing (for example, in New York a vet assistant cannot draw blood or give vaccines).
The typical responsibilities of a vet assistant include patient restraint, walking and feeding hospitalized patients, bathing when needed, cleaning, assisting with surgical prep, and assisting with other diagnostic procedures.
Front Office Staff
Veterinary front office staff, often called Customer Service Representatives (CSRs), bridge the gap between the clients and the veterinary clinic. Often, they are the first people clients interact with and the face of the clinic.
CSRs are often trained in telephone triage to ensure every pet is seen within an appropriate timeframe. For example, they are trained to ask questions so they will know when a pet may need to be seen on an emergency visit or if the issue can wait until the next available appointment.
They are also incredibly compassionate individuals and build strong relationships with pets and clients. Follow-up and check-in calls may be made by the CSRs as they have more time to spend with each client than the doctor and veterinary technicians. If they cannot answer your questions, they can get answers from the veterinarian or technician and relay them back to you.
CSRs are also often trained on all available payment options, so when things get expensive, they can recommend pet insurance or financing options to best fit your family and situation.
Most of us don’t think of our local pharmacist as a non-veterinarian health care team member, but they are. Along with your veterinarian, your pharmacist can help you understand the medications your pet has been prescribed and all possible side effects.
Because of their advanced training in medicines, their uses, and their interactions, your local pharmacist has an in-depth understanding of pharmaceuticals and the plants they are often derived from.
Because many pet supplements are not subject to FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval and testing, your local pharmacist can sometimes recommend brands of nutraceuticals that have better manufacturing and efficacy standards.
For instance, there are many CBD products on the market. Your pharmacist can help you understand a certificate of analysis (COA) on these products and why products that don’t have a COA should be used with caution.
A pharmacist can also work with your veterinarian to suggest generic options for drug therapies, or different dosing options to save you money over time.
Just like other veterinary staff, a pharmacist cannot diagnose or prognose, but they can work with you to create the best outcomes for your pup.
Critical Non-Veterinarian Health Care Team Members: Friends and Family Members
Friends and family might not seem like they fit in this category, but as anyone who has ever cared for a dog with cancer or recovering from surgery can tell you, they are integral to this process.
Caregiver fatigue is a real phenomenon whether you are caring for an elderly parent or a canine recovering from hemangiosarcoma surgery who needs to go outside and you live on the 12th floor of an apartment building with no outdoor space (yes, from experience!).
It can be hard to balance all the medications, supplements, physical therapies, and appointments your dog needs and still carry on with your life. Friends and family play an essential role in helping you keep it all together.
For example, a neighbor might pick up your dog’s medication when they run to the pharmacy, or maybe your partner can watch the kids so you can do some quiet range of motion exercises with your older dog.
Leaning on your support network will be important, not only to improve the quality of care your pet receives, but also to help support your mental health.
- Scott, R. Nolan. Pet ownership rate stabilizes as spending increases. Published October 26, 2022. Accessed December 09, 2022. https://www.avma.org/news/pet-ownership-rate-stabilizes-spending-increases
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