No veterinarian’s office can run with only a veterinarian. While being a vet tech requires proper education, a veterinarian’s assistant learns on the job, taught by their co-workers and boss.
It takes a certain kind of person to work with animals, who are often sick, in pain, or just have nasty tempers. But you also have to work with people - people who often view their pets as they might their child, and become just as scared when they aren’t hale and healthy. While a job as a vet assistant can be exciting and fun, it can also be dirty, scary, and dangerous.
Pro: On-the-Job Training
There is no education necessary to be a vet assistant. Most vet clinics work on a promotion-based system - if you have no experience in the animal field, you generally start out as a kennel technician. This means spending all day making sure the boarding animals (whether because they need constant medical care or because their owners are on vacation) have a clean environment, get fed, get proper medicine, and get taken out to go to the bathroom, along with helping out the doctors, vet techs, and assistants.
It’s not glamorous, but it does teach you some very necessary skills for moving up the animal ladder, like how to properly restrain, how to give fluids, and how to handle mean animals. Once you become a vet assistant, your co-workers train you the rest of the way, which gives you skills you can take further and to other places.
Con: Low Salary and Job Growth
Like most jobs that have no prerequisites, the pay is not something that’s going to support a family. Most vet assistants start out barely above minimum wage, and the job usually tops out at about double minimum wage. Additionally, getting trained on-the-job means that you learn the way to do things in a particular clinic, and not every clinic does everything the same way. Vet techs can be touchy about allowing assistants the responsibilities they’ve been trained for, because they lack the education of a vet tech.
However, while in many businesses vet techs make significantly more than assistants, some offices don’t make much of a distinction between the two occupations, which means the education isn’t always worth it. There also isn’t much room for promotion once you’ve reach the level of assistant, especially with no formal education. Even with formal education, there’s very little room for growth.
Pro: Working with Animals
You get to spend all day with an assortment of different animals. While some vets only work with cats and dogs, many work with the whole array: ball pythons, beta fish, parrots, himalayan rabbits. Some vets even work with livestock - goats and pigs and cows and horses - although this is largely dependent on geographic location. Having such a variety of animals means a variety of things to learn about. The animals can’t talk, which means you have to really know your stuff to figure out what’s wrong with them.
It also means you can’t just be good with animals; you have to be good with people too. Vet assistants are often the first line of contact (aside from a receptionist) for a pet owner, and they get all the information about why a patient has come in, whether it’s for yearly vaccines and a check-up or because Fluffy got run over and won’t stop bleeding.
Con: Tough Love
Because a lot of situations you’ll face daily can be gut-wrenching, being a vet assistant is not for the faint hearted. You have to be prepared to not only watch animals die, but hold them while the veterinarian puts them to sleep. No one is immune to watching the light leave their beloved pet’s eyes, and you have to be able to hold it together while little old men weep over the loss of their cat. It’s hard. Not every client cries though. Some get angry. Extremely angry. And while they’re often polite to the veterinarian, the assistant often gets the brunt of their frustration.
In turn, the most frustrating part for assistants can be having to accept a pet owner’s refusal to treat their animal. Sometimes they simply don’t have the economic resources to spend; sometimes they very bluntly tell you “he’s just a dog.” And while you may not agree with that, you have to accept it. People also like to bring in animals they find on the side of the road. While some clinics work to get these animals adopted out, others simply won’t accept them. And that means you have to be able to say “no” as well. Because even though you may want to take care of 15 dogs and a dozen cats, you can’t really afford to on your vet assistant salary.