Most animal lovers consider going into the field of veterinary medicine at some point. It’s a natural career path for anyone who cares about the well-being of our furry friends.
If you’re reading this, you’re already thinking about it. Maybe you want to become a veterinarian and gaining experience as an assistant is the first step. Or maybe it’s your endgame. Either way, you want to spend your life helping animals.
But the view from the client’s side of the exam table only gives you a small glimpse into the reality of a vet tech’s job. So let’s dive into those realities and see if this is really the right job for you.
Here are six “soft skills” you need to succeed as a veterinary assistant.
Skill #1: Flexibility & Versatility
Being a vet assistant is an interesting job because you juggle a variety of roles. You’re part nurse, part lab tech, part administrative assistant, part janitor. Your role might be narrower in a large organization, but for most vet clinics, a versatile assistant is an excellent assistant.
That means the most valuable skill you can have is the willingness and ability to step up wherever you’re needed. On any given day, you might:
- Prep a dog for surgery
- Draw blood to send to a lab
- Figure out what’s wrong with the centrifuge so you can spin that blood down
- Perform a dental cleaning while monitoring and adjusting the animal’s anesthesia
- Examine a stool sample for parasites using a microscope
- Clean the examining rooms between appointments
- Explain proper puppy care to a new owner
- Take kenneled dogs outside to play
- Sanitize their kennels
- Pill a cat
- Bathe a different cat
- Answer phones and set appointments
- Perform intake interviews
- Take x-rays of a broken leg
- Read a vet’s prescription, create a label in plain English, and dispense the meds accurately
- Ring up someone’s visit plus a bag of dog food
- Mop the lobby after someone’s puppy piddles
And then it’s lunch.
It’s a job that mixes the physical with the mental, every day. You’ll be on your feet most of the time, performing physical (occasionally athletic) tasks. But you’ll also need to exercise technical knowledge, common sense, and independent problem solving.
If a diverse range of tasks appeals to you in a job, this might be a great fit.
Skill #2: Staying Calm Under Pressure
The second most valuable skill you need is the ability to stay calm and collected no matter what happens.
Animals can sense our emotions. They’re already stressed when they’re brought to the vet, but your stress can crank them into fight or flight. That makes the job a lot more difficult for everyone involved, and less safe, as well. The better you are at reigning in your emotions and projecting calm (even when an animal is trying to bite or scratch), the easier every procedure will be.
And then there are the two-legged animals you deal with. They’re less likely to bite, but possibly more panicky. We all love our pets. Seeing them sick or in pain can make us irrational. It will be your job to reassure and manage your clients’ emotions. You’ll also encounter death and grieving on a regular basis—keeping it together is crucial. Becoming overly emotional yourself can make a difficult choice even harder on the client.
The ability to stay cool under pressure is also useful on a practical level. There will be times when you’re juggling many patients at once or in the midst of a life-threatening emergency. You’ll need to make decisions quickly, prioritize on the fly, juggle several tasks, and think a few steps ahead.
All of that is easier to do when you’re not actively panicking.
Skill #3: Dealing with the Disgusting
You’ll develop an iron stomach on the job, but if you’re naturally squeamish and not willing to push through it, this really isn’t a career path for you.
You’ll definitely deal with urine, stool, and blood on a regular basis. Vomit, diarrhea, and parasites, often. Disturbing phenomena like compound fractures and eyeballs popping out of their sockets will happen. And every once in a while, you’ll come across something so horrifying to all five of your senses, it will haunt you during your next meal. Think: a maggot-infested wound or a gangrenous extremity (the smell, in both cases, is utterly indescribable).
If you’re turning green just reading this, you might want to think twice about this career. Everyone in the business has gag reflexes—we all do. The key ingredient is the ability and willingness to soldier on when you encounter something gross. Clinics and hospitals are often too understaffed for you to swap out every time you encounter an unpleasant smell. It’s also not a great way to earn the friendship of coworkers.
Plus, a lot of clinics don’t have a separate janitorial staff. Guess who busts out the paper towels, disinfectant, and mop? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the highly-educated professional. A hygienic environment is crucial to the safe practice of medicine. It’s part of your job.
Skill #4: Customer Service Skills
If you have a background in retail or food service, you might have flashbacks more often than you think. People get impatient about the wait or angry over bills just as often in vet clinics as everywhere else. You’re the front line, so you’re often the one that they’ll rant to.
The ability to be unfailingly polite and conceal your own opinions or emotions will be as valuable in a vet hospital as they are in a big box store.
But because you’re caring for living, often adorable beings, you’ll be faced with additional challenges. You will run across pet owners that you think are negligent or irresponsible. In most cases, you’ll have to hold your tongue or approach the topic with tact. That can be difficult and frustrating. But losing your temper won’t help the pet, the client, or your boss’s bottom line.
Skill #5: Attention to Detail
While the consequences of mistakes aren’t as steep as in human medicine, you’re still dealing with somebody’s loved one. Their safety and well-being are in your hands. You’ll be labeling samples, running tests, dispensing medicines, and following pre- and post-surgical protocols.
Details matter. Precise measurements matter. Knowing procedures and exceptions matter.
It doesn’t necessarily require a stellar memory or flawless organizational skills. But you need to have a system and (more importantly) a commitment to being as accurate and on-point as you can.
Skill #6: A Deep Love of Animals (and Their Human Friends)
Look, no one’s going to tell you that snuggling puppies isn’t one of the best perks of the job. It doesn’t make up most of the job, but it’s a nice side benefit.
And if you can find a deep emotional reward in gaining an animal’s trust, watching them recover, or easing their human caretaker’s fears, then you’ll feel motivated to weather the less fun parts of the job.
Being a veterinary assistant can be a challenging and rewarding career. Think you have what it takes? We can help you gain the knowledge that you need to hit the ground running, at your own pace and on your own schedule, with our online course for becoming a veterinary assistant. You’ll gain knowledge in anatomy and physiology, medical procedures, basic lab diagnostics, office skills, and communication. We’ll even wrap up with tips on creating an effective resume and interviewing for your dream job.