As with a variety of healthcare professions, there is some state-to-state variance in what tasks non-veterinarians in the veterinary field are permitted to perform. Laws are established state by state, and each may have slightly different standards about exactly what veterinary technicians and veterinary assistants are permitted to do on an animal.
Of course, the reasons behind the laws and their rationales are different. The defined role of the veterinary technician and veterinary assistant may differ between states, and what is allowed in each state is often different.
The American Veterinary Medical Association lists state-by-state laws and statutes regarding what veterinary techs and assistants can perform. The official definition of the roles of veterinary technician are “a person duly certified by the examining board to work under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian.” A veterinary assistant is “a person not holding a license, permit or certificate issued by the board.”
The difference, then, between a veterinary technician and assistant is that a veterinary tech is certified and holds a license, permit, or other certification, while an assistant many times does not.
According to the AVMA’s list, veterinary techs may perform the “nonsurgical veterinary treatment of animal diseases and conditions, including administration of vaccines” under direct supervision of a veterinarian. This treatment includes:
- Observations and findings related to animal diseases and conditions that can be used by a veterinarian to establish a diagnosis or prognosis of a certain condition. This includes x rays, specimen collection (nonsurgical), blood draws, and lab testing procedures
- Administration of sedatives and presurgical medications
- Obstetric treatments
- Nutritional evaluation and counseling
Veterinary technicians may perform the following duties under direct supervision of the veterinarian, who must be on the premises when the tasks are performed:
- Administration of local or general anesthesia, including induction and monitoring.
- Performing diagnostic radiographic contrast studies
- Dental prophylaxis and extractions
Veterinary assistants generally can perform fewer activities than veterinary technicians. Since they don’t possess the same certifications and licensures that veterinary techs do, they cannot perform some of the more complex and sensitive tasks. The duties of a veterinary assistant includes:
- Basic diagnostic studies, including x rays, nonsurgical specimen collection, and laboratory testing procedures.
- Monitoring and reporting to the veterinarian the condition changes of a hospitalized animal.
- Dispensing prescription drugs in compliance with the written directives of the veterinarian.
Under direct supervision (again the veterinarian is required to be present to supervise), a veterinary assistant may perform these duties:
- Nonsurgical veterinary treatment of animal diseases and conditions, including administration of vaccines and administration of sedatives and presurgical medications.
- Observations and findings related to animal diseases and conditions, which can be used by the veterinarian in establishing a diagnosis or prognosis, including blood draws for diagnostic purposes.
- Dental prophylaxis
- Nutritional evaluation and counseling.
There are, however, exceptions for providing emergency care in instances where a veterinarian may not be available and it may cause the death of the animal to not provide care. The law states in this case that “a veterinary student, certified veterinary technician or unlicensed assistant employed by the veterinarian may, under the direct supervision of the veterinarian and pursuant to mutually acceptable written protocols, perform evaluative and treatment procedures necessary to provide an appropriate response to life-threatening emergency situations for the purpose of stabilizing the patient pending further treatment.”
In other words, a veterinary technician or assistant can go an acceptable length beyond their defined roles if under supervision of the veterinarian, if it is necessary for them to perform those duties in order to save the life of the animal.
While the veterinarian is ultimately responsible for assigning these duties, and making it clear to the veterinary technicians and assistants which duties they are and are not able to perform, the employees themselves can ensure they are complying with the law, as well as protecting themselves from potential disciplinary action up to and including termination for not complying.
Staying informed is important for any employee, and in a field like healthcare, even of the animal variety, it serves the employee well to understand the rules and laws of their state.