Recently, I wrote about all of the various titles someone working in veterinary care might have. The DVM, the DACVIM, the DACVS; the top-level titles are fairly static and regulated. Someone with a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine is going to have a known level of knowledge and skill, regardless of where they received their doctorate.
This discussion has brought up some important points about other titles in animal medicine.
Doctors in Practice
There's a key word here in the titles DVM, DACVIM, and DACVS, represented by the D: Doctor.
When you think of a doctor, what comes to mind? The august personage in the white lab coat, maybe with a stethoscope around the neck, ready to bring their immense knowledge to bear to solve complex medical problems, diagnose ongoing issues, provide acute care, or dig right in to perform surgeries and other procedures, right?
The same holds true, more or less, regardless of what kind of doctor you're talking about. Whether you're dealing with general issues and talk to a General Practitioner, or you're in the ER talking to a Critical Care or Emergency Medicine doctor, or you're in for a specialist appointment with a Dermatologist or Oncologist, these are all highly-trained, knowledgeable, intelligent people who are extremely educated and worthy of respect.
This is also true in other kinds of medicine, in particular, veterinary doctors. Vets with doctorates are still often thought of as doctors in every sense of the word. The only difference between the two sets of titles is that one group brings their knowledge to bear on human patients, and the other does the same for our animal companions.
Then you have a vast divide when you step a bit further down the hierarchy.
In human care, you have nurses. Nurses have fought against a stigma for years; the female-oriented not-a-doctor aide stereotype has been harmful for decades. Thankfully, as a society, we've mostly passed beyond that stereotype, and most people now recognize that nurses have a lot of their own training, specializations, and ability to provide care. In fact, these days, many people see a primary care physician who is "merely" a nurse practitioner.
On the other hand, veterinary care has lagged behind human care in this area. The equivalent of a nurse in veterinary care is the veterinary technician, holding a certification like the CVT, LVT, or RVT.
CVT, LVT, and RVT – the Certified, Licensed, or Registered Veterinary Technician roles – all end up meaning more or less the same thing: an individual has received the education and passed the examinations necessary to assist in veterinary care. They aren't secretaries and pill-fetchers; they're well-educated and trained professionals with enough knowledge and skill to handle most common veterinary issues.
Yet the stigma still exists. In veterinary care, all too often, the "vet tech" role is considered somehow lesser than the nursing equivalent. There are, broadly speaking, three reasons for this.
Why Vet Techs Aren't Recognized
As I said, there are three broad reasons why vet techs don't necessarily get the recognition and respect they deserve.
1. Treatment Gaps
The first of the three reasons vet techs don't get the recognition they generally deserve is a historical gap between veterinary care and human medical care. Decades ago, human care was very nuanced, though not as nuanced as it is today. Interventions for diseases and injuries have always been engineered to be as elaborate and effective as possible to provide the best possible outcomes. Meanwhile, far too often, animal medicine was a lot more restricted. People just didn't value animal lives quite as much as human lives, so a lot of medical technology, study, and developments were relegated simply to humans.
How long ago was it that modern cancer treatments started making the jump from humans to dogs and cats? For a long time, options were limited; now, veterinary care includes treatment options like dialysis, organ transplants, transfusions, and chemotherapy that would have been unheard of just a few decades ago, despite being standard in humans for much longer.
All of this is to say that the body of knowledge, the range of treatments, the complexity of cases, and all the other details of veterinary medicine were viewed as somewhat less complex and intricate than those of human medicine. While doctors in animal care are still given respect as doctors, those lower down the chain were often viewed as having a simpler or less important job.
2. Inconsistent Review
The second reason is that, until relatively recently, the requirements to be a vet tech were very scattershot.
With a doctorate, you're dealing with accredited universities and national (or international) programs, with universal standards and high-level oversight from various review boards and authorities. This is true regardless of whether you're pursuing a doctorate in veterinary care or a doctorate in human care. Just the name "doctorate" confers an immense amount of respect.
With nursing, you have something similar, albeit with lower requirements. Nursing licenses are relatively standard across states, and there's a lot of standardization across countries as well. Nurses still need state-level licenses to practice, but the requirements for a license in California, New York, or Florida are all generally going to be similar.
Meanwhile, veterinary technician licensing – those RVT, LVT, and CVT titles – were far too often poorly regulated and non-standardized. The education required wasn't necessarily always equivalent across the board.
This has much improved over the last decades. A large part of the push to rename vet techs to veterinary nurses stems from this improved awareness and standardization of the education and testing requirements. It's not universal yet – this chart shows how varied titles are and how many states don't even have licensing requirements to be a vet tech – but there's improvement every year.
3. It's All in the Name
The third reason is simply the name. "Technician" is, unfortunately, a title that has been diluted a lot over the years. While it still implies some degree of knowledge and training, it can be all over the board. An automotive technician might be someone with plenty of mechanical knowledge and experience, capable of diagnosing and repairing all manner of vehicles, or they might be someone who does nothing but oil changes and wiper replacements all day long.
Unfortunately, the word "technician" was chosen for a lot of PR initiatives in the 90s and 00s meant to uplift various disrespected careers. You can, today, find job listings for "customer service technician/delivery driver" and "sanitation technician" as entry-level jobs for people fresh out of high school.
Why should someone with a college degree in veterinary care and a license in providing that care share the same core title?
Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not saying these other technician roles aren't worthy of respect. There's no such thing as "unskilled labor," after all. Roles that are disrespected should be uplifted and given the dignity they deserve.
Critically, though, that should uplift everyone.
Acknowledging the Critical Role of the Veterinary Technician
Today, if you were to examine the knowledge requirements, testing requirements, training, and day-to-day responsibilities of both a human care nurse and a veterinary technician, you would find that they are quite comparable. They both serve critical roles in providing care and assisting doctors in treatment while also building relationships with clients and patients, advocating for relevant care, and keeping a practice going.
Unfortunately, this isn't always reflected in practice culture. A distressing number of veterinary technicians say their practices have a poor culture, often treating the technicians like glorified secretaries.
On top of everything else, there's a looming crisis in veterinary care. Treatment options improve, but the availability of providers is low, and the incoming student body training to provide veterinary care is not projected to reach the levels necessary to support the incoming spending and focus on veterinary care.
While there are many possible reasons for this, a significant one is the image problem. Broadly, too many people don't necessarily respect vet techs like they would nurses.
That's something that can change.
Joining the VNI
Should veterinary technicians be called veterinary nurses?
As it stands right now, maybe not. But, I think with the right initiative, we can all agree that a veterinary nurse is, indeed, a nurse.
The Veterinary Nurse Initiative is an organized push to reclassify vet techs as veterinary nurses. But it's more than just a name change.
A name change as it stands right now wouldn't actually help anything, just like how calling the people who pick up your garbage "sanitation engineers" doesn't change public perception of their roles either. It was mocked as a joke, after all, and dragged the more illustrious name down instead of uplifting the people working the job.
That's the main argument against the name change, as written by Nurse Advisor. To call all vet techs today "veterinary nurses" would be to drag down the title of nurse, by diluting it. Remember the chart above; there are a dozen states where someone fresh out of high school, with no veterinary training, can be hired for and perform as a veterinary technician in a practice.
Take this article, for example. It starts out from a faulty position that vet techs want the name change first and goes on to state that if vet techs want to be nurses, they should push for higher standards and standardization of the role, accountability, and even compensation on par with nursing.
Compare this to the VNI itself, whose stated goals begin with standardization.
The VNI isn't just about a name change. It's about standardizing the role and the education required to earn the title. It's not meant to drag down the title of nurse; it's meant to uplift the practice of veterinary nursing.
Much of the pushback against the name change seems to come from people – nurses and otherwise – who don't believe that veterinary medicine is complex or difficult compared to human medicine. Yet, consider: a nurse for humans needs to know one set of anatomy. They can work with a patient capable of thought and reason, cooperation, and understanding. There are many standards and references available that apply more or less universally.
The lack of standardization is a problem, but it's one with a solution.
Compare to veterinary medicine. The body of knowledge necessary to treat a dog can vary wildly between a Chihuahua, a St. Bernard, and a Border Collie. Let alone adding in cats, horses, cows, rodents, reptiles, birds, and more. All with patients incapable of speech, reason, or anything more than reactions in so many cases.
Again, I'm not trying to downplay human medical care. It's immensely complex and difficult! So, too, is veterinary care. There are more parallels than there are differences if you take the time to look.
I support the goal of standardizing education requirements across the country, creating standardized licensing requirements, and developing a new role for veterinary nurses. It's not just about renaming all vet techs to nurses; it's about creating that respected and worthy position for veterinary nurses to earn the recognition they deserve.
There's a lot of groundwork that needs to be done at a national level to make this change a supported and warranted change. I believe it's time that we, as a society, and we as a profession, get to work on that groundwork.
As it stands, veterinary technicians are disrespected, underpaid, and at risk of collapse as a profession. Veterinary care is improving every year, and the demand for advanced veterinary medicine is increasing. Can we really persist without the dedicated support of a respected and well-treated class of nurses at our backs? I don't think so.
So much of the narrative surrounding this change makes it sound like vet techs just want a name change, but nothing could be further from the truth. The VNI is about pushing for change, standardization, and true discussion of the issues, and it's a cause I support. I hope you'll join me in that support as well.
If you have any questions, be sure to let me know! I'd love to get a conversation going with you all on this topic.