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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 February 22 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Pet Projects

                               C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y                               

Pet Projects
College Vet Tech Programs Propelled by
Generous Pet Owners, New Technologies

On a former Arabian horse farm outside Waco, Texas, students enrolled in McLennan Community College work toward a prized certificate – an associate of applied science degree in veterinary technology.

Photos courtesy  Suny Ulster

Vet tech students at McLennan Community College examine a cat
in the college’s vet clinic.

The 26 full-time students, each of whom cleared a difficult admissions hurdle to get into the program, learn to care for the 60 horses, two dozen head of cattle and about a dozen goats who populate Highlander Ranch — 200 acres dotted with barns, an indoor arena, hay pastures and a paddock, acquired by the college in 2002. Students toil in the laboratories and
surgical suites and exam rooms under the supervision of program director Jennifer Garretson.

“Our program is a working one,” Garretson said. “The ranch was a diamond in the rough. It’s a full-fledged equine facility. We’re so fortunate to have this. It’s awesome.”

It’s also a vivid example of the more than 60 community college vet tech programs flourishing across the country, trying to meet the growing demand for one of nation’s fastest-growing professions.

Even as the national unemployment rate hovers near 10 percent, the field of veterinary technology is booming. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 36 percent jump in career opportunities in the field between now and 2018, an increase of 28,500 jobs in vet’s offices, animal hospitals, emergency clinics, zoos, animal rescue organizations and research labs and other facilities.

The growing technical sophistication of veterinary medicine and the unbridled willingness of Americans to spend generously on Fido or Fluffy have converged to create a perfect storm of job creation and opportunity. More than 150 vet tech programs across the country – including four-year colleges and proprietary schools – are striving to meet the demand.

More Competitive

At the same time, admission is growing more competitive and academic programs are more demanding, replete with difficult science courses such as veterinary anatomy and physiology, clinical pathology and veterinary radiology.

At McLennan, for example, a maximum of 30 students are accepted into the program each year. Students must meet the college’s admission requirements as well as separate admission requirements into the vet tech program, including passing a health occupations aptitude exam. In addition, all applicants must have worked for, volunteered with, or observed in a veterinary practice for 50 hours.

“These programs are medical programs,” said Jill Sheport, who heads the vet tech program at Mesa Community College in Arizona. “They are comparable to nursing programs.”

At Mesa, a prospective vet tech student must pass algebra, biology and chemistry before being admitted to the program. A total of 78 credit hours are required to earn an associate degree.

The academic demands have done little to slow the flow of students — freshly-minted high school grads, career changers, animal lovers — vying to enter the vet tech field. The Mesa program has grown by 50 percent to 51 students since the college received AVMA accreditation four years ago, Sheport said.

Students appear to be highly motivated; officials boast pass rates on national certification exams in excess of 95 percent.

Jobs in the field are plentiful. At a time when home foreclosures are rampant, when Americans are cutting back on everything from dental visits to dining out and slicing up their credit cards, they are still willing to open their wallets for their furry friends.

According to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association, 62 percent of U.S. households own a pet, equating to 71.4 million homes and more than 400 million animals. Americans will spend $45.4 billion on pets in 2009, a 5.1 percent increase from 2008, and nearly double pet spending a decade ago.

Of that sum, $12.2 billion will be spent on veterinary care and another $10.2 billion on medications and supplies.

Human-Animal Bond

“I think one of the things that is creating demand is the human-animal bond,” Sheport said. “Animals have gone from being property to being a member of the family. Caring for the animals is no longer discretionary. People are willing to spend money on caring for their companions.”

Combine that with a nationwide shortage of vet techs — some estimates suggest there are eight job openings for every applicant — and a drive to increase the professional skills of vet techs and it is no surprise that community college vet tech programs are thriving.

The State University of New York-Ulster in New York’s Hudson Valley — also known as Ulster Community College — started a vet tech program five years ago and recently received full accreditation from the American Veterinary Medical Association. Its first graduating class numbered only five; today, 150 students are enrolled.

“It has grown much faster than we ever anticipated,” said Beth Alden, director of the SUNY Ulster program. “It’s been a runaway train. It almost overwhelmed us.”

The growth of community college veterinary technician programs is being fueled by a recognition that vet techs — whom in past years might have received only on-the-job training from a vet — now need more specialized training.

“The veterinary field has evolved,” Alden said. “Years ago, you could walk off the street and get a job in a vet’s office. It worked well at the time. But now people are demanding a greater level of care. Techs really need a strong background in math and science.”

Said Stuart Porter, head of the vet tech program at Blue Ridge Community College in Virginia: “The problem is that on-the-job training is not very good. The people are doing things that they don’t necessarily know how to do.”

Lance Bassage, a veterinarian and surgeon at a horse practice in Rhinebeck, N.Y., hired several SUNY Ulster grads and said he understands the need for highly-skilled veterinary technicians with good science and clinical backgrounds.

“Every successful vet practice needs good technicians,” Bassage said. “They are a vital part of the animal healthcare team.”

Vet techs allow their bosses to concentrate on diagnosis, treatment and research by performing tasks such as setting up and examining microscope slides, collecting blood samples and performing blood tests, administering medication and other treatments, anesthesia, and patient preparation and instrument care in the operating room.

Where vet techs once might have been confined to holding animals and cleaning enclosures, they are now called upon to perform essential medical procedures in biochemistry, chemistry, microbiology, urinalysis and serology. They assist the veterinarian with physical examinations that help determine the nature of the illness or injury. Veterinary technicians also perform and maintain anesthesia, and administer medications, fluids and blood products as prescribed by the veterinarian.

Veterinary technicians commonly assist veterinarians in surgery by providing correct equipment and instruments and by assuring that monitoring and support equipment such as anesthetic machines, cardiac monitors, scopes and breathing apparatus are in good working condition. They may also maintain treatment records and inventory of all pharmaceuticals, equipment and supplies, and help with other administrative tasks within a veterinary practice.

Tougher Standards

The job requirements have placed a premium on education, and a larger movement to increase the professional capabilities of vet techs is under way. While requirements to work as a vet tech vary from state-to-state, earning professional certification generally requires applicants to have an associate degree, and to pass the Veterinary Technician National Exam.

While people with two or more years of experience assisting a veterinarian used to be able to sit for these exams, that allowance is being phased out. In January 2011, any state which uses the Veterinary Technician National Exam will require applicants sitting for the exam to have an associate degree.

That step is expected to create even more demand on community colleges. They’ll face the challenge of producing more qualified graduates and maintaining academic rigor at the same time.

Blue Ridge Community College runs one of fewer than a dozen distance learning programs in veterinary technology. Porter said the program teaches 60 students on-campus, with another 54 taking courses through compressed video at four Virginia campuses. Students also complete required clinical requirements by working in vet’s offices, labs and other settings.

The program has proved very popular.

“We get college grads, we get career-changers, and 98 percent of our graduates get jobs,” he said. “People tell me this is something that they always wanted to do, and this is a chance for them to do it.”

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