I just finished my first year of undergrad, and while I've shadowed at a vet clinic before, I'm about to start a job as a veterinary assistant. While I'm super excited, I'm also extremely nervous. Any advice for starting a first job at a vet clinic?
Ooh fun question!
Congrats on finishing your first year and getting your first job as a vet assistant!
I volunteered/shadowed on and off from when I was 12-18, then got my first job as a part-time assistant at a general practice when I was 18-22, and now I’ve been working full-time as an assistant at an emergency hospital for the past year.
So much comes to mind, so this may be pretty long.
-Be willing to learn! Accept that there is a lot you don’t know, and always be willing to listen and learn from more experienced people.
-Don’t be afraid to ask the doctors questions about cases. Most are more than willing to answer and explain.
(Everyone there who is more experienced has been where you are now one day in their life - when you become an experienced person, remember what it was like to be a nervous, new assistant.)
-Don’t be afraid to ask the other assistants/techs for help. If you don’t know how to do something, it’s a million times better to ask than to guess and do something incorrectly. (Same goes for clarifying what you’re ALLOWED to do.)
-On the same note, if you don’t know how to do something, but want to learn, say so, or the experienced assistant/tech may just do it FOR you.
-Restraint. Start with the nice ones!
If you’re not comfortable restraining an aggressive animal - SAY SO.
Don’t be afraid to use muzzles, e-collars, comforters for big dogs or cat-muzzles, e-collars, towels for cats - they don’t hurt the animal and they help keep everyone safe. Despite what the owner believes, the dog CAN breathe through the muzzle (be careful with muzzles and vomiting patients though).
Sometimes you can even distract patients with food (make sure they’re not on a special diet or NPO or anything). You can also pet their heads (if they’re not aggressive, just squirmy) or tap their heads gently with a pen (if they are aggressive) to distract them.
If an animal is really stressing themselves out or has a high possibility of hurting you or someone else - tell the doctor. Medical restraint (drugs) is great!
There are so many different ways to restrain animals of different sizes and temperaments for different procedures, that I don’t even know where to start. You’ll learn over time! Always be cautious. Even the nicest animals will bite when scared or in pain. Watch out for teeth and claws, but also those sneaky back feet and headbutts.
-Bring a notebook! Write down any questions you have (if it’s too busy to ask them) - you can look them up yourself, or ask them later. Write down things you learn, write down instructions on how to do something new, etc. (I actually looked back at my notebook from a year ago and had some fun reading my old questions).
-Bring snacks/drinks. My GP (general practice) shifts were 12 hours, my ECC (emergency and critical care) shifts are 11 hours. It’s a long day!
-Wear good shoes. When I started working, I wore converse sneakers and my god did my ankles hurt. It’s constant standing and walking - buy good walking sneakers!
-Everyone has their own way of doing things. If it’s something menial, take everyone’s methods into account and form your own way. If it’s something important, find a high ranking person (doctor, practice owner, head technician) and get it clarified which way YOU should do it.
-Try to keep busy! If you don’t know what to do, ask anyone if there’s anything you can do to help them. If not, you can always sweep/mop/clean. Your coworkers and employers will definitely take note of it.
-Check on patients. Maybe this comes from my emergency experience, but you can never check on patients too often! From something small like pee sitting in the cage, to a change in breathing patterns, you don’t want anything to go unnoticed for too long. If anything looks abnormal to you - ask for a second opinion.
-(May be targeted more toward Emergency.) Learn normal vitals. These are your first indicators of something going seriously wrong. Learn what a normal heart rate is for a small/medium/large dog and for a cat (and how it sounds!), learn a normal respiration rate, and normal gum color. Not as urgent - but temperature too. A change in vitals may be a normal occurrence of a disease process or side effect of medication, but always bring it up to the doctor just in case.
Hopefully you’ve been around mostly healthy animals before shadowing, so learn what “breathing weird” looks like, and whether it’s increased effort (dyspnea) or increased rate (tachypnea)… or both. You hear about pale gums and cyanotic (blue/purple) gums a lot, but if you ever get to see them, take note of what they actually look like on a living patient. Mentation is important too - is that crazy energetic puppy suddenly only glancing over at you when you open the cage door? That cat who wanted to kill you an hour ago not even hissing when you disconnect his fluids?
-(May be targeted toward emergency). Triage. In the emergency room, we triage everything. In GP, we did not. Sometimes it’s obvious, like a patient hit by a car needs to be rushed straight back, and a puppy hopping around for a vaccine appointment does not. But if you get a chance to look around the waiting room, take a look at the patients. Take note of any abnormal breathing, mucous membrane color, a patient lying on its side (laterally recumbent) and not really reacting to its environment. Sometimes owners don’t realize how serious of an emergency they have. It’s important to pick out the important pieces of information from what owners tell you. You’ll learn how to ask the right questions.
-Double check your math. If your doctor gives you medication doses in milligrams, you’ll have to convert them to milliliters. Even if you’re just filling oral meds in the pharmacy, you may need to figure out how many tablets equates to the right number of milligrams. Double check your math. Triple check your math. Ask someone else to check it. Check it until you’re confident. (Soon you’ll get an idea of “that seems like a really high dose”, is it written correctly?)
-Be clear. Working around other people who know a lot about animals and medicine gives us a skewed perspective. Don’t assume every owner knows something that’s “common sense” to you. Be very clear with explanations or medication instructions.
-Label everything! If you have a pill just sitting somewhere, that’s extremely dangerous. Always write the type of medication, the dose, and the patient name. If an owner drops off treats for their pet in the hospital - label it! If you have a pet temporarily in a cage, write his name (you definitely don’t want patients getting mixed up and getting the wrong treatments). Label everything!
-Always keep a record, write things down. When the doctor asks you 8 hours later what diet you fed a specific patient this morning when there’s 20 other in-patients, you’ll be glad you did!
-Be nice to clients. People are frustrating, some people are very rude, but get used to your “customer service” persona!
-If you don’t have qualifications, be careful answering client questions. Depending on the rules of your practice, you may not be allowed to answer certain questions unless you’re a doctor. Unless the doctor explicitly tells you that you can tell an owner something, always tell the client that you will have the doctor come right in to talk with them.
Unless it’s a straightforward question like, “Has he vomited today?”. (I’m talking about questions like: “When are we gonna decrease his medication?” “When can he come home from the hospital?” “Do you think he’s gonna live?” “Have his kidneys gotten worse?”)
-Learn how the front desk works! Just because you’re working as an assistant in the back doesn’t mean you should be confined back there. In my first job, the front desk was completely separate from the back treatment area, and none of the assistants knew how to work the front desk. Sometimes it’s busy or you need to cover someone for lunch, and you should learn how to check someone out, book an appointment, answer a phone call. It’s very helpful to understanding how the practice works as a whole.
-Clean up after yourself. If you make a mess, don’t leave it for someone else to clean up - this is a good way to annoy coworkers, haha. Of course, this isn’t always doable. Sometimes it gets busy, and everything turns into a mess at once.
-Respect the dead. Everyone in the medical field gets calloused to death/euthanasia because we have to. As sad as it is, sometimes euthanasia really is the best option for a suffering animal. We see death so often that letting every death tear us apart emotionally would be unsustainable. (Ever see that Scrubs episode where they talk about a patient dying, and how his whole family is taking the day off, but all the doctors have to move right on to the next patient a minute later? They say how they make jokes because it’s the only way to cope.)
All that aside, have some respect for the patients. It’s okay to be emotionally calloused, but don’t be disrespectful. Don’t throw patients into body bags. Remember that this was someone’s best friend for a number of years. Treat them how you would want your deceased pet to be treated.
-That’s a good overall rule. Treat your patients how you would want your own pet to be treated in a hospital.
-Shadowing is a lot different than working. I’ve heard stories of people who graduate veterinary school, and all their experience is shadowing. They’ve never worked as an assistant or a technician, and when they handle their first patient, it’s clear they’ve never restrained a fractious cat. When shadowing, you just kind of stand there and watch. Your whole purpose for being there is to watch and learn - so you get to see all the “cool” cases and procedures and ask questions whenever. When you’re working, you may miss a “cool case” because you’re busy restraining the dog with an ear infection. But you learn what it’s REALLY like to work in an animal hospital on a daily basis - your future career! And it taught me a huge amount. A recent veterinary graduate told me that having all this experience working will help me immensely in veterinary school. Instead of just learning the concept of a disease in school, you’ll be able to relate it to that patient who HAD the disease and what the symptoms actually looked like.