1. What do your typical duties as a Veterinary Technician at the MSPCA involve?
Sarah: Typical duties as a vet tech at the MSPCA include giving animals vaccines, drawing blood, giving both oral and injectable medications to sick animals, giving sick animals fluids, restraining animals for vet physical examinations, talking with owners and adopters about the medications their animals are on or explaining how to give medications at home.
Sue: We also do surgery at the MSPCA, and those duties include drawing up and injecting drugs to sedate the animal for surgery preparation, intubating animals that need to be on inhalant anesethia for longer surgeries, shaving and sterilizing surgery sites, monitoring anesthesia during surgery and assisting the vet in any way they need during surgery, monitoring the animal post-surgery to remove breathing tubes, and giving pain meds and making sure they wake up smoothly.
2. What led you to a career in animal shelter medicine?
Sarah: I started at the MSPCA as a volunteer and then was offered a job as an adoption counselor. I worked as an adoption counselor for about 2 years and did an internship in the surgery suite for a college course. Once my internship was completed, a job opened up in the surgery suite and it was offered to me. Ever since I was a young girl, I loved animals and knew I wanted to work with them and decided to volunteer my time at an animal shelter so that I could help animals that needed extra care and attention. I was lucky to find such an amazing shelter as the MSPCA where a large variety of animals are housed, including cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, and reptiles.
Sue: I was a Veterinary Technician at the Animal Rescue League in Boston prior to working at the MSPCA but took some time off to have my 3 children – during that time I volunteered at the MSPCA as a foster care provider as well as coming in and doing medications, and then when the surgery suite opened in 2007, I volunteered once or twice a week in there as a tech. A part-time position opened up just as my youngest daughter was old enough to be left for the day, and so I began working 20-24 hours a week in October of 2009. I have always been drawn to shelter animals and the shelter environment so I wouldn’t have looked for a job anywhere else but at a shelter, and the MSPCA – Nevins Farm is the biggest and best one around this area.
3. How does working at an animal shelter as a Vet Tech differ from working at a private veterinary hospital?
Sarah: Working at an animal shelter as a vet tech is a lot different from working at a veterinary hospital. At the shelter, we have more freedom to run laboratory tests, do surgery, and give animals medications than at private practices. In private practices vet techs have to not only work with animals but also their owners. Some owners do not want to spend the money to sterilize their animals or run laboratory tests when their animals are sick. At the shelter, we are also able to perform riskier surgeries like leg amputations and exploratory surgeries that many owners are private practice cannot afford or do not want to put their animals through.
Sue: I’ve worked in both environments and both have good and bad things to offer. I felt like in a private clinic, there is definitely more emphasis on selling a product/service, and because of that you have owners who can pay a lot of money for some very interesting procedures. A majority of the animals you see in private practice also have good caring homes. At a shelter, you aren’t equipped to do a lot of advanced procedures; however the ones you do are usually for owners who really care about their animal but just don’t have a lot of money, or for abandoned animals who have no one, and treating animals in those situations is 100 times more rewarding. Most animals in a shelter have not had good owners in the past, but by being there you have the chance to show them love when they have never felt it before, and then send them off to a new caring families.
4. What kind of education and special training do you need for your job?
Sarah: Most places require vet techs to complete a formal degree for veterinary technicians. Many schools offer a two year program that allows their graduates to sit for the national boards and become certified veterinary technicians. I did not go to school to become a veterinary technician. I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in biology and got a lot of on-the-job training working at the MSPCA and also by doing my internship for a semester. Once I started working in the surgery suite, I began to read books from vet tech programs to gain a better understanding about the responsibilities and duties of a vet tech.
Sue: I believe at the end of this year, no one will be eligible to be certified unless they have graduated from a degree program that is accredited by the AVMA and then pass the Veterinary Technician National Examination. A lot of practices are requiring their current technicians to become certified and only hiring new technicians who are certified.
5. Do you have an area of interest or specialization?
Sarah: My area of interest is wound care and abscesses. I find wounds to be very interesting and I find it very satisfying to be able to clean out wounds, give medications to clear up infections, and eventually see the wound completely healed and the animal feeling a lot better.
Sue: I don’t really have a special area that interests me, however I always seem to be drawn to the critical cases where the animal’s chances are 50/50 or less – not really sure why, but I guess I am always rooting for the underdog, and I think that when you help them, sometimes they look you in the eye and you know they are thanking you.
6. What is Spay Day USA, and how have you been involved with it and other spay and neuter programs for the surrounding communities?
Sue: Spay Day USA is an event where numerous shelters and organizations across the country offer low cost spays and neuters for animals in their communities.
Sarah: Last year, I coordinated the event and we had dogs and cats come to the shelter to be spayed and neutered. These animals also receive rabies and distemper vaccines along with microchips. In the past, the MSPCA has also helped out a feral cat group from Lowell that practices trap and release. The feral cats were brought to the shelter and we sedated them, spayed or neutered them, vaccinated them, and gave them back to the trappers to be released in the area they came from. This has helped cut down on the number of feral cats reproducing in Lowell.
7. Can you describe what “microchipping” is and how it has helped lost animals find their way home?
Sue: Microchipping is a process in which a small chip (about the size of a grain of rice) is inserted under the skin between the shoulder blades of the animal. The chip contains a ten-digit code that registers on a universal scanner that all shelters and veterinary practices have. The code gets registered with Home Again Microchip services, which has an 800 number to call in case of a lost or found pet.
Sarah: Anytime a stray animal comes into our shelter, we scan the animal with a microchip scanner. If the animal has a microchip, the 10-digit number appears on the scanner screen, and we write the number down and call the Home Again company or another company if the microchip is from a different company than Home Again. The microchip company can then tell us the name of the animal, its owner, and a phone number to contact the owner. We then call the owner and let them know that we have their animal at the shelter, and we ask them to come and pick them up.
8. What’s the best part of your day working at the MSPCA?
Sarah: The best part about my day is that it’s always busy and no day is exactly the same. Each animal has its own personality and story which makes each day different. I also love being able to interact with animals every day, and I feel like my job is very fun and exciting. I really enjoy going to work.
Sue: I think the best part of my day is the end of the day when you are going home and the animals are all settled down and everyone is quiet and sleeping and as content as they can be in their situation (some very thankful to have a roof over their head). You could hear a pin drop – it’s a very peaceful feeling.
9. What is the most challenging part of your job?
Sue: I would say the most challenging part of my job is not being able to save every animal – the very sick, the very old, and the very aggressive. You wish everyone could have the same chance.
Sarah: The most challenging part of the job is not being able to help every animal. We get a lot of sick animals in the shelter, and we try very hard to treat as many as we can but sometimes we can’t cure an animal or make them better. I try to focus on the many animals that we are able to help, but it is still hard to think about the ones that we are unable to. Luckily, we are able to help more animals than not.
10. Can you give an example of a particular case where you felt especially proud of making a difference?
Sarah: One particular case that I felt proud about making a difference had to do with a very sweet young male cat that was a stray. He came into the shelter with a terribly broken back leg. We had x-rays taken, and the leg was completely shattered and must have been very painful, but the cat never complained and was very loving. We made the decision to do surgery to remove the broken leg, since it could not be easily fixed and would probably always be painful even if it was. This cat woke up out of anesthesia purring and only took a few days to recover before he was walking around the surgery suite as if nothing happened. He was adopted a few days later into an amazing home. I felt proud that we gave this stray cat a second chance and that we found such a wonderful and loving home.
Sue: The instance that sticks out in my head is with a kitten that was born as an only kitten (very rare). He was a sickly kitten, and even though he was with his mother, he was losing weight and not eating, etc. No one thought he was going to make it, but I force-fed him multiple times a day, gave him fluids every day, and wouldn’t give up. Amazingly, he survived and is doing very well. I actually ended up adopting him, and he is a healthy happy 2-year old at this moment.
11. Do you have any pets at home?
Sarah: I have three cats at home. I have an orange male cat named Philip who’s 8 years old and was rescued from a shelter. He was found as a stray wandering alongside a busy road. I have a black cat named Sheena who’s 4 and is a semi-feral cat that I rescued from an animal shelter when she was 9 months old. She was found in a crate abandoned in an industrial lot, and the people at the shelter were not sure what to do with her, and no one wanted a feral cat so I took her. I also have a lynx point Siamese named Mae Ling whose 2 years old and I rescued her from the MSPCA. She came into the shelter because her owner had too many cats and she wasn’t doing well in her cage and was very stressed, so I brought her home and I ended up adopting her.
Sue: I have 3 cats and a dog at home. My dog is a 9-year-old border collie/Australian shepherd mix named Molly that I adopted from the MSPCA five years ago. My cats are Seamus, a 4-year-old gray and white cat, Smokey, my 2-year-old survivor, and Buddy, my 1-year-old cat whose brain did not fully develop in-utero (due to his mother having a virus during pregnancy). He walks really funny and can’t see well but is the most fun and loving guy. I just recently had to euthanize my 11yr old cat due to cancer. He was a one-of-a-kind cat who used to go for walks around the neighborhood with us. We miss him very much!
12. What advice do you have for kids interested in a career in veterinary medicine?
Sue: My advice would be to get a volunteer job at a shelter or practice so you can be around animals and get the feel for whether or not you like working with them. This will also get some experience under your belt, which is great for your resume. Then I would pursue a degree in Veterinary Technology and get certified.
Sarah: My advice for kids interested in a career in veterinary medicine would be to get involved with animals as soon as you are able to. Volunteering at an animal shelter is a great way to interact with a wide variety of animals, and it also gives you an idea of whether working with animals is something you really want to do. Also, many shelters would love the extra help from volunteers, and some shelters even allow volunteers to help medicate the animals. Helping to care for sick animals would help give people an idea of what veterinary medicine is all about.