understanding the role of RVTs and unregistered vet assistants

Learn about Registered Veterinary Technicians (RVTs) and Unregistered Assistants and how they help care for your dog or cat.

You know your veterinary clinic has registered veterinary technicians (RVTs) and assistants on staff, but what exactly do they do? Are they just there to fill in when your veterinarian isn’t available, or do they have their own job descriptions? What are they qualified to do, and what must they leave to the veterinarian?

In any given clinic, there are a variety of necessary tasks to be performed that can be done without having attained a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM or VMD) degree. These tasks are crucial to ensuring that your dog or cat is well cared for. By having RVTs or unregistered assistants carry out these responsibilities, the veterinarians at the practice can focus on their own duties.

What are they qualified to do?

An RVT or unregistered assistant can perform a wide range of procedures under the indirect supervision of the attending veterinarian. They can:

  • Administer controlled substances – only RVTs, not unregistered assistants, can do this.
  • Perform initial patient evaluation – assess vital signs (heart and respiratory rate, temperature, and blood pressure), obtain body weight, collect basic history from the animal’s person, etc.
  • Restrain patients – holding a cat for wound care, restraining a dog for a blood draw, etc. Working with an experienced individual who understands how to provide appropriate restraint is key to the veterinarian’s ability to perform a thorough physical examination.
  • Expose radiographs (taking x-rays) – setting the computer (digital x-rays), keeping the patient still during imaging, developing film-based x-rays for the veterinarian to review, etc.
  • Collect blood, urine, fecal, and other bodily secretion samples – many RVTs are more adept at collecting samples than the veterinarians for whom they are providing assistance.
  • Place intravenous catheters – when a patient requires intravenous (IV) fluids or injectable medications, it’s often the RVT or unregistered assistant’s responsibility to place and secure the catheter so the prescribed treatment can be safely given.
  • Administer medication – oral, injectable or topical medications, supplements and other treatments can be administered by the RVT or unregistered assistant under the direction of the overseeing veterinarian. However, only an RVT can induce anesthesia (i.e. make an animal lose consciousness so an examination or procedure can be performed).
  • Apply bandages – for example, covering a wound on a leg, keeping an ear flap flat to the head post-surgery, etc.
  • Clean teeth – some RVTs are quite skilled at dental cleaning. However, regulations around teeth cleaning beyond brushing or wiping have some specific legal restrictions in different regions.
  • Review invoices and estimates – conferring with you about the costs associated with veterinary care is an important part of the RVT’s or assistant’s job. This way, your veterinarian can focus on creating a treatment plan for your companion instead of determining the means by which payment for services will be provided.
  • Communicate with you – placing phone calls, sending emails, or partaking in other forms of communication (discharge sheets, etc.) to inform you of your animal’s health status, etc.
  • Perform administrative duties – tracking product orders, performing inventory checks, and cleaning often fall under the responsibilities of an RVT or unregistered assistant.

Many RVTs are more adept at collecting samples than the veterinarians for whom they are providing assistance.

The following procedures can only be performed under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian:

• Inducing anesthesia

• Applying casts and splints

• Performing dental extractions

• Suturing cutaneous and subcutaneous tissues, gingiva and oral mucous membranes

• Creating a relief hole in the skin to facilitate placement of an intravascular catheter

As you can see, veterinary technicians and unregistered assistants play a vital role in the daily operation of your veterinarian’s practice. These support staff members are invaluable members of a skilled and experienced team that’s dedicated to giving your beloved animal companion the best care possible.


Veterinarian Dr. Patrick Mahaney graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. He is a certified veterinary acupuncturist from the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. His practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness, offers integrative medicine. Dr. Mahaney writes a veterinary blog for patrickmahaney.com and is working on his first book, The Uncomfortable Vet.