On the Mend

Registered veterinary technicians are vital to animal care

BY Karyl Carmignani

Photography by Ken Bohn

The depth and breadth of the duties for the registered veterinary technicians (referred to as RVTs or vet techs, for short) at the Zoo cannot be overstated. Before the sun inches over the horizon, they are diligently checking on their patients recuperating at the Zoo Hospital. From ape to zebra, each animal is carefully observed and its condition documented, medications and IV fluids administered, and operating rooms prepped with sterile instruments and whatever else is needed for the day’s incoming patients. At 8 a.m., the medical team meets to assess the day’s cases. Vet techs are assigned to hospital animals, and another “field RVT” is assigned to animals on Zoo grounds. They also volunteer as a “vet helper” on complex cases. Additionally, each RVT takes over an ongoing “special project,” like vaccinations for all the mammals and birth control; avian West Nile Virus vaccinations and mammal deworming; flea control; managing satellite pharmacies and training students; and overseeing sample acquisitions for research requests. Moving animals safely, anticipating the needs of both veterinarian and animal, and being technically savvy with a broad range of lifesaving machines are also part of the job. And cleaning. Lots and lots of cleaning.

Vet tech Meredith Reid expertly collects samples from a 10-foot-tall giraffe at the San Diego Zoo.

Other vital skills to being a proficient RVT are “multitasking, good communication, a lot of math, keen observational skills with animals to relay possible ailments to vets, being flexible, and pretty much being able to make miracles happen,” explained Christine Miller, RVT, as she assisted fellow RVT Meredith Reid who was using an ultrasonic dental hand scaler to clean the teeth of an anesthetized jaguar. “She likes to eat on her left side,” added Meredith about the majestic cat in front of her.

RVTs are skilled in radiography, taking x-rays of animals that the veterinarians can later read. Above, Brian Opitz is taking radiographs of a snake and checking the clarity and detail on a computer screen.

Flexibility is key, as they must also be ready to take on “blue box specials,” which are any mammal, bird, or reptile that shows up to the hospital needing immediate care without an appointment. For instance, a goose arrived after a keeper noticed she had a puffy eye. She was examined for damage to her cornea and medication provided. “The RVTs and the hospital keepers are the backbone of what goes on in the hospital,” said Karen Kearns, DVM, DACZM. “They are highly trained and good at what they do, so we can delegate a lot of tasks to them.” As the RVTs closely monitor anesthetized animals, it frees up the vets to read the radiographs and think about the best treatment, which “makes the process much more efficient, and the animal does not have to be under anesthesia for as long, which is important. We appreciate that!”

Each animal in the collection receives specialized medical care, and detailed records are kept so staff can recognize “health trends” over an animal’s lifetime. This koala is getting a routine physical exam.

From a jaguar getting dental radiographs, to a kudu getting his hoof bandaged, to a vervet monkey getting a diagnostic workup, to a woodquail being treated for curling toes, the talented and knowledgeable vet techs are ready for anything! They are the unsung heroes of animal health. Even Marie Diamond, the administrative assistant to the pharmacy, is a registered vet tech. This training serves her well in her job of ordering medications and supplies for the Zoo hospital and coordinating repairs. She loves her job, particularly “the people I work with who are professional, kind, and thoughtful,” and she gets to “peek at animals up close,” a major perk.

A Tough and Rewarding Job

But being an RVT is not all cuddles and kisses—helping animals heal and recover is hard work! “It’s dirty, difficult, and injury-prone,” explained Kim Williams, RVT and associate director of veterinary administration. She and her colleague Tracey Mumby, RVT and senior hospital manager, taught the RVT program at Mesa College for many years. “You have to do it for the love of animals, not the money,” said Tracey. She went on to say that “animal care isn’t always pleasant. You have to deal with vomit, poop, and pee, and you sometimes have to do things that are uncomfortable for the animals, but good for their health in the long run.” She said that the work of the RVTs at the Zoo is complicated by the fact that exotic animals “won’t always go along with it” as willingly as your dog going to the vet. But despite the challenges, there is nothing quite so satisfying. “I really feel like I’m making a difference,” said Kim. “It’s important that these animals can be around for my grandkids to see and learn about…and while they’re here we need to give them the best care possible.”

Dental care is especially important to the health of carnivores, like this jaguar. Teeth cleaning and x-rays are part of the work our talented RVTs do.

Back in the procedure room, the beautiful nine-year-old jaguar’s preventative medical exam is winding down. Her dental exam is completed, and her teeth are gleaming; Christine has administered “standard feline vaccines” (rabies and FVRCP) and collected urine, fecal, and blood samples. Katie Kerr, Ph.D., associate nutritionist, conducted a body condition score by palpating the cat’s ribs, shoulder blades, hip bones, and spine. This is a good indicator of the animal’s overall health. The big cat was scored six on a scale of one to nine, close to ideal for a cat her age. The RVTs monitored the cat’s blood pressure and heart rate, worked around the endotracheal tube, and jotted down all the information on the animal’s chart. “We have many different roles,” said Christine. In addition to being the veterinarian’s technician, RVTs serve as laboratory technician, radiograph technician, dental hygienist, anesthetist, surgical nurse, and pharmacist. “In human medicine, each area is a filled with a specialist, but in veterinary medicine, we do it all.”

RVTs work closely with keepers and veterinarians to provide the best health care possible. Here, giant panda Gao Gao is reaching his arm through a sleeve so that his blood pressure can be recorded.

Shout outIf you would like to help fund needed equipment for the Zoo Hospital to enhance our animal care, please call our Development Department at 619-557-3947.

The vet staff also works closely with keepers on Zoo grounds, who work tirelessly with their animals to train behaviors that minimize trips to the hospital and help stay ahead of potential health issues. For instance, Gao Gao, our elderly male giant panda, allows blood pressure readings as he voluntarily thrusts his arm into a steel sleeve for monitoring. Male lowland gorillas cooperate in their own heart health by presenting their chest for ultrasounds, which reveal the condition of the heart. Tigers and cheetahs are being trained to present their tail for blood draws. All these husbandry behaviors enhance animal healthcare and reduce stress. And it would not be possible without the calm and competent work of the registered vet techs.

Providing the best animal care is a huge, cooperative effort. As Meredith said of the laboratory team, “They, too, are a critical extension of the hospital, as they help the veterinarians fit the pieces of the puzzle together to make a diagnosis. Without that information, we couldn’t fully do our jobs.” Sometimes it takes more than a village—it takes a committed registered vet tech team to get the job done!

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will showcase the RVTs at the Safari Park.