Life as an "Animal Psychiatric Nurse"

Julie Shaw
Courtesy of Julie Shaw

What is a veterinary technician? A technician is very similar to a human nurse. It is our role to assist licensed veterinarians in all that they do to help keep pets healthy. We work under their supervision to help monitor and treat patients, perform certain tests, educate clients, and assist in surgical and dental procedures.

Like veterinarians, technicians can also specialize in certain areas, such as radiology, dentistry, and anesthesiology. In my case, due to an abiding interest I had, I chose to specialize in behavior. I thought I could be of the most help to clients and their pets by helping them to overcome their behavioral problems as well as their medical ones. I have to say, the one thing I rarely experience in this field is boredom: You simply don’t know what the day will bring!

The qualities that someone in my job must have include an excellent sense of humor, almost photographic observational skills, and an ability to relax in the most unpredictable of situations. A sense of empathy for patients who are confused, frightened and trying to protect themselves—often while trying to hurt you—is also essential. But probably the most valuable skill is the ability to support and empathize with human clients who struggle daily to understand their emotionally distraught pets.

How I Got ‘Here’

I suspect my life experiences have shaped me for this job. Like my animal patients, I understand what it is like to be afraid. I have lived with unpredictability and danger in my life. I’ve suffered anxiety attacks and know the terror of wanting to run from something but not knowing what that ‘something’ is. I also understand pet owners. I know what it feels like to see someone you love suffer from the threat of unknown demons, and to not have a clue how to ease their fear and pain. You see, two of my human children suffer from mental illness. That has been difficult to watch but it has also honed my skills of observation and empathy.

The animal patients I meet in the course of my day as an animal behavior technician are afraid. They exist in a frightened, self-preservation mode, always looking for the dangers that they know are there. Usually these issues occur because of an organic chemical imbalance in their brains and/or life experiences that have been traumatic to them. It is important to focus on the words “traumatic to them.” If we want to help, we have to see the world through their eyes, not our own. For example, maybe that big green trash can that fell over as they walked by didn’t seem to be such a horrible experience to us, but when an animal is already fearful — and then an object they don’t understand “attacks” them — it can seem very traumatic. When this happens, their human owners are often terrified that they’ve done something wrong to cause the problem. Most often, however, that is not the case. While there is almost always something we can teach these owners to do differently, it is unlikely that they “caused” the problem. These things just happen. It is a part of life. Our job, if you choose this field, is to simply try and get everyone happily beyond whatever that problem is.

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