This week is National Veterinary Technician Week, dedicated to honoring the unsung heroes of the veterinary profession. When your cat goes to the veterinary hospital, chances are she’s going to spend much more time with veterinary technicians or other veterinary staff members than with the veterinarian. Veterinary technicians are educated in the latest medical advances and skilled at working alongside veterinarians to give cats the best medical care possible.
Ellen Carozza has been a veterinary technician for 24 years. She has been working at NOVA Cat Clinic in Arlington, VA just outside the nation’s capital, since obtaining her Virginia license in 2002. She is also one of the core technicians who created the new AVTCP (American Academy of Veterinary Technicians in Clinical Practice) Feline VTS (Veterinary Technician Specialty) certification. Ellen is also certified in RECOVER Veterinary CPR. Her passion is the feline patient. “It’s 100% about them first, then the task at hand, then us,” says Ellen. “Knowing their special language is key to understanding their unique needs”
I had a chance to interview this amazing champion of cats and I’m delighted to introduce you to Ellen.
How and why did you become a veterinary technician?
I didn’t really want to be a veterinary technician. I actually wanted to be a funeral director growing up. Stable job, pays well, you get to help people in a vulnerable environment, and I actually like working with people. My parents on the other hand… no way!
I grew up with an intense menagerie of animals so why not go to vet school? SUNY Delhi, the AVMA accredited school I attended, has a program called the Cornell Connection that basically was a way to get your foot in the door to vet school if you aced everything in tech school. That was my goal, I was more than halfway there. Unfortunately life gets in the way of certain goals, and instead I moved to be with my fiancé to Washington, DC. He was already here, and the job market was much better for him. So I went from working as a primate research technician and a small animal tech in New York to shelter medicine, and then more small animal medicine. All along, I was noticing that cats got awful medicine, then I stumbled on NOVA Cat Clinic. 24 years later I am still a Licensed Veterinary Technician. I have been working exclusively with cats at NOVA Cat Clinic since 2002.
What is your favorite part of being a veterinary technician?
Wow, that’s a difficult one, as there are many aspects of the field I do enjoy. I enjoy the hands on care we provide on a daily basis. I think many people take for granted what we actually do. We do anesthesia, we perform dental cleanings, we take xrays, and run labwork. We are the first people to alert a doctor if even the slightest thing is wrong with a patient. So I want to dispel those myths that techs “just play with puppies and kittens.” That’s a perk of the job. That is NOT my job. My Instagram platform, @thecatlvt, teaches people just what a technician is capable of, and that we actually are there to help you be a stronger client.
I enjoy the hands on care we provide on a daily basis. I think many people take for granted what we actually do. We do anesthesia, we perform dental cleanings, we take xrays, and run labwork. We are the first people to alert a doctor if even the slightest thing is wrong with a patient.
What is your least favorite part of being a veterinary technician?
The good-bye. It’s hard to watch a journey end. Especially if you have seen an animal start from a kitten to and adult and now it’s the end of their life adventure. Same goes if it was a patient you’ve been working with for months or weeks with a certain disease, and now it’s caught up to them to the point we have to chose quality of life vs. just living to exist.
What is the biggest challenge for veterinary technicians today?
Knowing that the public STILL has no real clue what a technician really does for their pets in the practice, and having to deal with the ego of vets not wanting a technician to be of the same caliber of education as they are. We don’t want to be doctors, but we want to be able to help them succeed and have a happy patient.
Apparently much of the perception is that our education still needs to be several notches lower. Also, doctors who think an OTJ (on the job trained) technician (in many states, including Virginia, it is ILLEGAL to use the term technician for non-licensed veterinary staff) is just as good as a formally trained one. That would not fly if someone can just sit for the veterinary boards for a DVM if they learned on the job, so why is it ok with a technician? If they are that good, send them to school to get formally trained and credentialed properly. An OTJ is only as good as the person teaching them. It’s also abusive and a slap in the face to pay an OTJ and a credentialed tech at the same pay scale and work both of them just as hard.
You have a strong interest in neonatal kittens and have saved hundreds of kittens’ lives. Tell us a little about your work with kittens and why you feel so drawn to neonatals?
We have saved well over 400 plus currently! All are complicated cases that would have been euthanized elsewhere. They are our most vulnerable patients, and when someone comes to you asking for help, your answer should be “Yes, I can help. Let’s figure out a way,” not the lame excuse of “I never worked on a kitten, “that drug is not labeled for use on a kitten,” and other excuses due to fear of the unknown. Usually “too small” or “too young” is the excuse for not working on a kitten. But, they are in a smaller body, yet they are still a cat. Infant humans get the same care as adult humans, so why can’t we do this in veterinary medicine? I don’t think doctors utilize themselves properly half the time in this area. This is a NEEDED area of expertise. You have someone coming to you for help. Either admit you don’t know how to help, or get them the resources for help. Someone is out there that CAN help you. I got tired and still am saddened to see that same excuse over and over. That is why I want to make a difference with them. People come to you for help, give it to them. That’s why we are here.
Every kitten deserves a chance at life, it just takes the right team to believe in them and give them that opportunity.
There is NO SUCH THING as Fading Kitten Syndrome. They all die of something, and I have backed up proof on it with endless necropsy reports. Fading Kitten Syndrome is the excuse term used for not wanting to put in the effort of diagnostics and treatment, as the mortality rate can be higher. Most of the reports come back as an infection that would have been so simple to treat, but no one was willing to prescribe the drug due to the age of the kitten. That is FAILURE for the patient. Age should never be a factor. This is one of my top lectures that I speak on. Every kitten deserves a chance at life, it just takes the right team to believe in them and give them that opportunity.
That is why I created the Chris Griffey Memorial Feline Foundation. I am one of the lucky ones: I have a medical director who is just as passionate about cats, and who was willing to jump on the neonate/pediatric bandwagon with both feet. Over a decade ago, Dr. Marcus Brown and I started working on babies, and as of 2018 we have a staff of six doctors who are all proficient in the care of the neonate/pediatric cat. We have a 4% mortality rate simply because we are willing to think and treat outside the box. From blood and plasma transfusions, to surgery in kittens less than 2 weeks old, we do it all. Our motto for them is “failure to treat is not an option, we will give every opportunity we can.” We have kittens that come from all over to see us.
FUN FACT: Most drugs are NOT labeled for cats, and they never will be labeled to be used on the neonate. No one will do a study on the neonate, as sadly, participants in drug studies are usually euthanized to see if the product did what it was supposed to do. For us, the excuse of the product label is tossed aside. We are going to use it at the appropriate dose for the weight of the animal. To date, we have had NO adverse effects on any of our cases.
Of course, we want to hear about Francis. How did he come into your life? What made you fall in love with him?
Francis!! Who doesn’t LOVE Francis! He was my summer problem child. I fell in love with him the moment Marnie from the Arlington Welfare League sent me a photo of him, asking if I could take him into my program because he was not putting on weight and could not grow. Yes.. OMG, YES! So small, so vulnerable, such a teaching tool.. and I was going to prove EVERYONE wrong, and he would become a real cat – just like Pinocchio becoming a real boy! I put my everything into him as I do with all of my babies, but my special cases I don’t send into foster homes. I keep them till the are adopted out, as I become quite protective of them. My life revolves around them, we form special bonds and a language of love only we speak. He is currently adopted to one of my best friends of 20 years who has Wellington, another alumni of the CGMFF. Francis is a cat with a soul that I can’t just part with. He needs to remain close, so we chose Amber and her family for him.
There are moments when a cat with an extraordinary persona comes into your life, and you know you are meant to remain closely connected. Francis will leave me at the end of October/early November to start the next chapter in his adventure of life. I really do think my heart is like a colander with all these cat shaped holes in it. They all leave a small cat shaped hole in your heart when a cat “that” special leaves with a successful story. It is more than just joy. It is a triumph of proving that they got the chance they deserved with a team that would not say NO.
They all leave a small cat shaped hole in your heart when a cat “that” special leaves with a successful story.
What advice would you give young men and women who want to come technicians?
Never stop learning. Never stop being the advocate for your patient! You are their #1 cheerleader. Being a technician is hard work that is not recognized as it should be, but to that patient you are their everything. Be the everything and don’t look back.