Cheat Lake Animal Hospital veterinarians (from left) Drs. Elli Antulov, Chuck Wolfe and Jesse Fallon work with a patient. The clinic’s $450,000 gift to WVU will help launch the state’s first four-year veterinary technology program. (Submitted Photo)

WVU, partners pursue West Virginia’s first four-year veterinary technology program with $450K gift

Veterinary technicians and technologists play a critical role in caring for West Virginia’s creatures, yet less than 300 are registered statewide to provide support to more than 700 licensed veterinarians — a scenario akin to having one nurse for every three doctors at a hospital.

To help boost those numbers and ensure proper care for pets, large animals and more, West Virginia University is partnering with West Virginia State University and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture to launch the state’s first four-year veterinary technology program. A $450,000 gift from Cheat Lake Animal Hospital is providing start-up funding, including support for a recently hired director.

“We’ve been talking about this within the Davis College for at least 15 years, maybe even longer. It’s a huge need, both in the state and nationally,” said Matthew Wilson, professor of animal sciences at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. “This is that watershed moment. My PhD advisor always said to me, ‘The most important part of the journey is the first step.’ We’ve been knocking on a lot of doors trying to make this happen. To finally have some of the resources we need to get this started, it’s a big deal. We think this will really snowball and become a signature program.”

Wilson explained a veterinary technician is a graduate of a two-year degree or certificate program accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association, while a veterinary technologist is a graduate of an accredited four-year degree program. There are only three accredited programs available in West Virginia, and none of them offers a four-year degree.

WVU and West Virginia State University are seeking a single AVMA accreditation that would apply to both institutions. The WVU veterinary technology program will be embedded within the animal and nutritional sciences degree at the Davis College. Students within that major will have the option to take specific courses and complete a preceptorship to earn a certification in veterinary technology, which would then make them eligible to sit for the national credentialing exam.

Beyond producing more trained personnel to care for West Virginia’s animals, the program addresses a gap in education for students interested in veterinary medicine. WVU is home to the state’s largest pre-veterinary program. However, admission to colleges of veterinary medicine is highly competitive and seats are limited. An accredited veterinary technology program at WVU will allow graduates who don’t enter veterinary school to work as credentialed professionals in the field without being forced to pay additional tuition to pursue certification elsewhere.

Dr. Jean Meade, founder of Cheat Lake Animal Hospital, said it’s a challenge for veterinary clinics to find qualified support staff. The full-service hospital near Morgantown employs 19 veterinarians and 14 registered veterinary technicians. She said the latest national guidance recommends four technicians per veterinarian for maximum efficiency.

“From my perspective, this program is just a natural step,” Meade said. “WVU is a land-grant university. We’re here to serve our community and our state. There’s a tremendous need that we can fill and I think we have an obligation to fill it. The infrastructure is there at the University, so why not?”

Meade and Dr. Jesse Fallon, a WVU alumnus and her partner at Cheat Lake Animal Hospital since 2019, are both adjunct faculty members within the Davis College. They have been working with Wilson and College leadership to seek funding for the veterinary technology program for years and Meade said they eventually decided to invest in it themselves.

WVU and its partners sent a survey to veterinary clinics statewide as they investigated the need for a four-year veterinary technology program. Of the clinics that responded, 75% indicated a four-year veterinary technology program is needed, and 85% said they would welcome students at their facilities.

The program will be developed to provide students with statewide opportunities to gain experience in clinical veterinary practice and other disciplines — including regulatory affairs, racing commission, laboratory work, food animal production and more — exposing them to the vast array of careers in veterinary medicine. The state Department of Agriculture is a full partner in the program and will offer students opportunities beyond what is traditionally found in a veterinary technology program.

Fallon said veterinary technicians and technologists are trained to perform a wide variety of clinical services, such as collecting patient information, conducting diagnostic testing, taking and processing bloodwork, taking X-rays, inducing anesthesia, managing drugs, placing nasal gastric tubes, suturing minor wounds and caring for hospitalized patients who are critically ill. The WVU program will ultimately improve veterinary care statewide by allowing doctors to delegate these tasks to skilled staff, so they can focus on diagnostics, treatment plans and surgical procedures.

“Statewide, because we have this shortage, the more folks we graduate, the better off the patients are going to be, because you’re going to have more well-trained staff to take care of them and the easier it’s going to be on veterinarians,” Fallon said. “You’re going to dramatically improve the quantity and the quality of veterinary medicine.”

Meade said the veterinary technology program will also put WVU in a promising position as veterinary medicine evolves. While the AMVA only recognizes registered veterinary technician credentials, even for graduates of a four-year degree program, she said there is discussion within the field of adding credentials and licensing for mid-level providers.

“It’s sort of akin to a credentialed associate degree in nursing versus a bachelor’s degree in nursing,” Meade said. “People who go through a four-year program get a broader-based education. They get more exposure. Their written and oral communication skills improve. They get a deeper understanding of the physiology and anatomy of the animals they’re dealing with. We’re getting out a little bit ahead of the game in starting our program at WVU.”

Wilson said the process of setting up the veterinary technology program and securing accreditation will likely take two years. Animal and nutritional science students at the Davis College could potentially graduate with a veterinary technology certification as soon as May 2025.

Cheat Lake Animal Hospital’s gift was made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.

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