Veterinary Professional Associate: A Master’s Degree in Clinical Care Benefits Animals

CSU is working to create an educational option for veterinary professionals, similar to a physician’s assistant.

The demand for veterinary care has led to a shortage of veterinarians, which creates the need for a mid-level professional to fill a gap between veterinarians and veterinary technicians.

This mid-level role, called a veterinary professional associate, would support veterinary teams, have specialized training to be competent to:

  • Diagnose animal medical concerns.
  • Perform routine surgeries.
  • Order and perform tests and procedures.

These skills would benefit animals and fill a demand for veterinary care that veterinarians or veterinary technicians are not able to meet alone.

Colorado’s Veterinary Practice Act currently does not allow veterinary professional associates to work in veterinary clinics, but they can provide valuable service to animal shelters, which are experiencing extreme veterinary shortages. Other states are evaluating the option of mid-level practitioners, and one state’s master’s program is enrolling students into a similar program.

Following the human health model, CSU’s proposed master’s degree program would train a physician's assistant-level veterinary professional.

This new position would train students to be a veterinary professional associate, mirroring the human health care model of a physician’s assistant.

Veterinary professional associates would be qualified to conduct wellness exams, diagnose and treat uncomplicated conditions, and perform routine surgeries such as spays and neuters in shelters, under the supervision and direction of a licensed veterinarian.

This new mid-level veterinary professional associate would bridge tasks that a veterinary technician is not trained to perform and that a veterinarian may want to delegate so they can focus on more complex care needs.

This is also a model that was recently established in Colorado for dental practices; a mid-level position between a dental technician and a dentist may now legally practice in the state.

Recent studies show national veterinarian shortage profoundly impacts animal care in some settings.

Several studies cite that a veterinary professional shortage has significant impacts to animals, particularly those in shelters and rescues.

Nationally, research suggests that 2.7 million spay and neuter surgeries were not performed due to the shortage in shelter personnel between 2020-22, a trend that leads to additional pet overpopulation.

A 2022 national study reported wide-spread impacts of veterinary workforce deficits at both shelters and clinics.

  • Three out of four animal sheltering organizations report being short-staffed for veterinarians, and 91% experience backlogs of spays and neuters.
  • More than half of care clinics reported in a survey that they need to delay care for two months or more, and some clinics reported up to a six-month wait for pets to be seen by a veterinarian.

A 2023 survey of California shelters found 344,000 shelter animals did not have access to qualified veterinary professionals for care.

Adding a mid-level professional to the animal care team will help animals, as well as personnel managing shelter caseload. These professionals can work in research and education settings, too.

CSU is proposing a master’s degree in veterinary clinical care to create a veterinary professional associate position for these circumstances, and anticipating future opportunities by the time graduates enter the job market.

There is an urgent need to provide care to shelter animals now, as well as to animals in other settings.

It will take time for students to obtain these qualifications.

CSU’s program is expected to welcome the first cohort of students into this program in Fall 2025 and anticipates graduating approximately 20 veterinary professional associates in 2027.

CSU is responding to a need identified at least a decade ago. Our plan is informed by the success of the human physician assistant position in delivering high-quality health care in many types of medical practices.

Ongoing conversations with veterinarians, stakeholder groups such as ranchers and rural animal owners, and surveys of veterinary and animal shelter communities have documented trends within veterinary medicine. These point to an increase in demand, changes in employee attitudes about desirable working hours, and a stress on veterinary professionals.

Similar to other mid-level professional programs, the CSU curriculum will pursue accreditation to ensure that all graduates meet or exceed standards of training. As is the case with all well-managed courses, the university will continually adapt to feedback from students, employers and other stakeholders that will improve the coursework to meet identified needs.

This new profession assists veterinarians and strengthens the care for animals.

There is potential for many positive impacts, including reducing stress of veterinarians, increasing the efficiency of veterinary services, improving the care of shelter animals who need basic services such as spay and neuter, address veterinary shortages, and providing some services at a lower cost, increasing access to care.

Veterinarians would have more time to serve animals with urgent or complex cases that a veterinary professional associate may not be able to address.

The scale of veterinary professional associates available in the job market would build very slowly, allowing the market to sort through demand. About 20 veterinary professional associates would graduate from mandated four years of academic training each year, with the first class potentially graduating in 2027.

Veterinary professional associates will receive extensive knowledge and training in clinical care, client communication and leadership. This is more extensive than training a veterinary technician receives, but less than veterinarians.

The knowledge and training that veterinary professional associates will receive is at a master’s degree level, significantly more in-depth, complex and detailed than the training that a veterinary technician receives in an undergraduate associate’s degree.

The coursework is similar to professional veterinary medicine curriculum, but does not provide the depth knowledge about diseases, breadth of species, and complex medical and surgical training received during the four-year veterinary degree program.

Initially, training will be limited to cats and dogs to meet immediate needs at animal shelters.

A veterinary professional associate will be supervised and directed by veterinarians, and their scope of works will be defined by law.

Veterinary professional associates will have knowledge and authority, under supervision of a licensed veterinarian, to diagnose and treat common illnesses and injuries.

Their role would be similar to a physician’s assistant in a human healthcare setting and requires oversight by a licensed veterinarian. It would be limited by individual state practice acts, federal laws, and other regulations.

A veterinary professional associate will have the knowledge to manage a pet’s medical needs within the scope of authority provided to them, similar to a medical physician’s assistant working with a physician.

Veterinary technicians perform duties as directed by a veterinarian, similarly to the role of a nurse in human healthcare settings. Veterinary technicians receive two years of training to perform many tasks but cannot diagnose, initiate treatment or perform surgery. Examples of daily tasks they may perform include, but are not limited to, organizing a patient’s medical history, create reports of animal symptoms, preparing animals for surgery and procedures, administer simple treatments and vaccines or draw blood for tests.

Veterinary professional associates could work in shelters, research labs, clinics, industry and educational settings.

Veterinary professional associates would provide immediate relief to the urgent need for animal care in shelters and rescues. Colorado law allows them to work in these settings because the shelters and rescues own the animals they care for. Veterinary professional associates could also work in research laboratories, educational and industry settings.

The Veterinary Practice Act will need to be updated to provide the authority for veterinary professional associates to work at their full capacity in private clinics.

Veterinary technicians fulfill an important role; veterinary associates do not replace the demand for this growing professional career.

Veterinary technicians provide critical support in clinics, shelters and other settings, working under the supervision of a veterinarian and supporting clinic and shelter operations, similar to the role of a nurse in a human medical setting.

Many studies have documented severe shortages of trained veterinary technicians and veterinary specialists. Many veterinary technicians reportedly leave the workforce because of low salary and lack of career opportunities.

Aligned with how physician’s assistants help people, the new role of a veterinary professional associate would provide a mid-level expert with basic surgical and medical skills who works closely with veterinarians to expedite care, performing physical exams, diagnostic tests and basic surgeries, and prescribe medications. The position can offer a career path to qualified veterinary technicians seeking additional training.

Educational requirements for entering the new veterinary professional associate program are more stringent than requirements for a veterinary technician.

The veterinary professional associate program is a five-semester master’s degree and requires that students have a bachelor’s degree to enroll. This program requires 65 credits which is nearly double most master’s degree and approximately 38% of the content of a veterinary degree, without electives. Most veterinary technician programs require students to complete a four semester associate’s degree for certification.

Veterinary professional associates provides new opportunities for those who want to care for animals.

The new position opens a career path for students who want to work closely with animals, and who have a bachelor’s degree. To earn a doctorate degree in veterinary education, students must typically complete eight years or 15-17 semesters of post-high school education to become a veterinarian. Veterinary technicians complete two years or four semesters of post-high school education in a veterinary technician associate’s degree program.

A veterinary professional associate has greater responsibilities and better compensation with added expertise this program would provide. They would receive 13 semesters of post-high school education.

The new program also provides an advancement path for veterinary technicians, who currently face limited promotion opportunities to advance their profession. Veterinary technicians report a high level of burnout as well as feeling undervalued; according to a 2024 survey from the American Animal Hospital Association, nearly 74,000 veterinary technicians plan to leave the profession in the next year.

CSU is a national leader in veterinary medicine and in establishing this new career path to meet critical veterinary care needs.

There are no other universities in the United States that offer a similar master’s degree program.

Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee currently offers this degree, which requires 30 credits. CSU’s proposed degree is 65 credits.

CSU is leading the veterinary profession by creating this rigorous program, similar to how the physician’s assistant profession was launched about 50 years ago by Duke University.

Veterinary professional associates would fill a unique role serving veterinarians – and animals.

A veterinarian typically attends at least six to eight semesters of an undergraduate degree in a relevant field, then an additional nine semesters at a veterinary school to receive a doctoral degree to perform a number of various medical tasks. In Colorado, only veterinarians can currently diagnose, initiate treatment, prescribe medications, or perform surgery.

A certified veterinary technician typically completes four semesters of undergraduate school and receives an associate’s degree. They can assist a veterinarian in a clinic or shelter but cannot diagnose, initiate treatment or perform surgery. Veterinary technician specialists have additional, specialized training.

A veterinary professional associate would complete at least eight semesters of undergraduate school to be admitted into this new master’s program. The proposed program requires five semesters of specialized training to receive a master’s degree in veterinary clinical care. They will be trained to identify abnormal findings on physical examinations and medical tests, to diagnosis and treat routine medical and surgical conditions, such as perform spay and neuter operations. Veterinary professional associates would be required to work under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian while providing these services.

Veterinary professional associates would partner closely with, be supervised by, and support veterinarians by serving as their front-line resource to manage route care. For veterinarians who choose to work with a veterinary professional associate, this position could focus on freeing up veterinarians – who have more training and expertise – for complex cases or managing demand for routine care under the close supervision of the veterinarian.