What a relief!

March 9, 2021
Erica Tricarico, Managing Editor

Firstline, Firstline March/April 2021, Volume 18, Issue 2

Meet Liz Hughston, MEd, RVT, CVT, LVT, VTS (SAIM, ECC), a self-employed relief technician with a passion for emergency medicine.

To have a successful career as a relief veterinary technician, you must realize your worth and relentlessly fight for what you deserve, according to Liz Hughston, MEd, RVT, CVT, LVT, VTS (SAIM) (ECC), a longtime relief veterinary technician in San Jose, California.

Data from the American Veterinary Medical Association show that more than 2300 relief veterinarians are practicing in hospitals across the United States.1 There are no statistics on the number of relief technicians currently working in the industry, but it certainly is a growing field and Hughston was one of the pioneers. She transitioned to relief work in 2016—10 years into her career as a technician—because she no longer wanted to work in practice full-time and wanted to use her background in education to consult, train, teach and mentor other technicians. Four years ago, she created an online platform to promote her veterinary relief services and consulting work: VetTechXpert.

Relief work has given Hughston the ability not only to advocate for herself and other technicians but also to enjoy her second passion: traveling with her husband Tom. So far, she’s enjoying the experience but admits it’s been tough to get jobs during the pandemic. In the meantime, she’s focusing on her advocacy work, mentorship, and consulting.

Hughston, who is also president of the National Veterinary Professionals Union (see “Hughston on unions”), a certified veterinary cannabis counselor, and credentialing committee chair for the Academy of Internal Medicine for Veterinary Technicians (AIMVT), shares her top tips for proving your value as a relief technician: Get credentialed, keep your resume updated with new skills and certifications, and build a portfolio of videos demonstrating your work or of letters from previous employers vouching for your skills.

We talked with Hughston about her career, what being a technician means to her, and the ins and outs of working as a relief veterinary technician.

A love affair begins

When did know you wanted to become a technician?

I always wanted to become a veterinarian, but life derailed those plans. I got a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in education and worked in the corporate world for a while. At one point, I decided to volunteer at a local animal shelter, and I naturally gravitated to the health check area where we did incoming exams and assisted the veterinarian. I loved it.

During one of my shifts, I met a woman whose name tag stated, “veterinary technology, Foothill College.” When I asked her about veterinary technology—I had no idea such a career existed—she explained that she was studying at a nearby college to be able to work in a veterinary hospital. That night, I applied and was accepted, and the rest is history. So that’s what started my love affair with veterinary technology.

And your true love in veterinary medicine?

One of my first jobs was at a large 24-hour general practice. The technician supervisor noticed that I was a natural with emergency care and recommended that I work in the ICU [intensive care unit]. She could tell that was my passion, even though I didn‘t realize it at the time.

And so I started working in the ICU. I loved caring for the patients and learning both basic and advanced skills. I gravitated toward the emergency part in the ICU and loved critical care nursing.

The nitty-gritty of relief work

What do you see as the pros and cons of relief work?

Whenever someone tells me they want to work as a relief technician, I tell them there are a lot of opportunities. We truly are a hot commodity. Nearly every time I take my pet somewhere, once they find out that I am a relief technician, they ask me on the spot if I can work for them either on the phone or with curbside service. The trick is finding people who will pay you what you want.

You have to show your value as a relief technician if you want to be able to make a living doing it. I‘m fortunate in that I have a spouse because it would be really difficult to make ends meet on my own. Relief work gives me the freedom to choose the shifts and the practices where I want to work. For me, that‘s the best part of being a relief technician. You‘re outside of the normal politics of the hospital.

What is your advice to other technicians interested in relief work?

Consult an accountant to make sure that you are covering your taxes, because that‘s something a lot of people don‘t think about when they go off on their own. As an independent contractor, you will be a 1099 worker as opposed to a W-2 worker, which is for permanent employees of a business. That means you’ll be paid directly by each practice with no taxes deducted, and you will need to file taxes differently than an employee.

You also have to be really picky and create boundaries. Figure out what you‘re willing to accept and sacrifice and what you‘re not. That‘s been a big lesson for me over the past 5 years. Doing relief work is a life change, but the independent relief contractors I know really love it. They say it‘s the best thing they ever did, mostly because of the freedom.


1. Burns K. Relief practice not just a temporary gig. American Veterinary Medical Association. November 14, 2019. Accessed February 25, 2021. https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2019-12-01/relief-practice-not-just-temporary-gig

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