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2/6/2002

Technicians Mix Love of Animals, Pharmacy

Kate Traynor

For Natalie M. Walker, CPhT, employment at a mail-order veterinary pharmacy provides the opportunity to combine two favorite areas of interest—pharmacy and animals.

"No two days are alike....There’s so much variety, there’s so much to learn," Walker said of her role as chief pharmacy technician at Annapolis, Md.-based VetCentric.com Inc.

Walker worked in human hospital, long-term care, and wholesale pharmacy settings before joining the start-up company last year. She said she made the move to veterinary pharmacy because the field "was something different—and it was interesting."

About a quarter of Walker's product-preparation work involves compounding. The rest of the time is spent counting or pouring drug products for prescriptions, she said.

A big challenge in veterinary pharmacy is finding ways to disguise medications or make them more palatable to animals.

"We can change the flavorings. We can change the delivery system," Walker said. "Perhaps a dog will not be able to take a capsule," she said, "so we might make that same medication in a suspension."

Walker noted that cats are "particularly finicky," requiring the pharmacy staff to experiment with fish or bacon flavorings, for example, before hitting on an acceptable formulation.

VetCentric’s head pharmacist, Robert McAuley, described a recent medication-delivery challenge that the pharmacy faced with an unusual patient—a 150-pound cougar. The animal had refused to swallow a tablet of metronidazole, a bitter-tasting drug. McAuley said the cougar’s veterinarian "wanted to know what the feasibility would be to do a transdermal—have it applied to the inner ear flap and have it absorbed through the skin." After doing some research, the pharmacy staff concluded that the necessary dosage of metronidazole "doesn’t lend itself to a transdermal" formulation.

"We may look at doing something in a liver paste, like liverwurst...to try and mask the bitterness," he said.

Veterinary-school hospitals are another setting in which pharmacy technicians can work with medications to treat a variety of animals. But work at veterinary schools can be hard to find.

Debbie Jedele, CPhT, waited two years for a veterinary pharmacy technician position to become available at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

"I didn’t know if there would ever be an opening, because people are pretty satisfied when they get in at U of I," she said.

Jedele worked as a pharmacy technician in hospital and clinic settings before coming to the university. Although she has found that human and veterinary pharmacy require the same basic skills—and use many of the same drugs—important differences do exist.

"Doses of medicines for animals are different because of the way they metabolize them," she said. In addition, Jedele has had to familiarize herself with deworming agents, flea-control products, heartworm medications, and other staples of veterinary pharmacy practice.

Jedele said she loves her job, and she also enjoys the pace of work at the veterinary pharmacy. "It’s a lot more laid-back, a little bit slower than a human pharmacy," she said. Another plus is that the pharmacy does not have to deal with insurance issues.

The work hours are good, too, she said: "I have a seven-and-a half-hour [work]day, Monday through Friday—no evenings, no weekends."

Both Walker and Jedele said their biggest work reward is knowing that they are helping animals. "We take care of some pretty sick patients," Walker noted. And both technicians said they receive plenty of positive feedback from pet owners.

Walker and Jedele said that the only veterinary pharmacy technicians they have ever met are their own coworkers. When she describes her job to others, Walker said, most people respond, "Really? I’ve never heard of that."

"There’s not many of us out there," Jedele said.