May is National Veterinary Nurse Awareness Month. The aim is to help create awareness of the importance of the veterinary nursing profession. Veterinary Nurses are sometimes the unseen workforce in practice and many pet owners still have no idea how important veterinary nurses are to their pet’s care and wellbeing whilst they are at the veterinary practice.
Like human nurses, Registered Veterinary Nurses (RVNs) are highly skilled professionals in their own right.
Animals and their caring owners are wonderful to work with and are a huge part of the job. However, some people think that veterinary nursing is all about cuddling fluffy animals while the vet examines them, but it isn’t always that glamorous! RVNs work very hard caring for their patients, which includes dealing with poo, wee, snot, vomit, blood, body organs, parasites, nasty smells and the occasional challenging patient (or owner!) Veterinary nursing can be extremely emotional and is often physically demanding, but all of our nurses agree that it is also an extremely rewarding job.
RVNs work alongside Veterinary Surgeons to provide the highest standard of care and treatment for your pet. This treatment includes skilled supportive care for sick and injured animals, monitoring anaesthetics (yes, thats us and not the vets!), assisting with operations, performing minor surgery, providing medical treatments, carrying out diagnostic tests under veterinary supervision and offering post operative care. RVNs also play a very important role in the education of pet owners.
What do veterinary nurses do?
Pet owners are often surprised when they discover what a veterinary nurse actually does in practice. The following list is just some of the jobs that a veterinary nurse can perform on a daily basis
- Skilled supportive care for sick and injured animals
- Ensuring that patients receive appropriate care while hospitalised
- Monitoring vital signs, such as temperature, heart rate, pulse and breathing rate
- Holding and calming animals while a vet examines and treats them
- Post operative care and check ups
- Monitoring and maintaining anaesthetics, to ensure your pet is safe and pain-free during his or her operation
- “Scrubbing in” and assisting vets with operations
- Performing minor surgery (minor lump removals, suturing wounds, abscess treatments, skin biopsies, needle aspirates etc)
- Providing medical treatments
- Administering medication in the form of tablets, liquids, injections or topical treatments
- Taking blood samples
- Calculating dosages, fluid therapy and nutritional requirements
- Placing intravenous and urinary catheters
- Administering intravenous fluids
- Wound management and changing dressings
- Taking X-rays
- Recording ECGs
- Assisting vets to perform diagnostic techniques such as ultrasound and endoscopy
- Carrying out diagnostic tests for example, urine tests, blood tests, faecal tests and examining samples under a microscope.
- Supporting pet owners
- Maintaining and sterilising equipment and instruments
- Cleaning up after the patients (and the vets!)
- Keeping the surgery clean and tidy
- Looking after the needs of and advising the pet owner about the care of their pet
RVNs play a very important role in the education of owners with regard to good standards of patient care during their nursing consultations, over the phone, or via blogs and articles such as this one. They can support owners by providing advice and guidance on all aspects of animal care and by offering nursing clinics for services such as
- General advice on things such as health, growth, training, aging, behaviour, housing, husbandry, weight management & dental care.
- Nail clipping
- Emptying Anal glands
- Diabetic monitoring
- Blood pressure monitoring
- Nutritional and feeding requirements
- Post operative checks and suture removals
- Wound management and bandage changes
- Taking routine blood samples
- Giving medications
- Cleaning ears
- Advice before you get a pet and what you should be looking for in a good breeder.
The Skills Necessary To Be A Veterinary Nurse
A strong desire to work with animals and people
Just liking animals is not enough; at times being an RVN can stretch you to your emotional limits and your day to day work may include seeing animals in a great deal of pain, putting an animal to sleep, or dealing with horrific cruelty cases and at all times you have to do what is best for the animal. In just a few minutes you can go from receiving a hug from a client because you have spent that extra bit of time to explain what the problem is with their pet and reassuring them that everything will be ok, to putting an animal to sleep because there is simply isn’t enough money for treatment or it has no home to go to.
Sympathy, compassion and understanding
You need to be able to relate to the owners of the animals as well as understand the animals themselves. You have to remember that the animals you deal with are much loved by their owners and are their best (and sometimes only) friend in the world. If you don’t want to work with people this is not the job for you, you will have to deal with owners as well as their pets, so great ‘people skills’ are essential.
The ability to work hard and commit to your patients and their owners
As a veterinary nurse, if you are in the middle of an operation, dealing with an emergency or talking to an upset owner, you can’t just down tools at the end of your shift. This is not a normal 9-5 job and we often go home thinking about our patients or even end up popping into the surgery to check on them on our days off.
Patience and understanding
Your patients cannot tell you what is wrong with them and some will be in pain and frightened when they visit the practice. Patience is also a requirement when dealing with pet owners (and sometimes your colleagues!).
You will need to be good at maths because you will need to calculate drug and treatment dosages, fluid and nutritional requirements several times a day. You must have the ability to communicate well with pet owners and colleagues verbally and through writing.
Initiative and problem solving skills
You need to be able to work under your own initiative to get things done – there’s no time for idling around in a busy veterinary practice. You will also need to be able to think of solutions to problems as quickly as possible.
A love of cleaning (yes, seriously!)
A huge part of vet nursing is about cleaning; you must keep your patients and their environment clean to prevent the spread of infection and disease.
A supportive network of family and friends
Veterinary nursing is not a very well paid job, despite the qualifications we have and the hard work involved. You may also have to work shifts and some of those could be overnight, on weekends and on bank holidays if your practice provides its own emergency cover.
Becoming A Student Veterinary Nurse
Training to become an RVN is intensive and takes between two and four years to complete. A large proportion of this time is spent gaining clinical experience by working in practice, with the rest spent attending college, completing assessments and coursework, many hours of personal study and, of course, passing the theory and practical examinations.
I strongly recommend that anyone who wants to be a veterinary nurse gains plenty of work experience of varying types with animals, prior to applying for a student nursing position or starting a degree course. Alongside gaining valuable knowledge into animals and how to handle them, it will also prove to potential employers that you are dedicated and have animal experience. Volunteer work placements could be sought at veterinary practices (small and/or large animal), wildlife centres, rescue centres, farms, equestrian centres or any other animal-based places.
Work experience can also be a valuable reality check for some people. Many students drop out in their first few months at a veterinary practice because they are totally unprepared for how hard and challenging the work can be.
There are two main routes to becoming a veterinary nurse in the UK and for both routes you will need to have a minimum of 5 GCSEs at grade C or above which include Maths, English and a Science subject.
Vocational Training: If you want to start working in practice straight away, vocational training is probably best for you and will take two to three years to complete. During your training you will be working under the supervision of a clinical coach who may be an RVN or a Veterinary Surgeon and your time will be divided between work in practice (paid or unpaid) and attending college once a week or on block release (several weeks at a time). You will first need to gain employment as a student nurse at an approved training practice (a website link can be found at the end of this article) and they will then register you with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and at a training college. At the end of this type of training you will receive a level 3 diploma in veterinary nursing.
Higher Education: This is a degree course; it will take longer than a vocational qualification (up to 4 years) and is university based. This course is mostly academic but you will be required to undertake several periods of clinical work placement in an approved training practice.
If you haven’t got the relevant GCSE qualifications, don’t give up hope. It may be possible for you to start out as an Animal Nursing Assistant (also known as veterinary care assistants) in practice and, once qualified, you will have the necessary skills to move on to Student Vet Nurse training. Contact the British Veterinary Nursing Association for more advice (see below). Animal nursing assistants are important members of any veterinary team, they work alongside veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses to provide vital care to the patients at the practice.
A Career As A Registered Veterinary Nurse
Once qualified, RVNs must
- Maintain their place on the RVN register with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons
- Take part in at least 15 hours of Continuing Professional Development every year, in order to keep their skills and knowledge up to date. This can be in the form of attending courses and lectures, research or gaining work experience in different types of the veterinary nursing profession.
- Adhere to the professional code of conduct for veterinary nurses (see link below).
Many qualified nurses go on to specialise and develop interests in different aspects of animal health, for example surgical nursing, medical nursing, animal behaviour, exotic pet care, alternative therapies (physiotherapy & hydrotherapy), dermatology (skin disorders) and nutrition. Some RVNs also go on to achieve a Diplomas, Advanced Diplomas, BSc Degrees or an MSc in their specialist areas of veterinary nursing.
RVNs may choose to embark on a career in nursing and work in small animal practice, equine practice, large animal practice, universities, specialist referral centres, zoos or wildlife centres. They may take on a veterinary practice management role, become practice owners, become pharmaceutical or nutritional company representative or follow a career in education and become college tutors and lecturers teaching the next generation of veterinary nurses.
Veterinary Nurse Salary
As I mentioned before, despite our qualifications and all of the hard work we do, it is not a job that is paid particularly well in some places. Salary for a qualified nurse tends to depend upon the size, type and location of the practice you work for. The average annual salary for an RVN is around £14,500 – £20,000*, although this may increase over time depending on your skills, experience and any extra qualifications you may gain.
The average annual salary for student VNs is approximately £14,000* a year, however this may not include your training, college or exam fees depending on the veterinary practice you work for and some training practices do not pay student nurses at all! (Castle Vets does pay its students as well as their registration, college and exam fees).
(*Figures based on the Society of Practicing Veterinary Surgeons Salary survey 2015)
What Do The Different Uniform Colours Mean?
Traditionally qualified veterinary nurses wear bottle green tunics (or dresses), with student nurses in striped green and nursing assistants in lilac, however, many practices around the UK have their own colour schemes for uniforms (for example the PDSA nurses are usually in blue tunics) . At Castle Vets many of the nurses like to wear the more comfortable and roomy scrub tops , especially if they are working in kennels or back surgery.
How Do You Know If A Veterinary Nurse Is Qualified And Listed With The RCVS?
Sadly the title of veterinary nurse is not yet a protected one, which means that anyone can call themselves as veterinary nurse, even if they have not trained or passed any exams! The only way you can tell if your veterinary nurse is qualified and/or registered is by the badge they wear and by checking to see if they are on the RCVS veterinary nurse register (a link can be found below).
- For more information about training to become a veterinary nurse and what qualifications you will need please visit the British Veterinary Nursing Association website
- To find an approved training practice please visit the RCVS Website
- For information about higher education routes into veterinary nursing please visit the UCAS website
- For more information about the Code of Professional Conduct that qualified veterinary nurses must adhere to please visit the RCVS Website
- To check if your veterinary nurse is registered with the RCVS visit RCVS VN List