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What does a veterinary nurse do?
A veterinary nurse assists and supports veterinary surgeons (vets) by caring for injured and sick animals. They have a more hands-on caring role than vets, as they will handle animals, carry out husbandry tasks and provide general animal care. They also have an essential role in educating owners on responsible ownership, helping vets diagnose and treat animals (routine and emergency) and assisting with their recovery.
Veterinary nurses can work in different settings, such as veterinary surgeries, clinics or hospitals. They can work in general, emergency or specialist practices, e.g. oncology. They can also work with vets who provide veterinary care to specific animals, such as horses (equine), small animals or exotics. Therefore, what veterinary nurses do will depend on where they work and their specialisms.
A veterinary nurse’s main aim is to help vets prevent sickness and disease in animals to ensure optimum health and welfare. They will have many duties, including cleaning the premises and equipment, handling and restraining animals, preparing animals, helping vets during procedures, monitoring anaesthesia, conducting various practical tasks, looking after in-patient animals, communicating with owners, giving owners advice and support, reception duties, training and supervising, etc. The role may also involve administrative and computer work, e.g. updating treatment records and insurance paperwork.
Veterinary nurses mainly work in veterinary practices and surgeries, which can be in cities, towns and villages. They may also accompany vets to other places to see animals, such as homes, farms, stables and zoos. They will work with many people, including veterinary surgeons, other veterinary nurses (registered and student), veterinary support/care assistants, receptionists, practice managers and support staff. They will also liaise with external stakeholders, such as clients (owners), farmers, animal keepers, specialists, laboratories, suppliers, pet crematoriums, insurance professionals, regulators, etc.
Veterinary nurses can work for many employers, such as private veterinary practices, animal welfare centres, specialist practices, charities, the Armed Forces, zoos, animal hospitals, research facilities, government agencies and pharmaceutical companies. They can also work as a locum.
A veterinary nurse’s responsibilities will depend on where they work and their specialisms.
Some examples of their day-to-day duties can include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Cleaning the premises and equipment and ensuring good hygiene is upheld.
- Handling and restraining animals confidently.
- Preparing animals for observation, tests, scans and treatment.
- Helping vets during routine and emergency procedures.
- Monitoring anaesthesia during operations.
- Conducting various practical tasks, e.g. administering medication, giving injections, removing stitches, weighing animals, and taking blood tests and X-rays.
- Sending biological samples to laboratories for testing.
- Looking after animals admitted as in-patients, e.g. monitoring, feeding, grooming and walking.
- Building relationships with owners and providing reassurance.
- Communicating with animal/pet owners and advising them on responsible ownership, general care, treatment and recovery.
- Supporting and sympathising with owners, especially after a loss.
- Conducting various administrative and reception duties where required.
- Training and supervising veterinary support/care assistants.
- Supporting student veterinary nurses.
A veterinary nurse can expect to work around 35-40 hours a week, but they can do more or fewer hours depending on where they work and their specialisms.
Being a veterinary nurse is not a 9-5 job, and those looking at entering the role must be committed to working unsociable hours, e.g. evenings, weekends and bank holidays. Some may have to be on call to help vets in emergencies or provide cover, so they may have to work nights.
Most veterinary nurse roles are full-time and permanent, but flexible working may be possible for some, e.g. part-time. There may also be opportunities to work on temporary jobs as a locum.
Some veterinary nurses may have to travel to different sites and locations to support vets away from practices, which can lengthen their working day. Overnight stays may be necessary for some circumstances, and there may be overseas opportunities.
What to expect
Being a veterinary nurse is not easy, but it is rewarding. They help vets to prevent sickness and disease in animals and support them in diagnosing and treating various injuries and illnesses. They help animals live longer, healthier, happier lives, bringing joy to their owners. In some cases, they can help to save lives. They can go home after the working day knowing their job makes a positive difference to animals and their owners.
The role would suit individuals who have a passion for animals (obviously). However, they must also enjoy working closely with their colleagues and building relationships with owners. It can be fulfilling to reassure concerned owners, helping them to be responsible and see their animals improve and recover.
Veterinary nurses get to work and interact with animals all day, which can be a good fit for more introverted people, even though they will need to deal with owners, as interactions with clients can often be brief. Sometimes, they will work in the in-patient part of practices and spend most of their working day looking after and monitoring animals.
There are plenty of veterinary nursing roles across the UK, and there may also be overseas opportunities. There are various settings to work in and different areas in which to specialise. There are also good career progression opportunities for those who work hard. Therefore, this profession has decent job security, and salaries are not too bad for those qualified and registered.
Boredom will never be a problem for veterinary nurses, and no two days will be the same. They will meet many owners and their animals with different conditions and issues. One moment, they could be helping vets carry out routine health checks and vaccinations, and the next, they may need to assist with an emergency operation.
Even though there are positives to being a veterinary nurse, there are challenges and cons, e.g.:
- Mental demands – being a veterinary nurse is not for the faint-hearted, as it can be a mentally demanding role. They will need to cope with seeing sick and injured animals, and helping with animal euthanasia and grieving owners, which can be distressing and upsetting. They may also need to help vets in emergencies, which can be stressful.
- Physical demands – being a veterinary nurse can also be physically demanding, and individuals need good physical fitness. They will often have to work long and unsociable hours and be on their feet for long periods. They may also need to lift and hold struggling and stressed animals during procedures and treatments, which can involve manual handling.
- Health and safety risks – veterinary nurses will face many hazards during their work, such as aggressive animals (biting, scratching, etc.), bodily fluids, parasites and pests, diseases/infections, radiation (X-rays), hazardous substances (i.e. pesticides, medicines, cleaners, disinfectants, anaesthetic, gases and others), manual handling, use of tools, equipment and machinery, noise, vibration, slips, trips and falls, etc. The risk is higher for veterinary nurses helping vets on farms or at zoos where they handle large animals. Any animal allergies are likely to make the job harder, but there are specialist areas individuals could consider to avoid triggers.
- Owners – dealing with owners can often be challenging, as they are concerned about their pets and animals. However, some may be demanding, ask many questions or become emotional during diagnoses. There may even be cases where owners become verbally abusive and even violent. Veterinary nurses usually receive training on how to deal with difficult situations involving owners.
- Qualifications, competition and costs – it can take several years to become qualified as a veterinary nurse. Individuals will have to study and complete work-based learning, tests and exams. They will also need to register with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. There is a lot of competition for jobs, and there are no guarantees that an individual will be successful. They will need to stand out from the crowd and work hard. Courses can often be expensive, but individuals may be able to get a student loan or bursary.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and individuals must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable role. Being a veterinary nurse is physically and mentally demanding, and they can face many health and safety risks. Owners can be challenging, and individuals need specific qualifications and registration. However, there are many positives too. Individuals who become veterinary nurses love helping animals and their owners.
Individuals should consider the pros and cons when deciding whether to be a veterinary nurse. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a veterinary nurse
Some of the personal qualities a veterinary nurse requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- A passion for animals and an interest in their health, well-being and welfare.
- Knowledge of animal biology.
- Knowledge of animal health and welfare.
- Good physical fitness.
- Caring, calm, compassionate, approachable, understanding, sympathetic, sensitive and empathetic.
- Helpful, considerate, dedicated, responsible, positive and pleasant.
- Confident, assertive, honest and trustworthy.
- Excellent verbal communication skills.
- Effective team working skills.
- Customer service skills.
- Interpersonal skills.
- Active listening skills.
- Organisational and time management skills.
- Being thorough, accurate and having excellent attention to detail.
- The ability to work well with others and on their own using their initiative.
- The ability to work under pressure, be patient and remain calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to be flexible and adapt to change.
- The ability to accept criticism.
- The ability to work well with their hands.
- The ability to cope with injuries, illnesses and seeing animals euthanised.
- The ability to be strong and emotionally resilient in all circumstances.
- The ability to use IT and software packages.
Qualifications and training
Individuals wanting to practise as a veterinary nurse in the UK must undertake a qualification accredited by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). They could apply to university, go to college or apply for an apprenticeship.
Individuals can apply to university to do either of the following:
Foundation degree (FdSc) in veterinary nursing.
- It takes around three years to complete.
- Individuals will typically require one or two A Levels for a foundation degree.
Degree (BSc) in veterinary nursing.
- It takes around four years to complete.
- Individuals will typically require two or three A Levels for an undergraduate degree.
The entry requirements and the number of UCAS points needed will depend on each university, and individuals should check before applying.
After completing their degree, individuals could undertake a postgraduate qualification, e.g. advanced practice in veterinary nursing.
A degree is not the only entry route into the role. Individuals could also apply for an RCVS-accredited Level 3 Diploma in Veterinary Nursing, which typically takes two and a half years to complete.
Individuals could also consider other college courses to gain further knowledge and experience with animals, e.g. animal care/management.
Individuals typically require five GCSEs grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent (including English, maths and science).
There is an apprenticeship route to help individuals become veterinary nurses, e.g. a veterinary nursing advanced apprenticeship. Individuals usually need four or five GCSEs, grades 9 to 4 (A* to C), including English, maths and science, or equivalent.
Opportunities are on Government’s Apprenticeships, Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and Indeed.
Large veterinary practices and chains may also offer apprenticeships, usually advertised on their web pages.
Veterinary nurses with an overseas qualification must register with the RCVS to practise legally. They must also sit and pass the Pre-registration Examination before applying to enter the Register. The RCVS has further information on their website.
Individuals must undertake relevant paid or voluntary work experience before applying for placements on accredited courses. They should try and obtain work experience in a veterinary practice. Practical experience helps individuals understand what is involved in working in a veterinary setting, builds their knowledge and skills, and allows them to appreciate the emotional and physical demands of the job and environment.
Alternatively, individuals could get experience in handling various animals in the following settings:
- Wildlife rescue centres.
- Animal welfare centres.
Some roles may be paid jobs, but most will be voluntary. Animal charities, e.g. the PDSA, the RSPCA and the Blue Cross, have volunteering roles. There is also information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-IT, NCVO, Volunteering Matters and Indeed.
Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge.
We have many examples of approved courses that may be useful for individuals looking at a career as a veterinary nurse, including (this list is not exhaustive):
- COVID-19 awareness.
- Workplace first aid.
- Understanding GDPR.
- Customer service skills.
- Workplace stress awareness.
- Complaints handling.
- Resilience training.
- Time management.
- Violence at work.
- Introduction to health and safety.
- Manual handling.
- COSHH awareness.
- Assessing risk.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Slips, trips and falls.
- Needles and sharps.
- Infection control.
Professional bodies, councils, unions, charities and associations, such as the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), the British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA), Vetlife, the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA), and others, can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide memberships, events and support to help individuals become veterinary nurses and give those already in the profession the means to continue their professional development.
The type of training required will depend on who an individual works for and their specialisms. It is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the training needed for roles. Jobs are on websites such as GOV.UK Find a Job Service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, BVNA Careers, Vet Record Careers, Vet Times Jobs, Vet Nurse, Vetjobs.ie, VetClick, and others. Also, look at the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and specialist recruitment agencies.
More relevant training and competence (skills, experience and knowledge) will open up more opportunities. Refresher training is also advisable as it keeps knowledge and skills up to date and is necessary for maintaining registration.
Criminal records checks
Veterinary nurses may need a criminal record check. The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:
- England and Wales – Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).
- Northern Ireland – AccessNI.
- Scotland – Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme.
Some veterinary nurses may need to drive for some roles, e.g. working as locums or between practices. Therefore, they may need a full driving licence.
Where do veterinary nurses work?
Veterinary nurses can work for many different employers in urban or rural locations, for example (this list is not exhaustive):
- Private mixed veterinary practices (run by one employer or a group).
- Specialist veterinary practices, e.g. small animals, exotic or horses.
- Emergency care providers.
- Companies specialising in referrals.
- Veterinary centres.
- Animal hospitals and clinics.
- Zoos, aquariums and animal parks.
- Animal charities.
- Wildlife rescue centres.
- Governments and local authorities.
- Breeding and boarding kennels.
- Pharmaceutical companies.
- Education providers (teaching and lecturing).
- Research companies.
- The Armed Forces.
Veterinary nurses can also do locum work.
During their day-to-day duties, veterinary nurses can work in some of the following locations (depending on their specialisms):
- Consultation rooms.
- Theatre (assisting vets with operations).
- In-patient areas.
- Kennels and catteries.
- Owners’ homes.
- Reception areas.
- Outdoors in other locations, e.g. urban areas, fields and parks.
There may also be options to work overseas for some individuals.
How much do veterinary nurses earn?
What a veterinary nurse earns is highly variable and will depend on the following:
- Their role and specialisms.
- Their location (those in London will earn more).
- The size of their workplace.
- Their qualifications, training and experience.
- Who they work for.
- Whether they are employed or work as a locum.
Some examples of average annual salaries include the following (these figures are only a guide):
- £18,000 starter to £26,000 experienced (National Careers Service).
- £20,762 (Payscale).
- £22,798.39 (Check-a-Salary).
- £25,804 (Indeed UK).
- £26,499 (Talent.com).
- £27,879 (Glassdoor).
Salaries are usually higher for those working with large veterinary chains and groups, especially when individuals have more experience.
As an apprentice, the salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Apprentices must earn at least the current National Minimum Wage (NMW). Some employers will pay more than this. However, it will depend on the organisation and role on offer.
Types of veterinary nursing to specialise in
Veterinary nurses can specialise in one of the following practice areas:
- General – working with various animals and conducting routine procedures, such as worming, vaccinating, neutering and health monitoring.
- Emergency – working in practices that provide emergency care for animals, e.g. serious accidents and life-threatening illnesses. They typically offer 24/7 services and are usually on call.
- Specialist – often known as referral practices that handle more complex injuries, ill health and conditions. Veterinary nurses assist vets in specific areas such as (this list is not exhaustive):
– Cardiology – specialising in disorders of the heart and cardiovascular system.
– Dentistry – specialising in animal dental health and diseases.
– Dermatology – specialising in the skin and its various conditions.
– Neurology – specialising in conditions affecting the brain, spinal cord, muscles and nerves.
– Oncology – specialising in cancer diagnosis and treatment in animals.
– Orthopaedics – specialising in orthopaedic (musculoskeletal) conditions and diseases.
– Radiology – specialising in medical imaging, e.g. X-rays, to diagnose and treat animal injuries and diseases.
They can also work in practices that specialise in treating specific animals and species, such as:
- Horses – also known as equine veterinary nurses that help care for and treat horses and also donkeys.
- Small animals – specialising in small animals, such as dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs and reptiles.
- Livestock – also known as farm veterinary nurses. They help vets with large farm animals, including cattle, sheep, goats, alpacas, pigs, etc.
- Exotic animals – specialising in animals, such as snakes, lizards, tortoises, turtles, frogs, spiders, some bird species, unusual mammals, etc.
- Raptors – specialising in birds of prey, such as falcons.
- Zoo animals – these veterinary nurses help vets to look after various animals kept in zoos and aquaria.
- Wildlife – specialising in wild mammals, birds and other species.
The RCVS has a list of specialists on their website, which can give individuals more information on specialist areas.
Specialist veterinary nurses will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. All must have a passion for animals and know how to build relationships with owners. They also need to handle a range of animals confidently and help vets prevent, manage and treat injuries and ill health. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what an organisation is looking for and the type of work a veterinary nurse wants. Some may need specific qualifications, e.g. postgraduate and additional training for specialised areas.
If veterinary nurses do not carry out their role effectively and competently, it can cause an animal’s illness or injury to worsen and may even cost lives. They may get themselves or others injured by animals if they do not handle them correctly. Also, customers could complain, their reputation may be adversely affected, and, in serious cases, they may be struck off the RCVS register and can no longer practise. Therefore, whatever the type of role, veterinary nurses must have the necessary competence to carry out the work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise.
Standards, treatments, medicines, equipment, laws and technologies are regularly changing. Therefore, veterinary nurses must keep ahead of the latest developments and changes to ensure they carry out their roles effectively, safely and correctly. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives veterinary nurses the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes, understand their responsibilities, and progress in their careers. It also helps them stay registered with the RCVS, as CPD is mandatory.
Joining a professional body, council, charity, union or association (as previously mentioned) can help individuals enhance their skills and overall career. These may offer different levels of membership, CPD, support, access to industry contacts and networking events.
There is ample opportunity for career progression for veterinary nurses. They could do RCVS-approved postgraduate qualifications and specialise in particular animals, e.g. horses or wild animals, and areas, such as cardiology or neurology. They could also move to other settings, such as zoos and wildlife rescue centres.
With more training and experience, they could move from a small veterinary practice to a large one or become senior or head veterinary nurses. Alternatively, they could work as locums. There may also be opportunities to take on further responsibilities and move into practice management, staff training and supervision or veterinary supply sales.
More knowledge, skills and experience can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, a veterinary nurse may want to work in education, training or research. They may also work in other sectors, such as the Armed Forces or the pharmaceutical industry.
Get started on a course suitable for becoming a veterinary nurse
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