Where Do Veterinary Nurses Go?

7 min read

“Are you not smart enough to be a vet?” – question vet nurses are sick of being asked. As vet nurses receive growing recognition in the industry, the general public still has a long way to go before they fully understand how vets and nurses have equally important roles to play in animal health care.  The internal hierarchy of most practices also present opportunities for nurses’ contributions to be overlooked or undervalued, making it hard to retain talents in the industry.

As Veterinary Nursing Awareness Month draws to a close, our very own Leah Paskell RVN reflects on her time as a veterinary nurse which as you can guess, encapsulates the good and the bad. I wanted to explore her motivations in moving into the tech sector after achieving many career highlights such as being a regional manager for 8 practices. Surely, she’d want to stay and guard the life that she has built with blood, sweat, and tears?

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The beauty in any job satisfaction lies in balance and that is very difficult to achieve in veterinary nursing. Although positive cultural shifts towards greater wellness and support for nurses can be seen in the industry, the changes are just not happening quickly enough. My interview with Leah exposes shocking realities which many have grown blasé about and that’s extremely worrying.

“There are not many nurses in their 30s. Some get married and have kids so they sort of forsake their passion, regretfully.” Although Leah no longer works as a veterinary nurse, she continues to look out for the pet owners and their pets by making the industry more efficient and the communications less impeded. She offers priceless insights and ideas about how vet nurses can be better valued in the age of difficult talent retention. Her personal story of leaving the nursing profession can hopefully inform and inspire practices around the world to rethink the way vet nurses are currently positioned and give much-needed praise for our unsung heroes.

Full interview below:

1. How did you get into vet nursing and what do you think about the job in general?

I left school and immediately went into vet nursing – something I knew I wanted to do when searching and deciding on a career. The job, in general, is tiring/borderline exhausting both mentally and physically. On your feet, all day, running around and being pulled in ten different directions. I did not think I would have a back problem in my 30’s but then that’s what you get for lifting 65 kg dogs with one other person! Things start to ache and hurt after your twenties from spending 80% on the floor and doing a lot of cleaning!

2. You became a practice manager after working as a nurse, how did you manage that?

I would say a common career move is from RVN – Clinical Coach – Head Nurse and/or Practice Manager. These roles can vary so much depending on the clinic. Some head nurses/PMs will focus solely on admin work and no longer do clinical tasks whereas others will do both. I’m pleased to say the profession is more recognized compared to when I started. There are more nurses considered as ‘clinical leaders’ and who are now buying into practices. The recognition is coming!

3. It’s notorious that nurses don’t stay in their jobs. What could your practice have done to persuade you to stay?

I loved my job! I specialized in emergency and critical care (an animal accident and emergency center) but this meant working nights. I did this for ten years because I felt valued for doing what I trained to do and not utilizing my mopping abilities! It is an ongoing joke with my friends that we are trained to be ‘glorified cleaners’! Had I felt valued in general practice as I did in ECC I likely would have gone back to normal working hours.

4. There’s a common misconception that a vet is more important than a nurse. What are your thoughts on that and on its implications?

The public doesn’t know that the nurse is taking the x-rays, taking the blood sample, placing IV’s or even stitching up their dog who was in a fight with barbed wire! They believe the vets are doing all of this and more when in reality a nurse is just as present. I find it annoying when I am asked why I am not a vet. I believe one is not more important than the other – they are different roles and complement one another. There is a team looking after the patients from receptionists to assistants to nurses and vets.
Implications of the lack of education are massive on a nurse – mental health and burn-outs are the biggest. I have worked solidly for 15 hours, no food or toilet break – surviving on biscuits alone looking after critically sick patients. They recover and go home only to then not get so much as a thank you from the owner. Not all clients are like this but there have been a few too many.

5. We know there are disproportionately more women in nursing than men, how do you think the vet industry is responding to social issues like the gender pay gap and the MeToo movement

For me as far as I am aware vets and VN’s are paid on experience and certification. I think as an industry there is very little if no gender pays gap. It is predominantly female-dominated however I have noticed an increase in male nurses over recent years. Having gone from knowing none to five is pretty good!

6. Would you recommend your own career path to fellow nurses who are thinking about leaving their jobs?

Finding a different path in veterinary nursing is an option now. Emergency and critical nursing, exotic nursing, referral nursing either surgical or medical and oncology. Alongside all of these – certificates in advanced nursing are also options. Becoming a lecturer, regional manager for a corporate or even a dog walker are other career paths. I have met nurses who hate their job and no longer do it effectively because they no longer care so that’s definitely a sign that they should branch out since they’ve acquired the transferable skills.
What I love about Vetstoria is its potential and the people I work with. It’s completely different to practice life – relaxed no politics and well managed. At the end of the day, I am not responsible for a life in the office – that is very refreshing!

7. In an ideal world, how would nurses want their working environment and how would they want to be valued?

A thank you goes a long way when you are hungry and haven’t peed in 12 hours. Being called upon to place a feeding tube or IV because you are good at it and be acknowledged for your skills and hard work. I have worked with people before that will spend minutes finding a nurse to clean the urine instead of doing it themselves despite walking past the mess five times. Being asked for an opinion on a patient’s treatment plan and having a client speak to you instead of refusing because you are not a vet.

8. Anything else you’d like to tell us?

Despite all of this I am proud to be a vet nurse and for enduring all the bad bits. The profession is on the way up and education is improving. I do believe that one day the title will be protected and this will be a career path more recognized and valued than it is now. I have met some amazing people during my career and ones that I will continue to stay in touch with. I will never regret choosing vet nursing as a career (not on a daily basis anyway!).