by Claire Kealy, RVN.
Veterinary nurses play a key role in caring for sick, injured, and hospitalised animals and promoting animal health and welfare by educating clients on responsible pet ownership. Working alongside veterinary surgeons and other support staff, nurses carry out a range of tasks such as performing minor surgeries, administering medical treatments under the direction of the veterinary surgeon, monitoring anaesthesia, and consulting with clients. Rarely is this a nine-to-five job, with sick animals needing emergency treatment out of hours, nurses often work evenings, weekends, and during the holiday periods.
How to become a veterinary nurse
To become a veterinary nurse, students need to complete a course accredited by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) in which they will be required to demonstrate their knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of several animal species, develop their ability to communicate effectively with clients and prove their competency in performing clinical skills.
Path to a registered veterinary nurse
There are currently two routes to qualifying as a registered veterinary nurse (RVN). The Level 3 Diploma in Veterinary Nursing is a vocational qualification, also known as an advanced apprenticeship, which can be studied on a day release basis alongside employment in a veterinary practice or on a full-time basis where students spend periods in the classroom and on work placement in practice. This route, therefore, requires the student to either be employed by, or on work placement with, a veterinary practice. The veterinary practice must also be a Training Practice approved by the RCVS.
Level 3 diploma
If undertaking the Level 3 Diploma as part of an apprenticeship, the student must be employed in a veterinary practice and have a minimum of 5 GCSEs at grades A*- C (or 9-4) including English Language, Mathematics and a Science subject. Students with Scottish qualifications are required to have 5 subjects at a National 5 or Higher/Advanced Higher at level A, B or C including Maths, English and a Science subject. It is worth noting that applicants for Level 3 must be aged 16 years or over, due to legislation covering radiography equipment used as part of the course.
This route allows those who perhaps don’t have the qualifications to study at University to still be able to train as a veterinary nurse with the added advantage of earning a living whilst studying if employed by the practice they are training with.
The Level 3 Diploma is usually delivered as a 24-month program and covers units such as health and safety in practice, anatomy and physiology, professional veterinary nursing responsibilities, diagnostic principles, pharmacology, anaesthesia, accountability and relationships in practice and principles of nursing care. Assessments are in the form of assignments, multiple-choice examinations, practical skills assessments and completion of a portfolio of evidence to demonstrate practical skills acquired and developed in the workplace. Finally, the student is then required to undertake Objective Structured Clinical Examinations (OSCEs) which consist of 12 stations of various practical tasks to determine clinical skills and competence.
Higher education degrees for veterinary nurses
The second option to study to become a veterinary nurse is the higher education routes such as the FdSc or BSc degree programmes. The FdSc is a three-year, full-time foundation course that also requires the student to undertake clinical practise placements. The BSc/BSc (Hons) Veterinary Nursing is an undergraduate, four-year full-time course that includes a one-year work placement. The Honours pathway allows students to specialise in their chosen field of study and has the compulsory unit of completing a dissertation. Those undertaking the honours degree in veterinary nursing may study companion animal life care and exotic animal health and nursing.
Some universities, such as Harper Adams, offer a three-year programme available for applicants with at least two years of full-time relevant work experience.
The requirements for most common entry qualifications usually include 112-128 UCAS Tariff Points including 5 GCSE Grade C/4 in English, mathematics, science and two other subjects however, degree routes may vary in their entry requirements and so it is advisable that students contact their chosen university to find out what these are.
Competitiveness and work experience
Demand for places on any of these three courses is competitive. The majority of degree courses require students to have relevant work experience prior to application to have developed their animal handling and restraint skills as well as to obtain an insight into the work of veterinary nurses. Obtaining a work placement for the Level 3 Diploma can also be challenging; browsing jobs and contacting local veterinary practices for veterinary care assistant positions could be an alternative way to qualify for veterinary nurse training. It is important to contact practices directly as this will show commitment and enthusiasm; visiting a practice in person will give a good impression and even if a placement can’t be offered at that moment, they may be able to hold contact details for future opportunities. Providers such as Oyster Worldwide offer veterinary and animal care placements abroad, giving individuals the opportunity to gain practical experience with animals and the chance to shadow qualified vets and nurses.
It is advisable to gain as much practical experience as possible regardless of the route students take to qualify. Work experience in kennels, catteries, rescue shelters, farms, and groomers are all useful for application to these courses. All practical experience with animals will help to increase employability prospects and the likelihood of securing a placement even if it is at a later date.
Veterinary nursing is a vocation; qualifying as an RVN requires dedication and as veterinary medicine is always progressing, nurses need to keep up to date in their learning even after they obtain their post-nominals. Individuals must be able to work in a close-knit team and have the confidence to perform tasks with little supervision, coping with the emotional and physical demands of the job. If you have a passion for animal welfare and are looking for a varied and rewarding career, then this may just be the career for you.
Maybe you are already an RVN and are interested in becoming a Vet? If that sounds like you then check out our helpful article “How Easy Is It to Change From Being a Vet Nurse to a Vet?”