By Dr Becky Nicholson MRCVS
Veterinary nursing is a wide-ranging profession. From working in a first opinion practice to emergency work to academia, there are various career pathways available. Many veterinary nursing students aim for first opinion practice but even within those boundaries, there are several different options for career development. Your choice of nursing specialism will depend on your personality, clinical interests, and key skills – there is enough scope within the field to find something that suits you.
First Opinion Practice
First opinion practice offers a richly diverse day-to-day life for many veterinary nurses. The primary role centres around clinical duties. Practices do vary but many are improving the way in which they utilise nurses. Maximising the use of nurses’ skills helps the efficient running of the business.
Nurses are usually the main anaesthetists and may be involved in some surgical procedures, under the guidance of the supervising veterinarian. Other clinical work includes lab work, phlebotomy, and consulting with clients.
Alongside clinical duties, nurses play a vital role in patient care. This is a source of much job satisfaction. Good nurture can contribute a great deal to a patient’s successful recovery. More clinical leads are recognising the importance of a holistic approach.
Nurses in first opinion practice tend to be involved in other duties, including marketing, clerical work, admin, and cleaning. There are plenty of opportunities to find your niche.
Within first opinion practice, nurses can choose to progress in different ways.
You may choose to undertake further training and specialise in a certain area of veterinary medicine, like behaviour. By doing so, you can deliver behaviour-specific consultations or events. Adding value to yourself as an employee in this way can improve job security and encourage employers to increase your wage or benefits.
Veterinary nurses can progress into management. Head Nurse roles involve non-clinical work like staff rotas, staff appraisals, stock control, and other important contributions. The responsibility of the role can be extremely rewarding.
An in-practice nurse can also become involved in training new nurses by becoming a Clinical Coach. This is a recognised role where a nurse supports a trainee nurse within the practice setting.
Different Clinical Roles
Some practices are large enough to have several different clinical roles. This is more likely to be the case in hospitals and referral centres.
Nurses can specialise in theatre nursing, so working primarily with surgical cases. Learning all the instruments and being the surgeon’s extra hands is a key part of this. Some surgical techniques require specialist equipment and theatre nurses may be responsible for setting up, maintaining, and cleaning this equipment. If you like gadgets, this could be for you.
Nurses can be surgical, assisting the veterinary surgeon or performing some procedures themselves, such as stitching wounds or scaling teeth. Developing your surgical skills can be a great way to make full use of your training.
A veterinary nurse can choose to focus more on patient care and become a ward nurse. This role tends to involve more patient interaction, including giving scheduled medicines, pain-scoring, and monitoring vital statistics. Ward nurses also tend to be responsible for giving the patients some fuss and attention. This might be the closest role to the one many of us dream about when we first consider a career in the veterinary profession.
Front of House
Some nurses are more front-of-house and client-facing – answering phones, triaging appointments, assisting the veterinary surgeons during consultations, and running their own clinics. This can be rewarding if you are sociable and a confident communicator.
Increasingly, practices are handing over their out-of-hours cases to emergency providers. Staff in these centres often work antisocial hours but the adrenaline is high, and the cases are varied. The work is focused on trauma and critical care, but also involves continuing in-patient care, and giving advice to pet parents over the phone.
As mentioned, nurses can progress within a practice to be head nurses and manage a team of nurses below them. Most head nurses would still perform clinical duties. It is also possible for nurses to diversify into practice management, which usually involves stopping clinical work.
As a practice manager, a nurse will have many responsibilities. Every practice is different but most commonly practice managers assist the practice owners or senior vets in the general running of the practice. Clinical experience is valuable in this role, which is why it is a popular choice for veterinary nurses.
Another way to diversify from clinical work is to teach. Becoming a lecturer can be extremely satisfying. The hours may be more flexible than in general practice, and holidays can suit those with families. Many academic roles require applicants to have undertaken some teacher training.
Being a Rep
Many veterinary suppliers have representatives (reps) that travel from practice to practice promoting their products. Some of these roles require additional training but this is often provided by the employer. Companies employing reps include food companies, pharmaceutical companies, companies selling consumables, and companies that sell specialised equipment such as ultrasound scanners.
Being a rep tends to be a bit more nine-to-five than working in veterinary practice, but it can involve a lot of travel, which may require overnight stays. Nurses working as reps need to enjoy interaction with other veterinary professionals – sometimes answering a lot of technical questions about the products being promoted.
There are good opportunities for progression and diversification within the veterinary nursing sector. Starting in clinical practice is a good way to establish your nursing skills. Picking a practice that uses nurses to their full potential is wise. If practice life suits you, there are opportunities to specialise in various clinical roles. If the long hours, late finishes, or unpredictability become less appealing, teaching or management are good choices. If the adrenaline is what it’s all about for you, emergency work is an accessible and interesting option. Whatever your choice, your role is vital to a successful business and to maintaining patient well-being.