By Claire Kealy RVN
The role of the vet nurse (VN) or veterinary technician (VT) varies greatly depending on the practice they work for and which pathway they have chosen. Tasks carried out by the small animal VN/VT will differ greatly from that of nurses and techs working with large animals (livestock) and those who care for and manage equine patients. VNs and VTs may choose to either work in general practice, specialise in a certain discipline, work in referral practices, or emergency out-of-hours hospitals. They may also take on roles in education, training students and animal care assistants as well as supporting the veterinary surgeon and administrative assistants such as reception. Nevertheless, they are an integral part of the veterinary team responsible for taking care of much-loved pets in many different ways.
Inpatients and Outpatients
VNs and VTs will often oversee inpatients and be responsible for their day-to-day care. This may include administering intravenous fluid therapy, administering medications or injections, performing intravenous catheterisation, collecting blood and urine samples and carrying out various biochemistry, haematology and urinalysis all whilst ensuring their patient’s needs are met during their hospital stay.
Outpatient nurses are often responsible for admitting patients and caring for them in recovery. This includes taking their pulse, temperature and respiration parameters before their procedure to ensure they are fit and healthy to go under the anaesthetic. They will then monitor their patients in recovery after surgery, checking vital signs regularly and reporting back to the veterinary surgeon if any problems arise so they can be seen quickly. They also monitor the patient’s surgical wounds and pain, ensuring the patient is comfortable and can eat and toilet normally before being discharged.
The VN/VT managing the kennels and cattery has a challenging job as not only must they be organised, but time-keep effectively to ensure all patients are fed, exercised and kept comfortable as well as adhering to strict hygiene protocols. Biosecurity is very important as sick patients can easily pass infections on to others and can even acquire infections when staying in the hospital if staff do not maintain hygiene properly.
Surgical Nursing, Theatre Management and Monitoring Anaesthesia
In most practices, a VN or VT will rotate day to day or work different shifts, so their role will vary. However, in most referral hospitals, nurses or technicians specialise in certain disciplines such as theatre, diagnostic imaging, internal medicine, neurology and intensive care. VNs and VTs working in theatre ensure the smooth running of surgical cases. This includes preparing patients for surgery – clipping and scrubbing the surgical site using correct dilution and proper technique all to ensure sterility. They will then monitor the patient during the operation which means observing the patient’s heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and temperature as well as looking for any abnormalities in their ECG or capnography to which they need to alert the veterinary surgeon.
During surgery, the nurse/tech is also in charge of preparing and opening the surgical kits and instruments, maintaining sterility whilst doing so and ensuring each piece is accounted for before and after the procedure. The VN/VT may also “scrub in” to assist the surgeon, meaning they must be able to glove and gown quickly and correctly. Under the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 (Schedule 3 Amendment) Order 2002, VNs can also perform minor surgery (that which does not involve entry into a body cavity, ie lump removals and suturing wounds), and certain charity hospitals have an operation list solely presided by the nurses.
Surgical nursing requires a sound knowledge of various operations and anatomy as well as knowing which instruments, kits, equipment and suturing materials may be required. The theatre and preparation areas must be cleaned thoroughly before and after each patient so that infection risks are minimised and all surgical equipment is to be cleaned and sterilised.
Consulting, Dispensing and Administration
VNs/VTs must have good communication skills as they will often answer telephone calls and talk to clients face-to-face daily, meaning they must have the ability to handle difficult conversations and situations.
Consulting often requires restraining animals, (some of which may be anxious or fractious) administering topical and oral medications, performing postoperative checks on surgical wounds, giving second vaccinations, suture removal, nail clipping, weight clinics and educating clients on the life-stage care of their pets. Consult VNs/VTs may also apply dressings and bandages so an in-depth knowledge of wound management is essential, as well as carrying out clinics for patients with ongoing medical issues such as diabetes, hypertension and chronic kidney disease. Alongside their own consults, VNs and VTs will also assist the consulting veterinarian. This often includes during euthanasia appointments which require a sense of calm and caring at all times, making sure that the client feels supported and their pet is handled sensitively.
Dispensing medications is another part of consulting as VNs/VTs will often prepare preventatives such as flea and worming treatments and other drugs the veterinarian allocates, all of which need to be handled, counted and labelled correctly in accordance with the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD). Errors here not only lead to client distrust and compromised animal welfare but also fatalities too.
Maintaining patient records, including details of examinations, procedures undertaken, medication prescribed and/or supplied, and results of diagnostic or laboratory tests (radiographs, ultrasounds) is all part of the administrative responsibilities of the VN/VT, all of which must be handled confidentially and in accordance with GDPR.
A day in the life of a vet nurse/tech is busy and demanding with these essential staff members multitasking every day, performing an array of tasks that require intuition and critical thinking. Working as part of a team and on their own, sometimes even sole working out-of-hours, nurses use their years of training and experience to guarantee patient and client care, as well as promote animal welfare.
If you’re interested in becoming a Vet Nurse in the UK you should also check out our article “How to Become a Veterinary Nurse in The UK”