The Nurse Break is about human nursing. However, we wanted to showcase some other professions that also carry the title of ‘nurse’, to help showcase thier profession, albeit very different. Welcome to the new category, of vet nursing!

Meet Vet Nurse Heidi!

 Monitoring an anaesthetic on a Black capped capuchin

My name is Heidi Knightley, I’m 40yrs old and I started my veterinary nursing career in 2004. I grew up on a farm and from the time I could walk and talk, I would follow our vet around the farm whenever he visited and I used to tell him at the age of 4 that I wanted to be a vet.

Having grown up around animals big and small, I have always had a passion and love for all animals and never waived in my determination to work with them. I spent my school holidays working with my Dad on the farm and was assisting in delivering foals before I hit Year 4 in primary school. Once at high school, I would spend my holidays doing work experience with my vet whenever I possibly could and I think this allowed me to see the ins and outs of the industry early on and cemented my career plans.

After high school I was just below the TER for Veterinary science so ended up at The University of Wollongong doing a Bachelor of Science with a major in Biological Science with the plan to transfer to Bachelor of Veterinary Science. At the end of the degree and being just under the cut-off or entry to vet science, and without the funds to apply for a fee-paying place, I decided to pursue veterinary nursing instead.

I started off doing my Cert III in Equine Nursing, and then did my Cert IV in Veterinary Nursing and started work at a large 3 branch small animal clinic in southern Sydney in 2004.

What are your favourite animals and why?

I honestly love all animals but my heart lies with dogs and horses. There has never been a time in my life where there wasn’t a pet dog or a horse in my life and I couldn’t possibly imagine life without them. Dogs are literally mans best friend and they are always happy to see you no matter how bad your day was and they always bring a smile to your face. Horses are in my blood and I thank my Dad for this obsession. Horses are often misunderstood but honestly, they are some of the most patient, wise animals and have contributed so much to our civilisation and they give just as much love as any other animal.

Can you think of a really funny situation you’ve had while working?

Oh where do I start?

  • Putting my hand in my scrubs pocket and pulling out cat poo
  • Having a Black-capped capuchin monkey screaming in the clinic, and all the dogs & cats wondering WTF is that
  • Having a cat testicle on my shoe (unknowingly) and walking through Woolworths after work
  • Contorting myself into weird positions in order to restrain an animal. Think of it as extreme Twister with competitors that can bite and scratch you
  • Holding a 70kg Great Dane for a cephalic blood draw, only for him to stand up and run with me basically “riding him” across the room and then falling off in fits of laughter
  • Having to call the clinic on my mobile from outside when a large dog tried to run down the street only to fall on top of me in the bushes outside, and we were both trapped

What are some interesting things you have seen as a vet nurse?

Over the past 16yrs, I have seen just about everything that veterinary medicine can throw at me.

I can go from treating a 13g finch with an injured wing that needs pinning, to a ring-tailed lemur from a local wildlife park with a splenic tumour, to an injured penguin that a member of the public has found on the local beach, a koala that was involved in a motor vehicle accident, a dog that has been bitten by a brown snake who needs immediate treatment to save its life and then an 80kg Mastiff with life-threatening gastric dilation volvulus in a matter of hours.

I love the thrill of emergency medicine and instinct and training kicks in when you know a patient is presenting with an out of the ordinary toxicity, heat stroke, trauma, urinary obstruction or tick paralysis.

I also have the added bonus of being involved in a lot of large animal and livestock medicine from helping to deliver a “stuck” foal or calf, caesarean on a cow, colic surgery on a horse, treating bloat in a sheep or goat, hoof injuries, fractured legs in horses, and milk fever in cows.

Where do you currently work and what inspired you to work in this field?

I currently work at Cannon & Ball Veterinary Surgeons in Wollongong NSW as the Nursing manager and Head veterinary nurse. The clinic is a small animal and exotics clinic and we have 4 veterinarians who have their Memberships in Avian health so we see a lot of birds, big and small.

Having started my career with horses, then moving to small animals and now exotics I have spanned the veterinary field and the variety of cases we see makes each day different and unique.

What are the different types of roles you have previously held and what did they involve?

I started my career after graduation as an entry-level veterinary nurse where the majority of my training was done on the job. I progressed to Head nurse and surgery manager within 2yrs and stayed at the clinic for just shy of 4yrs.

I moved back closer to home to work at a small 2 vet, a local clinic which just did small animals and was there for almost 7yrs, and in that time a highlight of my job was when I started a very popular and in-demand puppy pre-school class. I had over 100 puppies graduate from my classes.

Towards the end of 2014, I was starting to lose my passion for nursing and I felt like I wasn’t able to grow or advance my career at this particular clinic. I even started a Diploma in Event Management, as I had decided to remove myself from the industry due to burnout and not being happy in my role anymore.

However in early 2015, an out of the blue opportunity arose, and I applied for a nursing position at a small animal and exotic clinic in Wollongong. I was called for an interview within 48hrs and I was soon offered the job as head nurse and Nursing Manager. It was a once in a lifetime offer and I didn’t hesitate to say yes and I jumped at the chance. I have been at this clinic ever since.

vet nurse
Laser Therapy

What does a typical day look like for you?

My typical day is usually spent in our Medical ward, in the surgery, or doing administrative duties. Depending on the shift I start my day doing obs for all my hospital patients, these can vary but usually include dogs, cats, rabbits and birds. I am responsibly for all their care whilst in hospital and administer medications, do requested lab work, feeding, write up cases and general nursing duties.

In between medical cases, I am also responsible for the day to day running of the ward including cleaning, washing and packing surgical kits ready to be autoclaved, updating owners on the condition of their animals, laundry, assisting in other areas of the clinic where needed.

During a surgery shift I am even more hands-on starting from patient admission, pre-medication preoperatively, placing IV lines for intravenous fluid therapy and/or CRIs, collecting blood or other lab samples for processing, assisting in anaesthetising and sedation of patients, intubating patients, prepping for surgery, anaesthetic monitoring, diagnostic radiographs, dental prophy procedures, peri- and post-operative medications, recovery of patients and extubation once awake, calling owners once patients are awake to organise discharge.

Once the surgery is complete (often upwards of 10 procedures every day) I am them responsible for the cleaning of our prep and surgical rooms, restocking supplies, ensuring S8 drug logs are up to date and continuing to monitor patients until they are discharged. On administration days I spend my time doing nurse rosters, ordering from our wholesalers, meeting with food and drug reps, accounting, managing our website, Facebook and Instagram pages, liaising with the clinic owners, organising staff meetings, nurse training and keeping up to date with my own CPD.

What are some ‘things’ that you do?

Being in general veterinary practice we see our patients for a wide variety of reasons and illnesses. From routine vaccinations, new puppy and kitten checks, medical consultation and diagnosis, rehabilitation therapy, soft tissue surgery, dermatology, dental surgery including digital dental radiography, orthopaedics, digital radiology and ultrasound, emergency medicine and surgery, wildlife medicine (done pro bono), in-hospital blood testing and other laboratory work, desexing, endoscopy, laser therapy, surgical sexing (in birds), nutritional advice, and export examinations.

I am lucky enough in our clinic to do basically everything our vets do except consultations and surgery, so I have a very hands-on, in-depth role in the care of all patients in our care.

vet nurse
A kangaroo joey found on the side of the road after its mother was a victim of a car accident

What are some medications that you administer and why do you use them?

The majority of medications used in veterinary medicine are the same as in human medicine albeit different strengths/dose rates.

For example, we regularly use midazolam and propofol in our general anaesthetics. For antibiotics, we use Amoxycillin based drugs and cephalosporins to name a few. We use a variety of NSAIDS like Meloxicam and opioid drugs like Methadone, Butorphanol, Buprenorphine, Fentanyl, Naloxone and other analgesic drugs like Ketamine, Gabapentin, Tramadol and Medetomidine.

We use the same intravenous fluids (Hartmanns, NaCl, Glucose etc).

Veterinarians have to abide by the classification of drugs and poisons (e.g. S4 and S8 drugs), and have to abide by these rules set out by the Australian Veterinary Association and AVPMA. Our medication labels must include “For Animal Treatment Only”

How do you physical assess different animals in your current practice?

Unlike human nurses who only have to know and understand the physical vitals/requirement of one species, as veterinary nurses we need to know and understand the normal vitals, pharmacology requirements and husbandry of multiple species (over 20), and we have the added complication of our patients not being able to tell us what is wrong or where it hurts. We need to therefore take a thorough history from the owner, perform a full hand on, physical examination and then read be able to read the body language of our patients to determine what we are dealing with.

Birds and rabbits are the masters of hiding illness and by the time they present to us for being unwell, it is highly likely that they have been sick for 5 to 7 days already but have been masking the illness – an evolutionary trait in all prey animals that have been retained over the decades.

Discuss some of the things you do and manage that many human nurses may not realise some vet nurses do!

As mentioned above, on an average day I am collecting blood (jugular, cephalic, & saphenous routes), taking diagnostic radiographs unassisted, placing IV cannulas, assisting with ultrasounds, monitoring anaesthetics (HR, RR, pulse, BP, ECG, capnography, temperature, SP02), assisting in euthanasias, placing endotracheal tubes, running lab work (blood, faecal tests, urinalysis), recovering patients after surgery, giving nutritional advice, helping revive puppies after an emergency caesarean.

Using a Doppler to monitor the heart rate of a reptile under anaesthetic, performing dental scale & polish procedures, dispensing medication, calculating correct drug doses, writing up complex cases, assisting in the processing and administering PRP injections, laser therapy, assisting in placing OG feeding tubes, administering CPR in emergency situations, placing urinary catheters, and then on some days giving a puppy or kitten a big cuddle.

How do you take ‘vitals’ on different animals?

Taking vitals in animals is much the same as humans except we take the majority of patients temperatures rectally (not orally or via the ear), but in reptiles, we use an infrared thermometer. Heart rate and respiration rate is done by auscultation of the heart and lungs via a stethoscope. Pulse is via the femoral pulse. Blood pressure is usually done via a cuff around the patient’s forearm or tail. Pain scoring is done from body language and we use the Colorado State University Veterinary Medical Centre Acute Pain Scales because as I mentioned previously my patients can’t tell me where it hurts or a give me a pain score from 1 to 10.

Colorado State University Veterinary Medical Centre Acute Pain Scale

Pet Owner Education

I have less client interaction these days in my current position as I have a team of nurses who work in various roles and we have dedicated reception staff each day who are involved in client education more than I am. Pet owners often need education in nutrition, preventative medicine (vaccinations, flea/tick treatments, worming, heartworm), advice when their pet is unwell etc

What is one thing you wish you would have known before you started your career in this field?

That not everyone is suited to a role in this industry and the level of burnout and compassion fatigue is growing exponentially.

The veterinary industry is now dominated by females, in our workplace, we have only one male vet to 5 female vets & 8 females nurses. I am lucky to work with an extremely supportive and laid back team of ladies, however, I have worked in clinics where female “bitchiness” ran rife and gave the industry a bad name

Why should others consider becomming a vet nurse?

If you truly have a passion for wanting to help animals, all the while doing it with long hours, a low pay, lots of cleaning and sometimes abussive clients, then this is the industry to be in. However, if you think it is all cute puppies and kittens then stay away!

What are the most challenging and difficult aspects of being a vet nurse?

Animal abuse and neglect are by far the hardest parts. In this industry, we can’t save every animal (unfortunately) and often the kindest thing we can do is put them to sleep and end the pain and suffering.

Euthanasia can also be difficult, especially when it is a young animal that has been diagnosed with, for example, aggressive cancer, or a senior pet who belongs to an elderly client who’s the only companion is that pet since their own husband/wife passed away. You can just see their world slipping away by losing their companion and to this day it still brings me to tears.

I find the best way to overcome these difficulties is to a) talk to my fellow team members as they know what you are going through and try not to take it home. My husband has witnessed many a breakdown to him over the past 10yrs we’ve been together but I try not to burden him with it, or b) having hobbies outside of work that allow you to clear your head.

Also not being afraid to say I am not coping and I need a time out to your management.

What is one myth or common misconceptions that you want to debunk about your area?

Qualified Cert IV veterinary nurses are trained professionals and we have to do a large amount of study & on the job training to earn our qualification. Although in saying this, I do feel we need to transition to a university-based degree, as currently, anyone can call themselves a “veterinary nurses” even without the relevant qualifications.

The Veterinary Nurses Council of Australia has launched the ‘Australian Veterinary Nurse and Technician Registration Scheme’ (AVNAT) that was developed for professionals working in practice. While currently voluntary, it is hoped to become mandatory for all qualified nurses.

We essentially do everything that a human nurse can do, and sometimes more, but our patients vary in species.

Veterinary health professionals and mental health

The veterinary industry as a whole is extremely stressful. Unlike human medicine we don’t have the luxury of Medicare for animals. This means that each clinic has to purchase all of their own equipment (eg. Endoscopy, radiology, ultrasound), medications and supplies and on top of that pay their staff a wage. So a lot of the issues, but not all, in this industry are caused by pet owners with money constraints. Other stressors include long hours, poor pay, not being able to save everything, & toxic work environments

Do vet nurses experience aggression from pet owners like hospital nurses from patients?

Unfortunately that is a big YES. The main thing that pet owners are aggressive about is money. If I had a dollar for every time I have been called a heartless, money-grabbing, uncaring, animal hating b***h over the past 16yrs, well let’s just say I would be filthy rich.

We are not in this industry to take your money. We have overheads, bills to pay, staff wages etc and as mentioned before we are NOT subsidised by the government, meaning you have to pay for services provided by us. We are here to help your animal, that is all. I think I have become a little jaded over the years but coping this abuse day in, day out can really get to you, especially for junior vets or nurses.

My philosophy is simple. Pet ownership is a privilege, not a right. If you can’t afford to provide for your animal for their lifetime, including emergencies, then you should think twice about having them at all!

What are the rates of pay/conditions like for vet nurses?

For the amount of work we do, the pay isn’t that great. A fully qualified veterinary nurse (Level 4) is paid $24.77 per hour (as per the award). You can honestly earn more working in retail for fewer hours!

Hower most clinics these days, do pay above the award rate, and I am one of those few lucky ones who earn much more than the award rate

What pathway would you like to see the future of your profession take over the next 10 years?

A university based degree for qualification, just like the one for our human nursing counterparts. I would also love the possibility of veterinary nurse practitioners, but only once we get a university based degree.

Check out other Vet Nurse Articles HERE

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