Meet Isobella McGrath! She is a senior Vet Nurse and gives you a pretty great answer to ‘What does a vet nurse do?’.

My farm dog Roo donating blood. Yes dogs donate blood!

About Me

My name is Bella and I am a Veterinary Nurse. I have always worked in animal care, I got my first “job” as a volunteer at the local animal shelter when I was 9 years old. I stopped doing that at age 11 for paid work at my local horse stables. I’ve always been surrounded by animals with pets at home and on the family farm, I’ve had a love for their care from a very young age. When I left school, I got a job as a wildlife officer and part of that role involved acting as a veterinary nurse when we had cases needing medical intervention.

How did I know I was going to be a vet nurse?

Eventually, I realised I wanted to make a career out of this however I ended up doing things a little backwards. Most people will do their CIV Vet Nursing and then decide if they want to pursue further education in a special area of interest, however, I dove straight into a 2-year speciality course of Equine Nursing, before ultimately also completing my Cert IV VN.

I have a true passion for rural nursing and particularly enjoy working with stock dogs. They have such a strong desire to please and it brings me so much joy to help them.

what does a vet nurse do
Puppies always find a way to dry your tears

What does a vet nurse do?

Vet nurses are jacks of all trades, unlike in human nursing we don’t have specialist wards or speciality nurses the same way human hospitals do. Some veterinary hospitals may have their own speciality such as exotics, equines, eyes, dermatology, ECC etc however most vet nurses will work in general practice (as these are the most common type of hospital) which will still see most of the cases described above.

Vet nurse is a broad term but our job description is so much more than people know. We collect pathology samples, undertake ward rounds, we are anaesthetic nurses, we do minor procedures under the guidance of the vet, we test pathology samples and relay the results to the vet, we often run reception, stock management and practice management, we undertake imaging, we train new nurses, we administer medications, undertake biohazard control and nursing of infectious patients, maintenance of the surgical suite and instruments, preparation of surgical suite before each procedure.

Vet nurses: they are an anaesthetist, a phlebotomist, a midwife… they pull stuck babies, revive C-section babies, undertake CPR, place catheters and cannulas, calculate IV fluid rates and nourish their patients which span many life stages and species. They comfort their patients when their human isn’t there, they comfort owners when their animal has died, they assist in the breeding and healthcare of both your companion and food animals.

what does a vet nurse do
Vet nurses are also involved in raising treating and rehabilitation of wild animals in the name of conservation

What does my day as a vet nurse look like?

These days I run my own rural vet nursing business, I began doing this in part to create my own job opportunities in remote Australia as well as to provide exceptional allied health services to all animals that need it. Being rural I could see the gap in services for animals and their owners that a vet nurse could fill and that’s how I came up with Town & Country Vet Nursing.

I have previously worked in Small animal GP, Mixed practice GP, Mixed ED/ICU and in Equine specialist hospitals. The work of a veterinary nurse can be incredibly varied and overwhelming due to the large number of responsibilities we have on a day to day basis as well as different hospitals having different task expectations of their nurses.

My typical day now that I am self-employed can differ significantly. I miss doing more medical and surgical nursing as I quite enjoyed working trauma cases however by offering myself up to clinics as a locum I still get to keep myself up to date within a hospital setting. When I am not undertaking typical clinical work I am predominantly working with horses and stock dogs doing remedial therapies.

These appointments are typically interspersed with home visits for things like owner education, medication administration, wound care, wellness appointments, parturition, livestock work and grooming. When I’m not out in the field I am usually at home either making first aid kits/pet memorials or working on my digital content such as my first aid for pet owners workshop.

The wonderful thing about veterinary medicine is that the cases you see are always so varied. Out in the country, some of the things we see on a more regular basis include flesh wounds, broken bones, grass seeds, snake bites, accidental baiting as well as things like cancer, ingested foreign bodies and heat stroke. Now I am independent, I work predominantly with animals needing soft tissue rehabilitation, wound healing, and owners needing education.

what does a vet nurse do
Big or small, we love them all!

What medications do vet nurses work with?

Veterinary nurses can administer a huge array of medications, some over the counter and some under the direction of the veterinarian. We administer oral medications for things like intestinal deworming, antibiotics, cardiovascular medications, pain relief etc, topical medications such as external parasitic washes, medicated creams, ear or eye medications, as well as subcutaneous, intramuscular and intravenous medications under the direction of the vet including sedatives, emergency drugs, fluids, vaccinations just to name a few! We also administer and monitor anaesthesia whilst our patients are undergoing surgery.

vet nurse
A clydesdale, one of the largest horse breeds

How do vet nurses monitor and examine animal patients?

Animals are harder to monitor simply for the fact that they can’t speak to us. Regardless of the species, we do a distance assessment which involves observing if the animal is moving, eating, drinking and behaving normally. We check if they respond to us appropriately and then we handle them for a physical examination. The species of animal as well as their emotional state will determine how much restraint is needed. Some animals are small, fragile and difficult to handle such as mice, birds, frogs etc.

Others pose their own difficulty due to size or aggression such as large dogs or horses. Restraint may range from physical holds to using tools like muzzles, crushes or cages, to chemical restraint such as sedation. As part of the physical exam, their vital signs are measured including their temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, capillary refill time, temperature, input/output etc.

Under anaesthesia, extra signs are also monitored such as their SpO2, capnography readings, pain reactions (pinch the foot and see if the heart rate rises), corneal reflex, and laryngeal reflex. These vitals are all recorded sometimes by visualisation, palpation, auscultation and with the help of machines/tools.

Is owner education a big part of being a vet nurse?

Educating owners is only one aspect of an incredibly diverse and important role however in some ways it can be one of the most difficult. Many people don’t understand a veterinary nurse’s education and will demand to speak to the vet who will tell them exactly the same thing we say. Or they may completely ignore our advice due to stubbornness or ignorance such as recommending their pet lose weight or needs a dental clean. The biggest issue we have with educating owners is why vet medicine costs what it does, and that NONE of us are rich, we are NOT in it for the money but good medicine COSTS!

What do you wish others knew about the veterinary field?

Veterinary nursing is incredibly hard and can be a massive emotional rollercoaster when you walk out of a code where you lost your patient right into a new puppy consult and have to share in the owner’s excitement. Vet staff are up to 4 times more likely to take their own life than the general population – that 2 times more likely than their human medicine counterparts.

Verbal abuse from clients, most typically about “if you REALLY cared about animals you would do it for free”, is incredibly common.  Due to the Medicare system in Australia, owners don’t actually understand the true cost of human medicine. A hip replacement in a dog, costs peanuts compared to a hip replacement in a human (median 3 grand to 10 grand respectively) but a human won’t have to pay out of pocket for their procedure, you do for your pet.

Despite the difficulties, it’s a very stimulating environment to work in where you can grow your skills in a variety of “departments” and it keeps you on your toes never knowing what species or issue or surgery you’ll be working on next. Having “cheat sheets” accessible is a huge help and totally acceptable, and working as part of a team its awesome to bounce of one another’s strong points so you all come out better nurses.

Do vet nurses make good money?

Veterinary nurses, and veterinarians, have incredibly low pay. If you are single, trying to support a family, or want to save for something big like a house, it can near be impossible to live off the wage. You do it and find a way to make it work because you LOVE it. It is a developing industry that has recently brought in voluntary registration (except for W.A where registration is compulsory) and this is a great step forward in standardising the industry and bettering the education and abilities of vet nurses.

I would love for vet nurses in the future to be able to do further training to gain more clinical responsibilities perhaps one day to even have the equivalent of a nurse practitioner, however, we really need to work on refining the registration process before aiming for things like that.

Despite some of the trials and tribulations you face when working in the vet industry, we create some amazing bonds with our colleagues and patients and get to have a good laugh behind the scenes to offset the bad times.  

For more vet nurse content check out here

Australian College of Vet Nursing