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How do I become a veterinary nurse?

Informative image: vet nurse team

Veterinary nurses are essential to the running of the practice - they don’t just look after animals while they’re in with us, but they can also…

●     Give advice to clients

●     Run nursing clinics, helping owners care for animals with ongoing health issues

●     Give health checks to new (and not-so-new!) patients

●     Monitor patients under anaesthesia

●     Scrub in and assist in surgery

●     Perform minor surgery

●     Clean pets’ teeth under anaesthetic

●     Take blood, urine and other clinical samples

●     Run lab tests - biochemistry, haematology, urinalysis, skin scrapes and ear swabs

●     Take and process X-rays

●     Answer the phones if the receptionists are busy

●     Triage emergencies when they arrive

●     Maintain hygiene standards in the practice

●     Dispense medication

●     Manage the dispensary

●     Teach students (vets and nurses!)

In fact, pretty much everything we do for your pets, a nurse will be involved somewhere!

●     If they’re in for a vaccination, while the vet’s listening to their chest, the nurse will be preparing the correct injection and making up the vaccine card.

●     If they come in for an operation, a nurse will admit them, check them over, make sure you’re happy, and then will prepare them for surgery, perform the anaesthetic, and look after them while they wake up.

●     Need X-rays? A nurse will probably position them, take the X-rays, and then prepare the radiographs for the vet to examine.

It isn’t an easy job - but it is a really rewarding one. No two days are every the same, you’re working with and helping animals and their people, and there’s even the opportunity to develop a specialism, such as wound management or critical care, and obtain more qualifications.

So, how do I become a nurse?

There are two separate routes into nursing, and several options on each route. Whichever way you go, though, you cannot practice as a veterinary nurse without gaining the coveted RVN status - Registered Veterinary Nurse - and being listed on the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ (RCVS) register. Since 2015, vet nurses have been professionals in their own right, regulated by the Veterinary Nursing Council of the RCVS.

The two routes are the Diploma route (also sometimes called the “Vocational pathway”), and the Degree route (or “Academic pathway”). However, as we’ll see, the end result is very similar!

The Diploma Route

This requires completing a Level 3 Diploma, usually at an FE College. Students will generally spend one day a week at College and the rest of their time working in a veterinary practice, although some Colleges do offer “Block release” programmes (e.g. one week at college, 4 weeks in practice). It is compulsory to be both enrolled as a Student Veterinary Nurse with an approved college, and also to be working in a registered Training Practice (not all vets’ practices are permitted to train nurses).

Entry requirements may vary between colleges, but it is a RCVS requirement that all applicants have a GCSE grade C or 5 in English and Maths, plus science and 2 other GCSEs (again, at C or 5) or equivalent Level 2 qualifications (e.g. an Animal Nursing Assistant qualification). Level 2 Functional Skills qualifications MAY be accepted instead of English and Maths, but this may affect your eligibility for state funding and grants.

The course may be run as an FE course (for which you may have to pay fees, depending on your age, but will generally be paid the National Living Wage for your age by the practice), or as an Apprenticeship (in which case you probably don’t have fees to pay, but will be paid at the Apprentice Living Wage, which is a little lower).

Most courses last about two and a half years, and at the end you will receive a Diploma and your RVN certification and be fit to practice as a veterinary nurse in practice.

The Degree Route

A number of universities now offer degree courses in Veterinary Nursing. Some of these are Bachelor’s Degrees (BSc, or “Level 6”, where you will have to write a dissertation), but most are Foundation Degrees (FdSc, or “Level 5”, where this is not quite so formal). Either way, you will study a more academically-oriented programme, but you still have to be working in a Training Practice, where you will usually spend about half your time (either as day release, or block release).

Entry requirements vary, but for most FdSc courses, about 48 UCAS points are required from A-levels or equivalent Level 3 vocational qualifications. Again, there is a requirement for Grade C or 4 passes at GCSE in English and Maths, and most Universities and Colleges require Science as well.

FdSc courses usually last about 3 years, whereas BScs are often a year longer. Many institutions now run “top-up” courses as well, where you can spend a year “upgrading” your FdSc into a BSc, if you change your mind later.

What will I study?

The course is pretty full-on, so don’t assume you’ll have lots of free time! As well as working in practice, you will generally study the following core subject areas:

●     Structure and requirements of a veterinary practice

●     Anatomy and Physiology

●     Communication skills

●     Animal Welfare and Applied Animal Health

●     Infection control

●     Veterinary medicines

●     Imaging (e.g. X-rays, ultrasound, endoscopy)

●     Laboratory techniques

●     Theatre nursing (working in the operating theatre)

●     Anaesthetics

●     Law and Ethics

●     Surgical Nursing

●     Medical Nursing

●     Emergency and Critical Care

Degree-route students may also study additional modules, for example, Advanced Imaging or Large Animal Health; and will also have to carry out a research project.

There are examinations in most subjects, as well as case reports and other assignment work; and a series of OSCEs (“Practical Exams”) at the end.

You will also have to record your practical skills on a central database (the NPL or CSL), which a senior nurse in your practice will have to sign off.

For more information, the City and Guilds Qualification Handbook can be found here, and the Central Qualifications syllabus here. The Degree courses will have their own syllabus, but they must cover the same material, so it’s likely to be pretty similar!

What’s the difference between the two routes?

Relatively little - essentially, in both cases, you will study much the same material, and come out with the same qualification for working in practice - the letters RVN after your name.

The Degree-route may make it easier to take your practice in a different direction later - for example, into pharmaceuticals or teaching; however, there are plenty of nurses in these roles whose qualification is a Diploma.

Essentially, if you want to do and learn by doing, the Diploma route may be more suitable; if you want to learn the theory behind why you’re doing things, then perhaps the Degree is more for you.

How do I learn more?

Come in and talk to one of our nurses to get the low-down on what nursing is REALLY like! If you’re still interested, contact an FE college or University for more information.