Five Things You Learn as a Vet Nurse.

A year ago I left my career as a vet nurse behind and moved on. Whilst we mostly cover film and television here, I feel it’s worthwhile sharing this post where I talk about five things I learned in my career. This was originally posted on the long dead blog: Your Acting’s Like the End of the World

This week marks the final time I will be a Vet Nurse. Eight years of discussing the ups and downs of discussing euthanasia’s, castrations and what the difference between a dog scooting on the ground is versus a dog having worms – all coming to an end. It’s sad, but also a time for new beginnings. Here’s five things I’ve learned over the years:

Emergency! Emergency?

One of the first things I found being a Vet Nurse is that peoples idea of an emergency wildly differs. I’ve had people call up in tears because their dog was chewing their left foot when usually on a Tuesday morning at 1030am they chew their right foot. ‘You don’t understand, he’s never done this before!’

I’ve also had people call up days after their bird was attacked by a dog or a cat and not the slightest bit concerned. ‘Yeah, the dog gave him a fair shake, but I just put him back in his cage and he was fine. I didn’t want to stress him out further by putting him in a car and bringing him in.’

Part of being a Vet Nurse though is understanding that people have varying levels of idiocy and it’s your role to treat them as normally as possible. What the person on the other end of the line might be saying could sound as if it’s the most insane thing you’ve ever heard, however, to that person on the other end of the line they are providing the most coherent, logical explanation of their dilemma that they can. There are times where in my head I would be screaming, but the voice coming out was nice and calm.

However, when there is a real emergency, you can’t run off screaming. I’ve seen nurses who haven’t properly experienced an emergency run into a bathroom in tears because there’s too much chaos going on. There are people who can calmly deal with an emergency, and then there’s others who crumble into a ball and burst into tears.

One such day, a caesarian had arrived and was being prepped, the owner stood watching. At the same time, a dog who had stopped breathing came in so was put straight onto oxygen to bring it back to life and a decision could be made. So that was two nurses down and two vets down with a waiting room full of people and only three nurses and two vets available. Understanding basic triage and how to organise people is a necessity of being a Vet Nurse. It’s basic customer service. Which leads me to…

Italian Greyhound

Customer Service.

The majority of the role of being a Vet Nurse is understanding customer service. Yes, you are in the animal care industry, and you do need to have a higher level of compassion than other career choices would demand of you – but it always boils down to being a nice person and providing high quality customer service. I’ve seen some Vet’s – fortunately none the I have worked with – who have excellent customer service skills, yet, their medical skills aren’t great. Their client base is huge simply because they talk nicely to their clients and provide them a service that they want.

This is most evident when you are putting animals to sleep. The term used in an animal care facility is never euthanasia or ‘going to kill this dog’ but ‘put to sleep’. It makes things sound a lot nicer for owners and if someone happens to over hear a conversation on the phone or in a consult, then they’re not going to be entirely alarmed by it as well.

Yet, for all of that, there’s still some people who do get confused with the term. I had a few conversations with people who wanted clarification that after their animal was ‘put to sleep’ that they would be killed after that. So, to them, the term ‘put to sleep’ meant literally that, they were just going to have a nap. I remember one lady having to be calmed down after she had thought that once we put her animal to sleep they would be put in a freezer where the cold would freeze them to death.

The other aspect of customer service that I had to deflect was the constant questions – mostly from older people mind you – about why I hadn’t become a Vet. ‘So, you’re a Vet Nurse, but when will you start your studies to become a Vet?’ And when I’d explain to them why I wasn’t interested in becoming a Vet, they simply didn’t understand it. ‘But, why would you want to be a nurse for all this time?’ It would be like going up to a human nurse and saying, ‘well, when are you going to get your act together and become a doctor? You should be doing heart surgeries already dammit!’

I would also get the forgetfulness that yes, being a man, and being a nurse, does not mean that I can castrate your dog. I remember having a heated discussion with a client one day when she was convinced that I had sterilised her dog. After a long explanation of how much trouble I would get in if I did that, she said, ‘well, it had to be you’. Tony Bennett would have been proud. When the Vet did take her into the consult, she saw him and said, ‘ah, you’re the guy who did the surgery’. Keep in mind that most of the year I look like Tom Hanks in Cast Away and the Vet who I worked with was exceptionally hair deficient.

Throw in another spanner to confuse things – having a female Vet would confuse clients greatly. Not because the female Vet was not competent, far from it in fact, it’s just that the public’s perception of who can become a Vet still hasn’t gotten on board with the idea that there can be male Vet Nurses and female Vet’s. What is this insanity? Who do we call? Ghostbusters? The amount of times I’d hear a client walk into a room with a female Vet and say, ‘so you’re the nurse?’ At which point the Vet would have to explain that ‘no, in fact, I am the Vet.’ Elderly men took this idea very hard. I wonder how they’d feel if they knew that women can vote now too.

Broken Wing

Death is Not the End.

Death is everywhere and is a major part of being a Vet Nurse. You’ll deal with all sorts of death – sudden death, unnecessary death, death to teach a kid a lesson. Oh yeah, you’ll get idiot owners who buy an animal for their child as a thing for them to learn from. One father that I met wanted to teach his six year old son a lesson. The child wasn’t picking up his dogs turds from the yard – because that’s a task a six year old should be doing on a daily basis – so he had brought in the dog and the six year old to the vet. The reason was to get the dog put to sleep – or ‘kill this dog’ as he put it – to teach the kid a lesson. After a fair amount of verbal jousting we didn’t ‘kill the dog’ but instead gave him a few things to implement to ensure that the dog, his kid and himself would have a happy existence together.

If we had said we would put his dog to sleep, that would have been an easy task of taking his money, taking the dog and then rehoming the perfectly healthy dog.

But some days death is not so easy to deal with. Take the case of the girl who had hopped in the car for her very first driving lesson with her dad and managed to run over the sixteen year old family dog within the first thirty seconds. It wasn’t a nice case at all and I’m fairly certain that girl will never drive a car in her life.

Or the case of the trio of elderly people who lived together and had an elderly chihuahua that they loved and cared for. They also had a pool. This blind and deaf chihuahua who was stuck with a trio of (slowly going) blind and deaf people managed to stumble into the pool. His swimming skills weren’t like they used to be and he was dead pretty quickly. This trio of mishaps brought in their deceased hound and asked if there was anything that could be done. After a good half hour of discussing that no, in fact he was dead, they asked if they could take a section of hair from the dog. Not a problem! That’s a fairly common thing people request. Before I could do it for them, one of the ladies snatched the scissors off me, pulled up his skin and snip! cut off a huge chunk of skin and hair. Nasty.

But the worst case of animals dying is the elderly lady with a budgie who comes in and says that this ancient little creature is her only friend in the world, but he needs to be put to sleep. I can deal with peoples animals dying as it’s not my pain to deal with, and my role is to be there to provide compassion for their loss. However, elderly people who are on their last animal kills me. Knowing that one day I’ll reach that point devastates me and it’s a part of work that I won’t miss at all.

Nut Your Nuts.

One of the main conversations you’ll have as a Vet Nurse is discussing the pro’s and con’s of getting an animal sterilised. There’s the obvious benefits – no puppies! no kittens! – and the not so obvious benefits – no cancer! – that people will always find a way of arguing against getting their animal sterilised.

The first reason that people will want to not sterilise their female dog is that they want them to have a litter of puppies. Mostly the reason for wanting to have a litter of puppies has nothing to do with liking puppies, wanting to sell puppies or heck, just breeding enough puppies that you can make yourself a puppy pit, walk in and roll around in a box of puppies. It’s mostly because people want a) their kids to have the experience of puppies, or b) they feel that their dog will miss out on something in life if they don’t have a litter of puppies.

Why that’s the case, I’m not sure. When I grew up, I didn’t get a field of puppies to grow up with and ‘learn from’ so I’m not sure where this idea has sprung from. Regardless of the high amounts of homeless dogs out there, throwing another set of puppies into the mix just so kids can learn from them isn’t exactly the wisest parenting decision. But what about little Lily’s feelings? Won’t she live life wondering what she could have been if she had had at least one litter of puppies?

Well, the thing is that once dogs have a litter of puppies, most of the time they help raise them and then once they’re old enough, they’re on their own. The mum couldn’t really give two hoots about it. Little Lily isn’t going to care if she has a litter or not. Fortunately, most of the time people are able to be brought around to this understanding.

What about the males though? They don’t really care about having a litter of puppies do they? No, of course not, but you’d be surprised to know that if you are a man, and you own an unsterilised male dog, there is a cosmic connection between your testicles and your dogs testicles. It’s true.

Well, at least it’s partially true. That’s what male owners tell me all the time. My testicles might be out of touch with my dogs testicles because when I got Henry – my male Mini. Schnauzer – sterilised, I felt nothing within my testicles that said that his testicles had been removed from his body. Am I less of a man because of it?

Of course not. Your testicles are your testicles and your dogs testicles mean fuck all in relation to your testicles. He’s not any less of a man because he has no testicles. In fact, he’s more of a man because he can now go and pretend hump anything he wants with almost no consequences! Boys night out! Lock up your bitches because we’re going out humpin’.

(The other benefit of course is that your little dog will have less of a chance of getting prostate or testicular cancer, because, y’know, no nuts please! But, hey, being a ‘man’ trumps cancer any day doesn’t it?)

Native Bird

I Don’t Get Paid Enough To Deal With This Shit.

Finally we come to the main reason I’ve left the life of being a Vet Nurse behind. Money. It always comes down to money. I loved being a Vet Nurse, it’s a career that I’m thankful I was able to have had for eight years. There’s a few reasons why Vets and Vet Nurses don’t get paid the amount that they should do – especially when you compare the wages to the same careers in the US or UK.

For me it mostly boils down to public perception – already people complain about how expensive it can be to take their animal the Vet. Sure, that’s not an unfair complaint, it’s not cheap. However, owning an animal is still a luxury experience. We’re in a first world country and animals get a lot better treatment than many other people (or animals) would elsewhere in the world. Does that excuse the high prices? No, not at all. But, if you’re someone who complains about high prices for Vet bills, consider this – the average wage of a Vet Nurse is about $48,000. That’s your basic Vet Nurse. For a Vet it’s a little bit more than that, but odds are if you’re a new graduate you’ll be hitting somewhere around about $50-55,000 for the first year.

To put that in perspective, if you are a full time Store Manager at McDonald’s, you will probably get over $50,000 a year in wages. So, the money that you’re paying for medication, surgeries, vaccinations, consultations, etc. is only partially going towards wages. Unlike human care, animal care is not subsidised by anything. There’s no Medicare. There’s no free emergency treatment. There’s no $7 co-payment. What you pay is what you get…

…Unless you have insurance. Now, pet insurance in Australia is still a fairly new concept. Unlike the UK where a fair amount of pet owners have pet insurance, Australia has a bit further to go. It also needs better pet insurance. The hurdles that people have to go through to get a claim finalised is astounding. There shouldn’t be this much pain for such a simple thing. When I have had my car damaged and had to go through insurance, it was a simple phone call and that was essentially it. Car fixed. Money sorted. No problem.

Pet insurance on the other hand is underwritten – in Australia at least – by two separate insurers. You have Hollard Insurance and Allianz Insurance. My memory fails me, but I believe it’s Allianz Insurance that underwrites 95% of the insurance companies out there. The other 5% are underwritten by Hollard Insurance. (It could be the other way round, but the figures still match up.) So for that 95% of insurance companies out there – your Woolworths Pet Insurance, RSPCA Pet Insurance, Bow Wow Pet Insurance, etc. – you’re simply getting repackaged deals of the same stuff. And the returns aren’t all that great.

I once had a long heated discussion with an insurance company on behalf of a client because they wouldn’t process a claim for their dog that had had an eye injury. The reason behind them not processing the claim was that we had seen the dog as a puppy for an eye related problem. What was that eye related problem? Well, as a puppy it had some of that gunk that builds up in dogs eyes when they sleep and the owner didn’t know what it was. It was nothing and had no effect on the health of the animal, yet because we had seen it for that they wouldn’t cover for an actual injury later on in the animals life. I’m sure this is the same for human insurance, but regardless, it should not have gone that long for the claim to be processed. This was not an isolated issue.

What I’m getting at is this – if pet insurance companies gave greater returns and had clearer policies, then more owners would be able to take up pet insurance. More owners take up pet insurance means that they’ll spring for that $2500+ cataract surgery that their dog requires, because they have pet insurance to back them up. The more owners getting more procedures done because they’re covered by insurance means more people going to the Vet. The more people going to the Vet with insurance means that Vet’s can invoice out correctly and effectively for clients – knowing full well that the client is going to get a great return from their insurance company. Once they do that and are able to charge more without people complaining every two seconds, then they’ll have the ability to have higher pay scales for Vet’s and Vet Nurses.

It’s a difficult job, and a job which a lot of people – Vet’s and Vet Nurses alike – maintain as a career because they have the passion for the job. The passion to work with animals, care for animals and provide quality health treatment for animals is – in a way – payment enough at times. 

Bob Tailed Lizard

I will miss being a Vet Nurse, but now feels like the right time to move forward in a new direction – a new career path where I can forge a new direction for myself. I’m thankful for the time I had as a Nurse, it has taught me so much more than I could have imagined, and I’m thankful for the people I worked with as well.

All photo’s represented in this blog are property of Andrew Peirce and were taken during his role as a Vet Nurse.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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