An interview with Nursing Manager Kate Ellis

Kate Ellis and horse

May is Veterinary Nursing Awareness Month, a whole month dedicated to raising awareness of the veterinary nursing profession and the vital role they play in animal care and treatment.

What was started as an awareness day by the British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA) in 2005 quickly grew into a week and expanded even further to a month in 2012.

Kate Ellis is our Nursing Manager here at Calder and she kindly took time out to tell us about life as a vet nurse.

How long have you been a Vet Nurse and what training did you have to do to achieve your qualifications?

I started working as a Veterinary Nurse on December 12, 2005 at the tender age of 20. I’ve always remembered the exact date as I was beyond excited to start here. I had never worked in practice before but came to Calder from a large pet shop chain. I was fascinated by the amount going on around me and found something new to learn almost daily. I progressed to attending college in 2007 and by that point, I was well on my way to knowing what I needed to. Quite a few other practices employ new staff members in the same year as they attend college but having that underpinning knowledge before enrolling at college really set me up well. This is still the way we do things here and I honestly believe it gives our students a real headstart before they get to college.

I qualified in 2009 after taking my written and practical exams and joined the RCVS nurses register.

A hot topic in my second year at college was the switch from ‘Veterinary Nurse’ to ‘Registered Veterinary Nurse’. It seemed likely they would introduce mandatory registration for veterinary nurses and I knew I would be added to the register as an RVN. My nurse’s badge was initially issued without the word ‘registered’ at the bottom however, after qualifying, I requested a badge with ‘registered’ at the bottom, which is the one I have always chosen to wear. I have always been proud to be an RVN.

What attracted you to a career as a Vet Nurse in the first place?

When I was young I always thought I wanted to be a veterinary surgeon and honestly never knew veterinary nurses existed! I have always enjoyed pet ownership and the all-round wellbeing of the animal. I have always looked into the specific husbandry before getting something whether it’s a parrot, a rat, a guinea pig or a dog.

At 12 years old I desperately wanted a dog but wasn’t allowed. I went to the school library every lunchtime and read the same book over and over. It covered dog breeds, training and daily care. I ended up being given a puppy (from a neighbour and without my mum’s permission!) at 13 and was given sole responsibility for him. He was a German Shepherd cross – what a disaster that could have been! I had him until he reached the ripe old age of 15, which is pretty good going for a Shepherd cross. I haven’t been without a dog since and the current man in my life is a black Labrador who I acquired as a stray in 2010.

I have never particularly enjoyed classroom learning and the prospect of A-Levels followed by five years at a veterinary university was honestly more than I wanted to do. After one unsuccessful interview, I was offered a place a Calder. Looking back, I am glad I didn’t follow the path to becoming a surgeon as I don’t think it would have suited me. I still have an absolute ark-full of animals. I currently have a gorgeous dog called Jake (everyone loves Jake), three crazy cats, Randal, Bruce and Gordon and a rather cheeky but handsome Dales pony called Malcolm.

What are the best things about being a Vet Nurse?

Everyone always asks the same two questions…

“So, when will you be a vet?” Answer: Never. Does a human nurse progress to being a doctor?

“What does a Veterinary Nurse even do? Don’t you just sit and cuddle puppies and kittens?”

Answer: I do an awful lot of things, sometimes I sit and cuddle puppies, kittens, dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs. Sometimes an animal really responds to just being loved.

I also really love seeing my patients leave my care. It sounds a bit strange but bear with me. When you know they’re better, they’re going home, their family is as excited to see them as they are to see their family. You might never really know the amount of care that has gone into looking after your pet while they have been with us and you probably won’t ask who it was specifically that looked after them in hospital, but I know it was me and I know I am one of the reasons your pet is coming home. These are the best things about being a veterinary nurse.

What kind of attributes do you need to be a good Vet Nurse?

My word! What attributes don’t you need? I think we can boil most things down to compassion. Every nursing job in the world is a caring profession. Every aspect of veterinary nursing care requires it and it isn’t always easy to find within yourself. Compassion for a confused or scared animal that has been vocalising for the last six hours. Compassion for a client who is losing a member of their family.

You also need strength – physical for that 100kg St Bernard and emotional for when something is playing on your mind at home that night. Hopefully veterinary nurses will eventually evolve to have the six arms which we seem to need so badly! A good sense of humour is also essential along with the ability to bake. If you have these attributes along with a passion for constant learning, send me your CV!

What advice would you give someone thinking about a career as a Vet Nurse?

Go for it. Get experience working with animals anywhere you can before you apply but don’t go in blind. To progress through college, you will need GCSEs in science, maths and English. As long as you have your GCSE’s along with a strong sense of purpose and a willingness to work, you’ll do it.

It isn’t always sweetness and light though. I’ve had animals pass diarrhoea as I’m carrying them. It went into my pockets and down my leg. It has happened more than once. I don’t carry electronics or valuables on me because of this!

Another big topic for nurses the world over is infection control. In veterinary, this responsibility usually falls to the nurses. In plain English, we clean. Everything. Every day. A nurse’s working week is honestly about 75 per cent cleaning.

What are the best things about working at Calder?

The team and our clients. I work with some absolutely brilliant people. We have a good amount of staff working here who have been with the company for many years. We worked out a while ago that we have put in more than 500 years between us. That’s calculated just from those of us who have been here for 10 years or more. If we included everyone who worked here can you imagine what that number would be? Crazy.

Some of our clients will know my face as I am currently the Friday evening consulting nurse. I have done this for the last two years but I’m handing the reins over soon. Most of the nurse consults I see are to discuss all sorts of preventative healthcare but I also see people who are struggling to medicate their pets. I triage emergencies and see post-operative patients for their check-ups.

The mixture of people and personalities I meet is fantastic and you can build a rapport so quickly with someone when you have a shared interest. I was chatting away to a client one evening and we were talking pets, of course. It turns out he lives not too far from me and I was explaining to him that when I take Jake for a walk, the cats often come. My client then said with quite a bit of excitement “Are you the woman I see walking three cats and a dog around?” It turns out I am.