Where are all the veterinary nurses? Is there a need for another training option?

Laura Kidd is a qualified veterinary surgeon, VN lecturer and educational consultant who tutors on a post-graduate VN qualification, as well as teaching clinical skills to veterinary students.

Each year the actual number of veterinary nurses (VNs) in the UK increases (RCVS, 2014) yet, anecdotally, there seem to be insufficient veterinary nurses to meet demand.

The 2014 RCVS Survey of the Veterinary Nurse Profession (Williams and Robinson, 2014) indicates that over the next 10 years the demand for VNs will increase: with members believing that there are not too many VNs being trained (Williams and Robinson, 2014, p88).

Veterinary nursing is a young profession: the average age of VNs in full-time employment is only 30.8 years (Williams and Robinson, 2014, p15). Identifying the reasons for VNs leaving the profession at a young age, and addressing these, is one potential way of increasing VN numbers in the future.

Laura Kidd

Laura Kidd

With the main reasons cited for VNs leaving the profession continuing to be poor pay, stress and not feeling rewarded or valued (Williams and Robinson, 2014, p 43), it is to be hoped that the combined efforts of RCVS, VN Council, BVNA and BVA, in introducing a new Royal Charter (RCVS, 2015, a) and  campaigning  to have Parliament change the law to protect the title ‘veterinary nurse’ (RCVS, 2015, b), will  increase the status of the VN profession. As stated by John Blackwell, President of British Veterinary Association (RCVS, 2015, b), this could lead to increased recognition of ‘the skills of qualified veterinary nurses and the unique contribution they make to the veterinary team’.

The VN profession has changed and evolved significantly over the last 20 plus years, with many more postgraduate qualifications and options for career development. However, whilst the number of VNs who think there are opportunities for career progression has increased, many still do not believe this to be the case (Williams and Robinson, 2014, p82). Additionally, for many, the profession is not considered to provide part-time working opportunities or to be ‘family-friendly’ (Williams and Robinson, 2014, p82).

Most VNs surveyed (Williams and Robinson, 2014, p75) felt that their work gives them satisfaction and variety, but is stressful and the majority of VNs also feel that newly qualified nurses need more support in practice (Williams and Robinson, 2014, p 81). When considering these factors, maybe it is not a surprise that VNs leave the profession at a young age. Perhaps we may, reluctantly, have to accept that, for the time-being, veterinary nursing is a young profession with a high turnover.

However, the current focus on wellbeing within the profession, with attempts to identify and address the causes of the stress which makes some VNs leave the profession, and the stage in their career at which this develops, is to be welcomed.

Furthermore, it is promising that 83% of VNs surveyed (Williams and Robinson, 2014, p43) indicate their intention to remain in the profession for the foreseeable future. Is it therefore possible to improve the salary, work-life balance, career progression (Williams and Robinson, 2014, p93) and professional recognition so that even fewer VNs will leave?

The other main way to increase VN numbers is, of course, to train more students; and increase the numbers qualifying annually.

The VN professional qualification has a very strong emphasis on vocational training, encouraging the development of practical skills and Day One Competences. The broad syllabus and rigorous training are of a very high standard: ensuring that VNs acquire the required knowledge, understanding and research skills for veterinary practice. It is essential that these high standards of training are maintained and developed in order to produce veterinary nurses with the skills required for working within the profession, now and in the future.

Yet, in spite of the huge demand and competition for places on further and higher education VN courses, there appears to be insufficient VNs to meet the requirements of the profession. This is not a new problem but, anecdotally, the situation is worse than it has ever been.

The number of students able to commence VN training annually is limited by the availability of Training Practices: this is considered to be one of the main challenges to the VN profession (Williams and Robinson, 2014, p94). While it is admirable that so many approved practices support VN training, many cannot, for various reasons. Can we support more practices to become Training Practices in the future?

Furthermore, while the entry requirements for the VN Diploma are relatively low, the qualification is academically demanding. The volume and depth of knowledge is considerable for the level of qualification and the requirement to demonstrate critical reflection through academic writing can be challenging. It is regrettable that some student veterinary nurses, who appear to have the qualities to be very good VNs, are lost to the profession at this stage; unable to pass awarding body exams. Should we be developing an additional VN training pathway which allows more students to demonstrate they have the required skills to provide high quality nursing to their patients?  Without lowering the standards in any way, can we identify a way of increasing the numbers of students who can start and complete VN training?

The future of the VN profession is exciting: it is hoped that the title ‘veterinary nurse’ will become protected and that there will be more stress-free, valued, competent VNs, providing optimum nursing care.

BUT the issues that are facing the profession need to be addressed now: we need to train more VNs and keep the ones we’ve got!


RCVS (2014) RCVS Facts 2014 (accessed 22.8.15)

RCVS (2015, a) New Royal Charter Comes into effect (accessed 22.8.15)

RCVS (2015, b) Protect the title ‘veterinary nurse’! (accessed 22.8.15)

Williams, M. and Robinson, D. (2014) Vet Futures: The 2014 RCVS Survey of the Veterinary Nurse Profession (accessed 22.8.15)

Read more about Laura Kidd→

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of either the RCVS or the BVA.

  1. Wendy Sneddon
    Wendy Sneddon says:

    Great article! It’s time employers put more effort into creating great positions for veterinary nurses! Yes it’s a very challenging course and even more frustrating to qualify and be doing the same job as when studying. Veterinary Nurses can bring serious income into a practice when enabled to consult and recommend. At White Cross our nurses consult alongside our vets seeing any pet that doesn’t require a vet. Their focus is driving preventative healthcare and promoting wellness. This frees our vets to focus on sick pets. Give nurses the responsibility recognition and reward they deserve and they will stay!

    • Steph
      Steph says:

      I wanted to be a veterinary nurse, went to college to get my animal management and then started applying for vacancies, during this time I volunteered at vet practices. I wasn’t accepted got told there was people with more experience then me, so I applied to study at college, had my interview, received my email saying I didn’t get in, contacted them they said it was due to the lack of training practices and the lack of clinical coaches. I was willing to travel across the country to become a qualified VN

        LINDA SADLER says:

        I completely agree with Chawi and Sara – if they need VN’s so much – 4 pages of adverts for Qualified VN’s, why do they not offer more placements? Speaking to different vets, it seems they are reluctant to commit to the costs, training etc., but then want qualified staff!

        I think Colleges/universities offering the placements/NPL’s would be an excellent way to address this and they would have us three as extra future VN’s. Another student friend of mine is doing 2.5 years voluntary to get her VN – I cannot afford to do that!

  2. Helen Tottey
    Helen Tottey says:

    There are so many issues but they will not be solved by a new qualification but structuring the ones that we have already. If we had better structure this would help answer career progression so solving the cause of a lot of people leaving. In my opinion the structure starts with the RVN qualification with additional “add ons” that enable the RVN to specialise – for example surgical/anaesthesia/consulting/management/pharmacy similar to how vets can specialise. For those who can not pass the RVN exam, we have animal care and veterinary care assistant qualifications as well as SQP that should also be valued to the benefit these bring to the vet team.
    Career progression is a difficult one – I am and RVN and left practice in 2004 to work as a rep, my reasons were both lack of progression (I had set up nurse consulting and this was my role for 6 years but once I felt I needed a new challenge, there was nothing available in practice) a move to industry gave me this new challenge and helped my finances. Although I did return to practice it was as practice owner as I wanted more than the traditional VN role gives.
    If the role had a better structure enabling a career path and the skills were integrated to the vets, the RVN would be valued more to the business and if promoted correctly- to the pet owners too. NHS nurses roles are understood more to the public now (nurse practitioner, lab techs, surgical/anaesthesia) and those of care assistants who help & support the nurses on the wards.
    We are following an Ofstead style PSS so why not re structure veterinary nursing to a publicly recognised structure to help solve some of the issues we face (I say some as I realise this wouldn’t solve all!)

  3. David Smith
    David Smith says:

    I don’t think it’s lack of training options, I think it is lack of practice placements. Wee could train twice as many veterinary nurses as we do but there is a chronic shortage of training practices. We also need to attract more veterinary nurses into the teaching profession, and staying there!

  4. Jayne Gilbert
    Jayne Gilbert says:

    I am a degree qualified RVN, and a lecturer in Veterinary Nursing. From a college perspective we think the Level 3 Diploma is actually a higher level than that. We changed to a modular awarding body which is allowing students to pass exams more easily, and they seem happy with the course structure.
    I think potentially raising the Level of the course may help, and prepare nurses better. But practices need to invest time and money into their qualified nurses.
    I think affordable ‘certificates’ like Vets have would be a good way of enhancing career once qualified but the nurse then needs to be recognised for the extra qualification they have obtained.
    I also have no end of students looking for placements…….they far outweigh placements available, but some practices just cannot afford to partake in nurse training or set aside the time for it. But we are still having large cohorts, however I think all VNs like a fresh challenge and to keep learning and of their practice doesn’t offer this then they will inevitably move elsewhere.

  5. Jill Macdonald
    Jill Macdonald says:

    This is a really interesting and rather overdue debate, and a very useful article; that draws us to the survey nicely, and provides food for thought on many factors that may affect whether VNs join and/or stay in the profession.

    It really is a multi-factorial issue in my opinion, and I have no doubt once I’ve written this I’ll keep thinking ‘Oh, and there was something else!’

    Protection of the title will, I am sure, create a level of satisfaction and further pride in our status (as hopefully did compulsory registration and regulation of veterinary nurses) however this needs to be reinforced by changes that make a real difference to vet nurses working in practice.

    Pay has to be an enormous factor – let’s face it. Nurses train hard for two or more years, have a high level of skill, professionalism, scope, responsibility, drive; and are now also accountable for their own professional work – only to be, in many cases, stuck at somewhere between minimum wage and not much better than minimum wage. In a climate where living costs perpetually escalate, this has got to be a real struggle for many VNs. In the 2012 BVNA VN wellbeing survey, managing finances was one of the top stressors for VNs. (BVNA, 2012) Add to this the fact that few nurses receive sick pay, holiday allocation is generally at the low end, and pension contributions from employers are rare. I am speaking anecdotally, as I don’t have any solid data on these factors unfortunately. This is of coruse not due simply to employers lacking generosity in their pay packages, but an issue of business health, practice revenue and management etc. Some of the larger practices/referral centres are able to offer much more realistic packages.

    Of course it’s not just about money – there is this ‘recognition’ that so many nurses deserve and maybe feel they never achieve. Whilst there are many practices that genuinely value/embrace their nurses, and offer them responsibilities and opportunities that allow them to flourish and develop; I am sure there are many who just keep the VN in a backup and support role. Of course that is also part of our remit, but so many nurses have so much to offer, and to not be able to grow, learn, and have a level of autonomy and opportunities to have an input to practice development for example, must be very frustrating. I run CPD courses that involve lots of discussion and interaction between delegates, and this diversity in what nurses are able to achieve in their practice is extremely diverse.

    A new training route? I’m not so sure. I feel that the training that VNs receive these days is really good (ok, I’m not going to say, ‘well, in my day…’) with standards, in my opinion, driven forward by use of the NPL, offering students and practices clear areas to work on, and VN training with colleges and universities forever reaching for new levels. I’m not involved in VN (qualification) training, but as an ‘old style’ D32/33 assessor, I also feel that taking the onus away from assessment and more on mentoring, teaching, discussing – gives VNs more opportunity to teach their students. I’m not sure how we could encourage more into training, and enable them to be successful, without lowering these standards in some way.

    As David pointed out, lack of training placements is a massive issue. At a practice where I worked recently, we used to get probably ten emails a month asking for placements, none of which we could fulfil – due of course, to lack of staff to train more staff!
    As Helen talked about – more structure and ability to specialise in certain areas would provide nurses with some sort of career path, and this is something that is very much lacking in today’s profession. Once you’ve qualified, where is there to go? Ok, yes, there are some routes, but they are generally both academically and financially challenging, and you need to be in the right practice environment to achieve them.

    One of the issues that screams out to me is the number of practices that have opened recently, as large corporate ventures continue to expand. As each practice opens, whatever company it be, the demand for VNs gets greater and greater, and effectively VNs just become more dilute. This then results in practices that are understaffed – which further compounds the problem, as there is nowhere worse to be than an understaffed practice, struggling to cope with day-to-day running. VNs can’t grow in such practices – are overstretched, stressed, unable to progress, and this inevitably has an impact on whether they stay in the profession.

    In essence, we can train as many nurses as we like, but if they don’t stay in vet nursing, we are constantly battling against VN shortage in practice.

    Apologies if I’ve gone off track a little (and sorry for the long response) but I do feel that there are so many factors involved in this argument, that it unfortunately can’t just be resolved with a single or simple solution.

    BVNA, 2012. Mental Health Support – Well-being survey. [Online PDF] available at: http://www.bvna.org.uk/advice/mental-health-support [accessed 08/09/15]
    Vet4Pets, 2015. Vet Surgeries Opening Soon. [online] Available at: http://www.vets4pets.com/ [accessed 08/09/15]

  6. Hayley Carne
    Hayley Carne says:

    Very interesting talking points raised and lots that could be discussed.

    I wouldn’t imagine that just producing more VNs is a good long term solution as without addressing the problems identified, these new VNs are likely to follow the same path and leave looking for a less stressful, better paid job with more recognition to their contribution. I don’t feel we should accept the high turnover of VNs as this is not ideal for any of the stakeholders in the veterinary field.

    Recruiting and training staff is expensive and if the profession addressed the problem areas and invested in current staff (increased pay, improved career development, more flexible approach to working and factors that contribute to a better workforce well-being) we would be able to retain the highly skilled, autonomous and motivated VNs we have.

    With regards to alternative training routes, I am in agreement with Helen (comment above) in that those who are unable to attain this qualification have alternative options to consider. I would be concerned about a different training route to enable those struggling with the current options to become VNs without ‘dumbing down’ the requirements. The VN role is demanding and the training needs to be sufficient to prepare students for what they will encounter within their practices. With the recent changes to our professional accountability and with the upcoming Parliamentary debate about protection of the VN titile, I would want to ensure that all of those VNs on the Register (now or in the future) were fully prepared for the responsibility they will have.

    (But this is just my opinion!)

  7. Tracy Cullen
    Tracy Cullen says:

    I agree that we always have far more applicants to the veterinary nursing courses than can hope to find placements in practice. Our students numbers could double if there were placements available for them. I am not sure what the solution to this is as there only so many training practices out there.

      LINDA SADLER says:

      I totally agree; I have been trying to secure a placement, initially , through CAW, but have been unable to. Consequently I have funded my own ANA training, followed by an Advanced Equine Nursing Technician Diploma at TOCES (at an overall cost of over £5,000), as I could not find a placement.
      Seems crazy, when there are pages of adverts for qualified VN’s, but myself and several other students I know, cannot get the placements. Is it the cost to the training practices, which stops them taking on student VN’s, or the lack of training practices. I even know of one fellow student, who has had to agree to work for nothing (except her lodgings) for the full course and move to another part of the country, just so she can do the training.

  8. Sarah Richardson
    Sarah Richardson says:

    Excellent article highlighting the dire situation facing the veterinary industry at the moment. Unfortunately it is apparent there are a number of issues to be addressed – lack of training places, ever expanding corporate practices and of course incentives to stay in the industry. From a recruitment perspective, I am dealing with student nurses in search of practice placements because they have been unable to find one themselves, to practices running without nurses, impacting already stressed vets. I hope the issues get taken seriously and the situation resolved.

  9. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I really can relate to this article. I’m 39 years old and have finally just got on a VN course. Vet nursing is a career change for me, I eventually got a work experience that I could attend twice weekly in order to do my ANA (funded by me). I worked really hard and 18 months later was offered a part time job. I then found a course with CAW assisting the VS with sedation & anesthesia my employment increased to full time. I love my job and embrace all advice and knowledge passed onto me from experienced nurses and vets. I finally got a place to study for the City & Guilds. Level 3 Vet Nursing Diploma, this wasn’t plain sailing as I didn’t have a high enough grade in my GCSE maths (this is over 25 years ago!!) But common sense and my other qualifications AND experience finally paid off. I’m now working hard towards gaining my VN, I wish there was more promoting older trainee nurses like myself as I feel we have a lot to give. There s such a shortage of nurses, everyone seems to be crying out for staff.

  10. Chawi
    Chawi says:

    Linda & Sarah above both raise good points that are relevant in my case. I am older than Sarah and am making a career move that will I hope give better prospects than being a riding instructor, especially as I get older. I, like Linda, am self funding an Advanced Equine Nursing Technician diploma, it is a level 3 diploma like EVN, covers the same syllabus, but without the practical skills training & that is the rub. We will know the theory but be sadly lacking in skills. I have had several training position interviews, but have failed to secure the position because a) I am considered too old (44) or b) I lack the veterinary environment experience….I don’t know? I have years of practical equine experience and have managed 4 weeks of equine practice work experience, but that is still not enough to convince employers.

    I would love to do the C&G EVN diploma, but realistically it doesn’t look like it will happen, so to achieve my ambition of becoming a VN, gaining experience in practice and then giving it back by becoming a clinical coach and possibly a college teacher later, I am going to be forced to go the Uni route and get an FdSc as they organise the NPL training placements – something I have been unable to do. Not ideal as it will be SA training primarily, but maybe a good thing with college teaching later in my career.

    All I know is I appear to have two strikes against me – my age & lack of veterinary environment experience, though no-one seems to be brave or honest enough to come out and say it. Surely an older more mature student nurse who has been through life’s crises and is now settled is a better training prospect than an 18 year old fresh out of school…I don’t know?

    The answer is maybe a new training approach as opposed to a new course. Can the dedicated colleges/Uni’s somehow offer the NPL training themselves, thus providing the C&G in practice training route or the college/Uni route as well – more options, more students registered and more qualified VN’s at the end of the day?

    Forums are great for discussion, but how do we make things happen, how do we change the system and make it better……

    That’s our dilemma!!!

  11. Sara
    Sara says:

    I agree it is so much more difficult securing a placement when older despite statistics showing training drop out rate is lower with older vn and they stay within the job longer. I’m self funding with grants and myPlacement is voluntary meaning I also work a 2nd paid job!
    Only way I could do it!

  12. sam
    sam says:

    The costs of studying the course are a major hindrance for prospective SVN’s on top of limited entry and practice securing. I had to drop out at the end of my 2nd year as I injured my leg and fell short on practice hours. I then lost the practice I had because my mentor left. I tried everything I could to pick myself up but there was little to no support. I was then told that I would have to resit the entirety of 2nd year to move forward in the next academic year but this would be without funding and with no time to actually work a paid job, it would have cost thousands, thousands I just didn’t have, and I still would have needed to secure another teaching practice….
    I now work as Vet Assistant/Licenced Animal Technician in a research company, it’s not far off being described as comparable to VN work but it’s not as diverse. It’s still frustrating that I spent years of my life studying for an award that I couldn’t finish because the industry just isn’t established enough to have floated it, not enough training practices and not enough support.


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