Veterinary Nursing from the 1960s

I achieved my first job working for a Veterinary practice when I was 18 years old. I was so thrilled to have my chance to work with animals, I didn’t mind that the practice was ten miles away. I had to walk half a mile to catch a bus because I couldn’t drive in those days, so was away from home from 7.45am until 7.15pm. I had a half day on Fridays but worked Saturdays and every other Sunday.

Vet Tech Ruth

Vet Tech Ruth! Picture by Ruth aka Kattaddorra

I knew that the practice also had boarding kennels and cattery, but it was a shock on my first day to be taken across to the kennel block and be told what to do, then left to it! I had to muck out the kennels, cook meat for the dogs, usually around 30 when we were full up, exercise, groom and then feed them, all by myself. The noise of the barking was horrific and the phone often rang with a message from the office to ‘Come over and collect, or return a dog’. But I got used to it and coped and survived it for a few months although it was very hard work.

Then a new girl started and I was promoted from kennel maid to cattery maid. Oh what bliss!

I loved the cattery part of my training, around 40 cats to clean out and feed and groom and love. I was in Paradise.

All too soon as the practice grew and another new girl started, I was promoted to surgery nurse, the kennel maid taking over the cattery duties and the latest girl was kennel maid.

One of my first duties was to look out the medical cards. In the days before computers we had a filing cabinet containing a card for every client and I had to place them in order ready for each vet and then assist in the consulting rooms. That was where the real learning started, as between the consulting times after I’d cleaned the rooms, I was taught by the girl above me – who had the title ‘head nurse’ – all about the nursing of animals and about drugs and how to make up medicines and how to care for animals post op. How to order drugs, develop X-rays and how to do simple tasks like bandaging, removing stitches, clipping claws, etc..

Then one day the head vet called me into his room and told me the head nurse was unexpectedly leaving and he thought I should take her place. I was shocked, I felt I didn’t know enough, but he promised me a rise in wages and that he and the other 3 vets would support and help me grow confident in my responsible post.

So I entered the realms of the operating theatre, I’d never been in one before, the autoclave and the instruments looked very daunting! I didn’t enjoy assisting at ops but I did learn a lot more and after the day’s ops were over I could help the other girls if they needed it.

The long days and journey by bus were getting more tedious, with more responsibility in the job I often had to work late and was almost meeting myself coming back some days. I had hardly any social life, I was young and wanted to be out enjoying life sometimes, but didn’t have much time at all.

Then a job came up at a vet’s practice only 3 miles from home, I still hadn’t learned to drive because I didn’t earn enough for lessons and couldn’t have afforded to run a car anyway. So, I applied and because I had so much experience at the first vets, I landed the job.

There were only 3 of us, the vet who owned the practice, the vet who worked for him…… and me. I was the jack of all trades, receptionist/secretary/surgery assistant/theatre assistant/mortuary attendant, but joy of joys we did have a cleaner who came every morning early to make the place spotless for the day. So I only had to clean the one consulting room between clients and the theatre after ops, of course

It was a mixed practice, my old job was just small animals but I soon learned about farm animals too, although of course the vets mostly visited the farms, but some farmers did occasionally bring in lambs or pigs, rather than pay a call out fee. It was quite hard work at busy times with a busy office and answering the phone and assisting the vets and sending out the monthly farm accounts, I never had a tea break and often no lunch break either but I loved the job so didn’t mind.

The wise old vet taught me so much and I loved working for him and did so for many years. I became friendly with his wife and she was very kind to me, she always remembered my birthday and he gave me Christmas gifts and a yearly bonus in my pay packet.

Then one day he died suddenly. I was very sad, he had been like a father figure to me.

I didn’t much like the other vet but he bought the practice and persuaded me to stay. He gradually built it up, adding more consulting rooms, then eventually more staff and it was never the same, it became a business to make money. He recruited newly qualified vets and expected me to ‘keep them right’ which was quite difficult with the ones who resented that the vet thought I knew more than them. But knowledge can only come with experience and I’d had lots of that! Paper qualifications don’t mean much without practical experience.

I stayed on a few more years but I was glad to retire early to care for our late mother when she became ill and disabled and needed me.

Over the years I lost touch with most of the people I had worked with but a few years back I was astonished to hear from a solicitor that the dear old vet’s widow had just recently died and left me £200 in her will. She had never forgotten me and I will never forget her and her husband who taught me so much!

Ruth aka Kattaddorra

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Veterinary Nursing from the 1960s — 32 Comments

  1. I loved reading this. I read every word and it is, once again, very evocative and descriptive of what work was like in an English veterinary practice from the 1960s onwards.

    There is an old-fashioned feel about it up until the modern commercial-style of veterinary practices came about with your last job.

    Also what comes across is that, back in the old days, there was I believe a better work work ethic and you certainly demonstrated that. Life was simpler, a bit tougher perhaps in terms of arduous work but less tough in some ways because it was simpler. Today it can become too complicated and we get distracted from what is really important.

    Lovely article, Ruth. Thank you for sharing your vet tech career experiences.

    • Thanks Michael, yes the second practice I worked for was a lovely old fashioned one when the old vet was alive.
      He didn’t dive straight in with expensive and mostly un-necessary tests, he listened carefully to the client and examined the animal patiently.
      It changed when the other vet took it over and that was a real shame, but he wanted to move with the times I suppose and make more money.

  2. What a lovely article, as always, Ruth!

    There is such a tender touch to this story.. It kind of reminds me of Herriot’s books in a way- when the practices were less commercial and far more compassionate.

    What I love about our vet’s practice is the staff very often bring their pets to the office so they can be with them most of the day- on and off of course- and they love the animals that come into the clinic- and really care about them.

    The pets with whom you worked must have felt treasured also- I just know it – about you. You have such a good way with them.

    Thanks for a really sweet start of my day. Look forward to more stories from you.

    • Yes the practice had a bit of a Heriot feel and James Heriot (Alf Wight) was a great friend of my old vet and used to come and visit sometimes and I’d make a cup of tea. He was a lovely man, a real old fashioned gentleman.

  3. I love this story Ruth. Perfect example of working your way up. What a great career you had, but your sincerity in wanting to work with animals, and your fast learning curve made it an exceptional career. And it was obviously recognized by your bosses. Hard working lady you were, and still are my dear.

    Believe it or not, you were in my dream last night. Isn’t that funny? We were involved in some big event together, not clear of course. It was a dream!

    • Thanks Dorothy, it was hard work those days and long hours and little pay but I couldn’t have done anything else once I’d got started.
      Looking back now I wonder how I did it, but it’s a good while ago and things are very different when we are young.
      lol I suppose we were raising money for cats in your dream? Isn’t it strange how we can dream about people we’ve never met! I dream a lot and see very clearly the faces of people I don’t even know and wonder who they all are? I travel all over too, do you?

  4. This was a real trip down memory lane for me as of course I lived it all with you, the highs and lows, when you were elated and when you were tired and sad at something you’d had to help with. I do remember also you being out all day, and the time you had to walk most of the way home from your first job when the snow was so deep the buses stopped running, late home and worrying about getting back there the next day true dedication! I wish we had more photos from those days.

    • Oh yes and Saturdays when you came to help and even started being paid ten shillings each time because you worked so hard! At only 12 years old! Christmas time when our dad drove us there and he and our mam helped out too, some happy memories, yes I wish we had more photos.

  5. Beautiful, Ruth.
    That young woman got a full, complete education.
    I remember that age working hard, long hours, and loving every minute.
    Times are so different now and, as Michael said, the work ethic really seems changed.
    I, especially, loved about your old vet. He reminds me so much of the one I had. Where are the kind, caring, and compassionate vets today?
    He and his wife were lovely people. It has to feel good that you made an impression.

    • Yes starting from the very bottom taught me a lot, learning how to care for healthy animals before poorly ones was a good way to do it. All the girls who worked there had to earn the right to be promoted, no one walked into a high position.
      I couldn’t go any further at the first practice, so getting the job nearer home and being able to do a bit of allsorts was good.
      I did meet some nice vets at both practices, sadly all long retired or dead by now but the old wise one and his wife were special.
      It was the surprise of my life when the solicitor’s letter came saying I’d been remembered in her will, I wish I’d been able to thank her.

    • Thanks Sue, wish I could write a book and get rich and help all animal charities….dream on though lol I’m not literate enough.

  6. A funny story from the first practice, the staff toilet was up a lot of stairs.
    One day I went in to clean a consulting room, thinking it was empty. The wash basin was up a few steps and up there was the head vet having a pee in it! YES lol I tried to beat a hasty retreat and he said ‘It’s OK, I’m not having a lazy pee, I’m just testing my water’
    lol no, I didn’t believe him either lol

  7. I loved reading about your days working in the vets and how you make it seem so rewarding and it really comes across how much you loved it and how your employers really valued you. What really comes across is all those good old fashioned values where you do an honest days work for an honest days pay and how you all mucked in together pity your memoirs couldn’t be televised like ‘call the midwife’ and what better the title you’ve used for this!!

    • Thanks Leah, I think my memoirs couldn’t equal James Heriot’s televised All Creatures Great and Small, the stories would be too similar about an old fashioned practice.
      I loved Call the Midwife!

      • Your story had a tough reality about it too. The message to would be vet techs is that you have to work hard. I wonder if young people are softer these days. I feel they are.

        • I don’t think young people now would put up with long hours, poor pay, no tea breaks etc, they grow up used to have their ‘rights’
          Also a lot of book learning is required nowadays for vet nursing, I had the satisfaction of working my way up from the very bottom and lots of practical experience.
          I think being ‘hands on’ those days made us understand and empathise with animals so much better.
          I learned a lot at my first job but the wise old vet in my second job taught me things I’d never have known otherwise, such as understanding the behaviour and emotions of different species of animals.

  8. This was a nice article, I really enjoyed it. I am on the road of becoming a veterinary technician also. I still work at the local shelter and what I am really wanting to do is become a shelter vet technician. Two years ago I tried at all the vet clinics and said they no longer accept volunteers. One actually said “I was not worth their time”. Now that I am in school – I was fortunate enough that one has accepted my offer this time.

    The path is pretty difficult and often has me thinking if I am going down the right path due to the minuscule amount of money that seems to be made when compared to other fields.

    It is then that I ask myself “What would my life be like in another field?” The answer is always one and the same: it would be incomplete, and I know that I would regret discarding that dream behind and living the shadow of the life I would leave behind.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Great comment ZA. I am 65 years old and my life experience tells me that it is best to choose work you enjoy because we spend most of our life at work and we have one life. The money is a problem though and I am sure that it is much tougher these days than in the 1970s to get work, find a job. Far more competition these days. Anyway work in the animal field of any kind can lead to other work of a different type with animals and so on in your career until you find better pay. Keep pushing but being in the right sort of work that you enjoy (or at least don’t dislike) is important because it motivates. Good luck ZA. Thanks for visiting and sharing.

    • Thank you ZA and I wish you all the luck with your career.
      It’s as if we have no choice but to do this work, isn’t it? It was all I ever wanted to do, but many a time when I was bone weary and broken hearted about an animal suffering or had held a cat or dog to be PTS I thought, why do I stay? I even went for an interview for an office job once and got the job but I couldn’t walk away from where I was needed.
      For all the long hours and poor wages I had to do that job, like you want to and just like you too my life would have been a shadow instead of living my dream.

      • Ruth I am so glad I read this. I think it’s great that you got so far like that all by yourself – the head nurse. I mean I can see the young Doctors would be a bit outdone by you with your experience.

        You must have so much knowledge. I guess you can easily pill a cat or handle them for checkups etc. I am totally useless with that sort of thing. I am always too polite and careful – ad of course the cat would prefer to be left alone, so I always end up apologizing ad trying again later. But it never works. They see I am nervous about doing it and they back off. I think for vets and nurses it’s normal daily thing to do so the cat senses the person is relaxed and it just goes alot better and more quickly with a person who is confident. I must learn to get good at it.

        I also worry it will ruin the relationship between me and the cat I’m medicating if it gets too difficult or stressful. I honestly don’t know if it would but i have seen cats run away for quite some time after they have been medicated. After a week of medicating 5 cats against Chlamydia twice a day with eye ointment AND pills. My god it was like a full time job. Required all kinds of coaxing and hard work. IT was actually nearly impossible to 100% follow the prescription. There would be a day where one cat just wouldn’t accept the pill so we kept a list of who needed what still etc etc.

        Ruth – you could probably have managed it pretty easily 🙂 – I’m a huge baby when it comes to ‘pushing’ cats to do anything. And I can’t ever seem to convince them they want the medication!

        • Thanks Marc. It’s different dosing your own cats, especially Walt and Jo, they are both a nightmare to do anything to lol so I do sympathise with you.

        • I have just given up giving Charlie he pills (for a bacterial infection). I tried everything imaginable and failed. If I tried harder one of us would have got hurt. The thing is in a vet’s clinic he is putty in their hands because he is nervous and subservient.

          • I think the problem is we don’t like to upset our own cats because with a course of medication they soon cotton on and start looking with horror at us and we feel awful forcing them to take the pills.
            I hate the feeling of having power over them!

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