Dogs, socks and drugs. The life of a male vet nurse.

A dog having a check-up in his ear by a veterinarian

A dog comes into the vet, unable to eat, its stomach swollen. Could the problem be a tumour? A bowel torsion?

Or has smelly old sock syndrome struck again?

“Dogs eat socks because they like the taste of their owners,” says Andrew Thompson. “We’ve retrieved socks from one dog about three times. Now the socks are locked away.”

Andrew, 23, is a veterinary nurse at the Marshall Lane Vet Clinic in Brisbane, a position that’s taught him a lot about dogs. Like many animal lovers, Andrew knew from school that he wanted to work with animals—but getting his foot in the door proved tougher than he thought. Vet nursing, like other health professions, is becoming increasingly demanding, requiring TAFE (or equivalent) Certificates. And it’s competitive.

“To get started, you need a position and someone to train you up,” he says. “It’s very hard—it took two or three years to get my position.”

Andrew’s also unusual in that he’s male. “Vets are about 90 percent female and so are the nurses,” he says. “There aren’t many of us. I know of about five other males.”

But now he’s been working in a clinic for around four years and is completing his studies, which cover everything from nutrition to animal husbandry. This is complemented by daily hands-on experience, which includes tasks as mundane as answering the phone, or as complex as monitoring an anaesthetised animal.

“I come in of a morning and check on all the overnight patients, making sure they’re fed and comfy and looking well,” he says. “Then they get all their relevant medications and treatments. Coffee is very important, and then morning consultations start.”

It can be a long day. “The bulk of treatments are preventative, like vaccinations,” he says. “Foreign bodies are a regular thing, because dogs eat things they shouldn’t. Nappies, underwear, poo and rocks.”

Eating poo can be dangerous, because it brings the risk of tetanus. “They catch it through horse faeces or through an open wound, like humans do,” explains Andrew. “It affects the muscles in their face, which constrict. The dog has this semi-permanent look of surprise on their face—it’s very odd.”

Fortunately, tetanus can be treated with anti-toxin. So can tick paralysis, which is a regular summer occurrence. But most of the problems Andrew sees are lifestyle related, like obesity.

“It’s rising with obesity in humans,” he says. Overweight dogs are often accompanied by equally well-endowed humans, which can make discussions of weight and diet a delicate issue. “We start by being subtle. If they don’t respond over the next few visits, we get out our stern voices and then put the dogs on a diet.”

It’s crucial that dogs lose weight, because obesity creates problems. “Joint difficulties are really common. Especially as they get older, obesity puts a strain on their hips and knees.”

Andrew says being overweight also makes the dogs unhappy, not least because it restricts their activity. He suggests anybody worried about their dog’s weight should consider a prescription dry food diet, available from vets. Otherwise, try feeding the animal small portions of lean meat.

“Supplement it with rice, potatoes and vegetables, which fill up the tummy but provide a nutritional supplement,” advises Andrew. “It’s less fattening and more balanced than meat only.”

Overfeeding is only one of the problems that people can cause their animals. Spoiling them rotten turns them into uptight, highly strung animals. Buying working dogs and then expecting them to live quietly in the suburbs causes problems, as does not spending enough time with them. Dogs are pack animals, who crave social contact and stimulation. Solitude can make them neurotic.

“It causes behavioural problems like excessive barking, chewing and digging,” says Andrew. “Dogs act out for attention just like children do.”

He adds that punishing the dog by smacking it is the worst thing you can do. “It makes the animal submissive and frightened. I would never smack an animal.”

Not ever? What about toilet training?

“It’s all about positive reinforcement, so praise them when they do the right thing.”

Yes, this means that when they go to the toilet in the right place, you have to jump up and down for joy. “Make it huge,” says Andrew. “Make it exciting.”

And when they go on the carpet? Saying ‘no’ in a stern voice is as scary as it should get.

Fortunately, overfeeding is usually the worst neglect that Andrew sees, though he has seen wildlife damaged by human technology. “The saddest thing I’ve ever come across is a brushtail possum that had no feet, because it had been caught in a trap,” he says. “Its bones were exposed and we had to euthanase it.”

Putting animals down is another hard part of the job, which Andrew says happens at least four times a week. “Most clients know their animals are coming to the end of their life, so they’re almost prepared for the inevitable reality,” he says. This doesn’t stop their grief, however. “They’re always crying and always upset. Though sometimes it can be a relief for the owner as well.”

While people have always grieved for their animals, Andrew says the human/animal bond is becoming stronger as more people use pets as child substitutes. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing, unless people take it too far. Some people dress up their pets—put tutus on dogs.”

Does that embarrass the animal?

“You sort of get that vibe from them, yes.”

He suggests that when some owners send their dogs to spas and yoga classes, they’re really lavishing the kind of care on their animals they’d like for themselves, without considering their pet’s essential doggy nature. Dogs don’t necessarily enjoy the smell of aromatherapy oils, for example.

On the good side, Andrew also says vet clinics see fewer vehicle accidents than in the past. “People are more responsible about locking their dogs up. We see more cats than dogs, but still not very many.”

When dogs and cats do get into trouble, the medical expertise to treat them is better than ever, with more vets specialising in fields like orthopaedics or cancer. “It’s amazing what they can do these days,” says Andrew. “I’ve seen dogs that have had their legs shattered, or had multiple fractures. Instead of amputating their legs, they can be fixed now. Dogs respond really well and their life spans are increasing.”

Another treatment being used more often is blood transfusions. It turns out that there aren’t many types of dog blood, so any canine can donate. Perhaps not surprisingly, cats are more pernickety about the blood they can accept, so it’s more important to blood match them. The main thing with dogs is finding a donor. Large dogs are ideal, because of their blood volume, provided they’re healthy and vaccinated.

“We’re always stumped for dogs we can retrieve blood from,” says Andrew, suggesting that anyone who is willing to volunteer their dog call their local clinic and let them know. Some clinics will offer vaccinations in exchange.

Andrew, of course, has dogs of his own. There’s Moe, a miniature fox terrier who’s almost ten, and Taz, a seven-year old red Australian cattle dog. There’s also Marshall the cat, lots of birds—and some hermit crabs. Clearly, Andrew loves animals. So how well behaved are his dogs?

“They’re perfect,” he says.

Really?

“Well, they’re trained for what I need them to do. I don’t think all pets should necessarily be fully obedience trained.”

Speaking of training, Andrew will finish his studies next year. He hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll specialise in a medical field or go on to practice management. Andrew’s also vice president of the Queensland Veterinary Nurses Council. “I’m all about promoting vet nurses and making the public aware of what we do,” he says. “A lot of people don’t realise we’re professionals who study and continue our education.”

In the meantime, Andrew’s got animals to look after. Including dogs that insist on eating the wrong things, who just keep filling up the appointment books.

Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in Bark! magazine.

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