Abby Wharton, principal nurse manager at Vets Now Swindon, became the fourth winner of the prestigious Louise O’Dwyer Bursary in 2022. The award honours Louise and her accomplishments as one of the world’s leading veterinary nurses by furthering her ambition of advancing veterinary nursing through shared learning.
Louise O’Dwyer, Vets Now’s clinical support manager, was an inspiring and supportive role model to countless veterinary professionals. Vets Now launched the bursary in 2019 to commemorate her following her tragic death and the 2023 Bursary has been launched to all of Vets Now’s nurses as part of Vet Nurse Awareness Month.
With a keen interest in canine behaviour, Abby received a £2,000 CPD award, and in this Q and A, Abby discusses how she found her way to her veterinary career and emergency and critical care (ECC), the importance of having a supportive team, and her plans for using the bursary to further her education and career.
Have you always known that you wanted to work in the veterinary sector?
I know you’re supposed to say that you love animals, and it was always what you wanted to do, but it took me some time to find my way to it!
It’s true that when I was younger, I did always love animals and my family always said that I should be a vet. But of course, because my family were convinced it was what I should do, that just made me really resist the idea!
Several years later, I had started working on a beef farm. One of my friends there had begun her veterinary nursing career, and she was so enthusiastic about it. As she talked about it more and more, I realised that it could be something that I wanted to pursue.
I started working about eight years ago now as a receptionist at a small first opinion practice and quickly realised that I loved the environment. From there, I started my training as a vet nurse. I can’t imagine doing anything else now.
What made you think about exploring ECC?
There were a lot of things I really enjoyed about being in daytime practice, but over time I felt I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of the more routine aspects of it. I felt that I was potentially missing out on some of the more interesting or challenging cases and wanted to ensure that I was developing my skills as much as possible.
I started out by locuming at Vets Now for about eighteen months, working shifts at the weekend. I found that was what I really wanted to do. I am continually engaged by the element of the unknown and the unpredictability at the start of every shift. It can be complete and utter carnage sometimes and you have to stay calm in that situation – for me, that’s an enjoyable challenge.
I had some doubts about my own capability initially, but I worked with some fantastic vets that were so encouraging, which helped a lot. You’re really thrown into the deep end. And it was very much sink or swim – luckily, I swam!
How did you find the transition to night shifts?
I never thought I would like working nights. I’ve always been a morning person, but funnily enough, I found that I loved it. I love the quietness (when it is quiet!). There are advantages to having a small team as well. I feel in control of my clinic, and I think you work more efficiently and more methodically, which I find rewarding.
Also, in terms of my schedule, I have a smallholding with six cows, so it was tough to get up at five in the morning to see to them, head off to work and come home to tend to them again in the evening. Now when I come home from work, there’s daylight, and it’s so much more pleasant actually to get some sun. It helps me enjoy the cows again!
What other animals do you have?
I’ve also got Mowgli the cat, and Doug the Labrador/springer spaniel, the best dog in the world. Yes, it’s a full house!
How do you find working with the other staff?
I’ve loved, loved, loved working at Vets Now. I know the company has been really focused on making positive changes in the last few years, so it’s been a great time to join. I’ve felt so supported by the vets in my clinic as well as the wider district staff and the sense of community within the company.
What inspired you to apply for the bursary?
I first heard about the bursary last year, and then saw the announcement that applications were open. But I thought, especially being so new to the company, there was no chance my application would be selected. I was not sure whether I should even apply until right up to the deadline. But my Principal Vet Andrea was really encouraging, so I put an application together quickly and I’m so glad that I did!
How do you plan to use the funding?
I’ve always had a huge interest in working with dogs, and I’ll be putting the bursary towards an advanced diploma in Canine Behaviour.
What aspects of canine behaviour especially interest you?
I find a lot of what we sometimes do in first opinion questionable as to whether we should be doing it from the standpoint of the patient’s well-being. In first opinion the issue is that you can keep pushing some dogs every time they come in, especially the ones that are more easy-going because they will tolerate it. But with the additional stress of each vet visit, it can really ruin their good-natured attitude, which is such a shame. The phrase ‘can you just hold the dog still’, I really found uncomfortable.
There’s more we could be doing to make the situation better in daytime practices – we could be sending the animal away or doing desensitisation, for example – but a lot of vets and nurses can be resistant to this. I want to be able to speak for our canine patients, and to find better ways of doing things that are more comfortable for them.
Vet visits are probably top of most dogs’ lists of stressful experiences.
And it’s not just the wellbeing of our canine patients. If you consider how often clinic staff suffer dog bites due to a situation being misread, a better understanding of dogs’ mindsets and body language might have prevented some of those incidents.
There are already quite a few cat-friendly practices and more of an established gold standard for how to accommodate cats. But dogs tend to put up with more and not to be quite as visibly angry as cats, so their needs can get overlooked in a clinical setting in service of getting the job done.
Of course, in an ECC environment, it’s a different equation, because situations are truly life and death, and you really must prioritise stabilising the patient. It’s not a scenario where you’re pinning a dog down just to clip its nails.