Veterinary Nursing – A Professional Passion
When SPCA veterinary nurse Sal Thorburn arrives at work each morning, she has no idea what the day will bring. We spend the day with her to find out!
Sal says every day starts off differently, but that’s partly why she loves the job so much. Incoming cases can vary from stray cats craving food and shelter, neglected dogs needing life-saving surgery, or animals hit by cars who require urgent first aid. But all Sal can do is begin the day and remain prepared for what might lie ahead. On this particular September day, Sal spends the morning busy with animals that need vet checks, operations and medications. It is unusually quiet as kitten season hasn’t yet begun. But suddenly an SPCA field officer rushes a cat called Sophie into the hospital after she was found underneath a house. Sophie is dragging her hind legs behind her, and Sal immediately fears she is paralysed.
If you watch Sal work as a veterinary nurse, you would think she has been doing it her whole life. She naturally swerves through the hospital while multiple surgeries are being performed, and can almost be in two places at once. But what she now refers to as her professional passion was a role that wasn’t originally part of the plan. When Sal was 22 years old, she moved to the UK and became a restaurant manager. It wasn’t until she was 33 years old that she realised she didn’t want to continue and was destined for something else. “It came down to working with animals or kids, something I had always thought about doing,” says Sal.
She began volunteering for an animal shelter called Dogs Trust, as well as an inner-city farm in London. “I saw how much kids learnt about animal welfare when they met the animals we cared for – this solidified my decision to pursue my love for animals,” she says.
Sal moved back to New Zealand and began her studies as a veterinary nurse, with the goal of eventually becoming involved in animal rescue. But before starting at the SPCA, she was a veterinary nurse at a private practice. “It’s been really good to have seen the other side of what nurses can do in a small-animal practice, but since starting my studies I always thought that rescue work was something I wanted to do,” she explains. “So when a job was advertised at the SPCA, I applied and got the role – lucky me!”
Destined to be together
While Sal loves all the animals who come her way, she has fallen particularly hard for two very special ex-SPCA dogs. One of these is Olive, who was horribly neglected by her owners as a puppy. Sal met Olive before she started working at the SPCA and while Olive was living with her foster mum. “It was love at first sight – I knew instantly that Olive was the dog for me. She would climb onto my lap to have a cuddle, even though she was a medium-sized dog!
“When I bought my house in 2015, I decided to see if I could foster her,” says Sal. “She came home with me and our relationship grew. I was able to learn more about her story through Peggy, one of the wonderful SPCA inspectors, who had rescued her from a property where she was tied up and living in her own faeces.” Olive was only six months old, but she was skin and bones. “She had very little hair because of a treatable skin condition, had sores on her legs, and had the longest nails I’d ever seen on a puppy,” says Sal. “She was also very wary and afraid of people. But over time and after going everywhere with me, she went from being a dog who always had her tail tucked between her legs to a dog who wanted to say hi to everyone.” In November 2015, Sal got the call from Peggy saying she could officially adopt Olive. “I left work early that day to go and sign all the paperwork,” says Sal.
Another dog who has taken up a large space in Sal’s heart is Reed, who she adopted after Olive. “My only real requirements were any dog had to fit in with Olive, the cats, and me,” says Sal. “Olive needed a goofy boy who could deal with her rough way of playing. I found that straight away in Reed. Bringing him home has turned out to be the best decision.” Sal says Reed always wants to be with her, even if she moves to turn off a light. “He is a big lap dog and wants to sit on my chest most of the time on the couch – sharing that with two large dogs doesn’t leave much space for me, that’s for sure!”
No two days are the same
For Sal, no day at the SPCA is the same. “A typical day is very varied – you never see the same case or animal each day,” she says. “If you’re in the main hospital area, you’re doing everything from helping with routine and more complex surgeries, to looking after our sick patients, and giving cuddles to the ones who have to stay with us a bit longer. “We tend to everything that comes through our doors – cats, dogs, mice, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs. We see a lot of stray animals, and animals who have been hit by cars, so it is about relieving their pain and starting immediate first aid.”
Sal and her team also see a lot of cats who are suffering from cat flu. She explains that these cats need medicine, and their noses and eyes cleaned daily to help them breathe more easily and be more comfortable.
Then there are the animals in the isolation areas who are suffering from infectious diseases, animals in the Animal Recovery Centre, and the cats in the cat ward. “We need to make sure we clean everything thoroughly, take weekly tests to see if the cats are clear of diseases such as ringworm, and make sure the cats get some time out of their cages to just be cats,” says Sal.
In the cat ward, Sal sees a lot of tiny kittens who need feeding, as well as healthy cats who need to be desexed before being adopted. “These animals are all vaccinated and treated for fleas and worms by the vet nurses,” says Sal. “We also help with feeding and cleaning the animals in all the other areas alongside a team of amazing volunteers – without them we simply could not do what we do every day!”
Making a difference
Working as a veterinary nurse in such an emotional environment undeniably comes with challenges. “The main thing I find difficult is seeing neglect, lack of knowledge, or simply people being lazy when it comes to the care of their animals,” says Sal. “The worst part of the job is definitely seeing animals in pain or suffering needlessly.”
It is frustrating for Sal and the rest of her team when they constantly see animals who could be reunited with their families if they were microchipped, or animals who end up in the care of the SPCA long after they should have been at a vet. But despite the tough times, Sal loves working at the SPCA because she knows she is making a difference. “I love working in a shelter. I believe that desexing cats makes a huge difference out there in the world, and it is great to be part of that,” she says. “I also love how we can help so many animals get well again, and go on to find new loving homes.”
Fast-forward three months from that September morning and Sal is excited that her most memorable case, Sophie the paralysed cat, is finally going home. Sophie is miraculously walking on all fours and is about to be adopted by her new loving mum. Sal played a big role in Sophie’s road to recovery, so this is a moment she will always remember. “Every day I would help her get up and walk,” she recalls. “Being involved in her physio, seeing her do better every day, and knowing she has gone to a family that will continue with her care is awesome,” says Sal. “It’s not often we get to follow an animal’s story all the way through, but with Sophie, I got to do that. I'll never forget her.”