ABSTRACT: After returning to commercial sales following a break of 10 years.

Ali has been continually fascinated to see how the profession has moved forward commercially and what opportunities are available to further enhance the VN's career. This article is written reflecting memories of Ali's early experiences of animal nursing and how it is viewed today.

Dogs, dogs, dogs. I was dog mad and all I ever wanted to do was work with animals. After a succession of pets, including: Mervyn, the smelly mouse; Sarah, the (male) gerbil; Barney, the cat; Freddy and Freda, the goldfish; Billy and Topsy, the guinea pigs; and Romeo, the white rabbit from Stratford upon Avon (note the Shakespearian link – not bad for an eight-year-old!), my parents finally agreed to my having a dog.

On my 12th birthday, we went to the RSPCA Kennels to “look only"… and came home with Cindy, a four-month Collie cross. She was an absolute dream and over the years was quite simply walked off her legs – firstly because of the novelty factor, then because 1 found that walking in all weathers was actually a very pleasurable experience and, in her later years, she was an excuse for me to rendezvous with boys in the local park!

Bitten by the bug

I was given the opportunity to ‘see practice’ at our local veterinary practice and took up the offer 101 per cent by going every Monday, Wednesday and Friday after school, every Saturday morning, and every-and-any other opportunity during school holidays. So, eventually, I became a bit of a permanent fixture, all the time gaining valuable experience.

It was a small, three-vet practice plus a receptionist. The receptionist helped with all aspects of the practice, including theatre routine. Her experience was her qualification. The practice was not a Training Centre, very few were.

My careers officer at school didn’t even have Animal Nursing Auxiliary (ANA) listed so, floundering somewhat, she kept telling me that I wanted to be a vet. No I didn’t. I provided the school with the

limited literature that was available from the RCVS and, whilst the British Animal Nursing Auxiliaries Association (BANAA) existed, I had no idea where to start looking for it. Everything was done by contacting the GPO Directory Enquiries. It was the only way to find an address or a telephone number.

I read in the local paper that an ANA from a nearby town had received the highest marks in her Final ANA Exam and somehow, goodness knows how other than through sheer determination,

I found an address and wrote to this prestigious lady asking for tips on getting into a training practice. She was my idol and I wanted to be where she was.

I was still seeing practice locally, but an invitation was extended to go and have a look at the junior partner’s previous practice – in the metropolis of Birmingham. The visit turned out to be an interview and 1 was fortunate to secure a position as a trainee ANA.

So my real life within the veterinary profession began and I am still here, in a slightly different role, 35 years on (although you wouldn’t know it to look at me!).

Driven by enthusiasm

As a trainee I had to work every other night and every other weekend, whereas the head nurse worked 9am – 5pm and the occasional Saturday morning. Our shifts were Monday to Thursday, 2pm – 2pm; if we were due to work the weekend, it was Friday 2pm to Monday 2pm.

We worked the afternoon clearing the theatre, preparing for afternoon and evening surgery, answering the phones, doing reception. After evening surgery, which supposedly finished at 7pm, the duty nurse would tidy the two consulting rooms, flush through syringes and prepare them for autoclave sterilisation the next day. We would sweep, mop and finally fall into a seat for a much overdue meal at around 9pm.

No cordless phones – the telephone was a dash down a corridor were it was fixed to a wall. If our food went cold, so be it, because there was no microwave to reheat it. Come to think of it, there was no heat for our own comfort, just a gas fire in the sparse lounge. No ‘live’ pause on the TV – and Yes, someone did phone just seconds before JR was shot and so i missed the highest-viewed TV programme of probably the decade!

Washing of dog blankets and nurses’ clothes was done by hand in the enamel bath and denim jeans would take a week to dry outside in the winter – hanging on the line above the body bins! In the summer, the jeans absorbed the aroma wafting up from the same bins!

Coming of age

The practice had extremely high standards and it was wonderful grounding for me, even though at the time it seemed rather strict. We carried out all duties much the same as is the case today, but perhaps with considerably less ‘high-tech’ equipment. The Boyles anaesthetic machine was efficient and used in a consulting room which was the second theatre, used for dirty ops such as dentals or minor lump removals.

Our head nurse was way ahead of her time when she identified the significant body heat loss during anaesthesia and we started using polystyrene pads covered in autoclave bags to reduce this heat loss.

We saw improved recovery time and implemented this as routine procedure.

I spent a valuable 3Vi years at this very busy practice, working alongside two trainees, the head nurse, three vets and a receptionist. I learnt about life, seeing how some people live (on the occasional house visit), seeing the absolute devotion that most owners have to their pets, as well as the neglect that some endure. Not once did I see a fight in the waiting room between dogs and cats; but I did experience a punch-up between two clients!

We had success stories, we had losses – including a lady who collapsed in reception and died despite our attempts to resuscitate her. Our facilities were modern for their time and we were grateful for the £14.22 per week ‘take- home’ pay.

From Brum to BCA

My ‘Prelim’ academic training was at a college in Birmingham city centre, every Thursday afternoon. Bright-eyed, young, enthusiastic trainees travelled considerable distances to attend the lectures as such opportunities were few and far between. Our lectures were presented by local vets – some in great detail, others reading from a book, parrot fashion. Fortunately for me, the most boring lecture was the last one and this 1 often skipped to go late night shopping in Birmingham. Naturally not something that, as a responsible manager, 1 would endorse now!

At the time, there were two residential courses – one at the Berkshire College of Agriculture (BCA) and the other at Stafford. As Stafford had only opened that year, I decided to follow the practice tradition of going to the BCA for three months to study for my ‘Finals’. My time flew by and, along with my lectures, 1 gained experience in seeing a variety of local practices. I did a spot of sheep shearing, milking and considerable team building with the 11 other nurses who spanned the two courses – ably supported by 150 or so ‘agrics’.

It was at the BCA that I first experienced the BANAA when the 12 ANAs on the two courses were invited to the association’s AGM that was in its second year at the venue. I seem to recall a delegation of maybe around 100 auxiliaries – the term nurse was still protected by the Royal College of Nurses. There were perhaps half a dozen commercial companies, all of whom are now no longer in existence or whose names have changed beyond recognition today.

Ali (fifth right) at Summerlease Veterinary Surgery in 1979

Fully fledged professional

Shortly after qualifying, I moved to a mixed practice in Berkshire which was a further enrichment of experiences, as well as an introduction into mixed practice and all that it brings with it. There was a washing machine – albeit shared with dog blankets – but it meant that clothes and blankets had a much-improved drying time (even if I did find the occasional cat faeces caught up in my own washing!).

Body bins were replaced by a wooden shed that housed a chest freezer, and every other night on duty was extended to one in three, along with 1 -in-3 weekend shifts. Still no cordless phone, but a smaller flat meant that one could reach over to pick up the phone rather than having to do the corridor dash.

The practice was of similar standing to the one in which I had worked previously and had moved with the times. We were among the early users of cryosurgery and then we hit the big time with a dental descaler. No more building the biceps to scrape relentlessly at stubborn plaque; a light touch of the vibrating probe and the plaque came away without any argument.

The practice had a visiting cardiologist and so we were amongst the few that had an ECG machine. At the time there was minimal specialisation and vets had to be experts’ in every field.

Dogs had itchy skins, dogs had skin lesions and they all got a blanket treatment of steroid and antibiotics. We were fortunate to have a visiting dermatologist and very quickly discovered that actually finding the cause of a skin problem helped considerably in its long-term management! Sensitivity testing was carried out and appropriate treatment prescribed. However, dietary management had still not been introduced to the UK market.

Generic drugs were used where there were no veterinary alternatives, and it was unheard of to use a generic, instead of a veterinary licensed, product. But that soon changed as companies brought to our attention the minimal cost of a generic compared to a branded product. Reps came and went and quite understandably tried their utmost to point out the money invested in research and product development on the licensed products.

Baptised into BANAA

It was at this time that 1 started to look at the BANAA and what it offered. I felt that the £5 annual membership fee was extortionate, but my rumblings were soon pounced on by BANAA Council with the comment, “Let’s get her on board and see what she can, and will, do for the future of our profession". Never one to walk away from a challenge, I was duly elected to Council as well as becoming a branch co-ordinator in one fell swoop.

I organised regular local branch meetings with a variety of speakers and had tremendous support from all over Berkshire, Oxfordshire and even Hertfordshire. Many speakers were from commercial companies and little known at the time – now 1 see their names emblazoned in veterinary history as significant authorities in their own right.

BANAA Council was held at BVA headquarters in Mansfield Street,

London, and offered me a brilliant learning curve as to procedure, politics and working as a small team to enhance the role of the Animal Nursing Auxiliary.

The magnificent BVNA and the role of the Veterinary Nurse that we see today was a dim and extremely optimistic goal that we each had for the future. I sat on the Working Committee for a Statutory Register and learned the protocols of procedure and that things simply do not change overnight.

We discussed the possibility of further qualification and maybe specialisation into specific areas such as anaesthesia, radiography, critical care. Dog behaviour was in its early days and not yet considered a part of veterinary practice. Homoeopathy was practised, to my knowledge, by one veterinary surgeon in the UK, whilst acupuncture, physiotherapy and hydrotherapy were light years away.

As representatives of the BANAA, we would take ourselves to major veterinary events at our own discretion – no formal invitation – and at our own expense with the sole purpose of heightening the presence and value of the Registered Animal Nursing Auxiliary. All this time we were referred to as Registered, but we had no register!

I felt honoured when I was elected as Chairman of the BANAA and during my first year we saw the name change from Registered Animal Nursing Auxiliary to Veterinary Nurse. And with that the association had a name change to British Veterinary Nursing Association.

Wider horizons

During my time with the BVNA, I was fortunate to meet with many young and enthusiastic veterinary surgeons, veterinary nurses and members of the animal health industry. It is an absolute delight to see so many still working within, or closely related to, the profession.

I worked towards forging links with veterinary nurses and technicians overseas – not having a clue how I would ever raise the cash to meet with them; but in my head I wanted to see an International Veterinary Nursing Association. All communication by snail mail, of course, so replies would take weeks and weeks.

I worked on the Newsletter and could only dream that one day it would aspire to the well respected publication that VNI is today.

I continued my fascination with commercial product research and development, leaving veterinary practice to join a veterinary wholesaler. Veterinary Nurses as reps were considered to be a valuable asset as they understood veterinary practice and were able to put their selling skills in to action through hands-on experience. Over the years the industry started to see more and more VNs come on board – often nurses who needed more challenges, whilst the opportunity of an advanced diploma was still a long way off.

My experience on BVNA Council, along with my ‘repping’ skills, allowed me to speak with confidence on a subject that I adored. I was invited to partake in the ‘Receptionists Rule roadshows and we spoke at numerous venues across the UK. It was very much a forerunner to practice management and I am delighted to have been involved in it.

I sweet-talked’ companies into taking nurses to see their manufacturing plants in Amsterdam, Ghent and Brussels. I was keen for fellow nurses to understand how the product that they used as a matter of routine actually reached the shelf in the first place – and I am not meaning that it was through an order from the wholesaler!

I wanted nurses to understand that a company would invest thousands of pounds in product development, that so many prototypes were ‘binned’ after such expenditure – not because of non effectiveness, but because a competitor had got there ahead of them, licensed the product and there would be no opportunity to compete for five years or more.

I wanted nurses to learn about the developmental stages, about the research, about the launch, the advertising, getting it to the wholesaler and finally onto the practice shelf. I wanted nurses to appreciate that the little bottle that they held in their hand, or the tiny tablet that was only a few pence worth of drug, had huge sums of money behind it in order to help in the treatment of the animals that we hold so dear.

Our trip to Gist Brocades also features our current BVNA president, Sue Badger (far right). VNJ associate editor, Jean Turner (third right) and Kathy Kissick (fourth right) – Myerscough College course tutor

Pioneering days

As a wholesaler, we needed to grow our business in more than just customer service and we identified waiting room sales as the way forward. After all, we carried the stock, so the investment would be minimal; but we needed to sell this commercial concept to the veterinary surgeon, who was struggling with his own identity that he was a vet not a businessman (quoted many a time to me, not my judgement!).

I was given the task to think of a name for this new business venture and then take it to practices. It is true to say that I, almost, got physically kicked out of a practice for having such an absurd idea! Many scoffed – but who’s laughing now?!

Meanwhile the veterinary profession was having its first exposure to the benefits of dietary management. The introduction to the UK market of prescription diets was a whole new concept and vets and nurses alike were educated as to the benefits of nutrition. From where I was standing it took the veterinary profession by storm and wholesalers were left with the dilemma that they either needed to house this bulk food or miss out on a very valuable share of the market.

My experience in the commercial field diversified as I joined a vaccine manufacturer, a whole new world compared to selling a wholesale service, lust as many challenges but in different ways.

Ali in theatre in 1981

Alis badges

Cultivating congress

During this time, I was still working hard at promoting the BVNA in any and every way that I could. By now the reins had been ably passed on to a brilliant president and the association continued to flourish. I was on the Congress Sub-Committee and took responsibility for the Commercial Exhibition. We had moved the venue from the BCA to Stoneleigh – and with their delegates numbers increased.

The BVNA Congress was beginning to be seen as a significant event within the veterinary calendar. The congress extending initially from one day to two, and then to three, days; whilst lectures became more diverse, workshops were introduced and the commercial exhibition boasted a waiting list of a dozen or more companies wanting to be part of the second largest commercial exhibition in the congress year. 

Somewhere amongst all this, the BVNA took the decision to take on one full-time member of staff and to rent an office. Our then treasurer, who lived in Harlow, was appointed to the position and suitable premises were located. That is why the BVNA HQ is in Harlow!

Somewhere amongst all this, the BVNA took the decision to take on one full-time member of staff and to rent an office. Our then treasurer, who lived in Harlow, was appointed to the position and suitable premises were located. That is why the BVNA HQ is in Harlow! It was also fairly convenient for the newly opened M25 and the surrounding road network made it relatively easy to access.

Meanwhile, word processors hit the market and I remain indebted to Jerry from Petplan for donating this magnificent piece of equipment to me as Commercial Exhibition Organiser. No more would I have to type endless pages of words only to find a ‘typo’ that would have been unprofessional to Tippex out.

I could, with this ingenious machine, make as many mistakes as I liked, correct them and no one would be any the wiser! And best of all it didn’t type off the end of the piece of paper – marvellous!

Another great (missed) opportunity for the BVNA was to have a celebrity open our congress. The great Noel Edmunds was available and would have been financed by one of the exhibiting companies; but, sadly, it was considered to be too commercial for our event.

Mr Edmunds did draw attention as he was present on the company’s stand as a ‘feature’, but sadly not centre stage!

However, in time the BVNA realised that having notable names might work to its benefit, and we were delighted when the much-adored Johnny Morris (of Animal Magic fame) accepted an invitation to officially open the BVNA Congress some years later. We now see many a famous name linked to the association and I believe that it can only help to further promote the profession.

Meanwhile, back on the road

I had now moved on to selling specialised diets and was fascinated by how much the profession had learnt, benefitted from, and embraced the whole concept of dietary management. And here I was in direct competition with the company that had introduced the whole scenario in the first place, some five years earlier.

A natural maternal break took me away from the veterinary profession for 10 years, I returned (selling another brand of dog food) to find that companies had changed names, graduates were now senior partners or clinical directors, nurses were busier than ever and had more responsibility than ever before. And something new – the ‘Practice Manager’ was installed and running the practice like a tight ship, to everyone’s ultimate benefit.

BVNA membership had grown enormously, computers were standard in practice. A commercial rep no longer had to drive around searching for a functioning telephone box – he or she now had a mobile phone. No longer did we have to search for public conveniences because there were retail parks and superstores that provided us with much welcome relief.

There were however, downsides. There were no longer the free wine glasses, soup mugs, cutlery, picnic rugs or chocolates with every £6 of petrol purchased. It had become more difficult to secure an appointment with the ‘buyer’ in a practice; it had become more difficult to get to that appointment on time; it had become more difficult to get about because, despite improved road networks, there was just so much more traffic, more congestion, and none of us have a road map in our heads anymore because we all rely on the ‘sat nav’!

That having been said, some things never change – I still find practices enthusiastic to try my new innovative product, yet getting them to actually use it is near as nigh impossible! So reminiscent of the early days when waiting room sales were frowned upon and change would only happen when one was good and ready.

How things have changed!

Plain, simple, white, open-weave bandage is outsold by conforming and cohesive bandages in a variety of colours and patterns, and elastic adhesive bandage now comes in different presentations including reverse wound and waterproof. Cotton wool is graded, needles and syringes are numerous and disposable. Stethoscopes have novelty chest pieces, sterilisation is by pressure, dry heat, wet heat, chemical, gas in any size of vessel that you care to use; X-ray processing is done in seconds and the machine no longer is a relic from a closed local hospital, but is as portable and beautifully new as you wish it to be; cages are stainless steel; pharmacy fridges clear door, lockable door, opaque, auto defrost, small or large; theatre gowns are green, blue, white, burgundy, grape or patterned, scrub tops, scrub bottoms, clogs are all the rage; stock control is computerised, appointments are computerised, records are computerised, vets’ cars remain a working office!

Trypsin tests no longer require a carefully measured one g
ram of highly smelly faeces; feline leukaemia tests are done in minutes and not in hours; blood screening is in-house, blood typing has been identified, whole blood remains valuable, blood volume expanders have their place and what’s all this about dog parking facilities?

Hey! We have male Veterinary Nurses, homoeopathic vets, holistic practices, acupuncture, hydrotherapy, nutritionists, puppy parties, counsellors, behaviourists, physiotherapists, dermatologists, cardiologists, oncologists, orthopaedic specialists. We have emergency critical care practices, referral practices, group practices, franchises, nurse-owned establishments, waiting room sales, practice shops, an International Veterinary Nurses & Technicians Association, an array of Advanced Diplomas, a Statutory Register, a VN Committee, a VN Awarding Body, VN Regulatory Committee, an Education Committee, a Congress Committee, working parties and sub-committees.

Practices are branch, single, multi-, accredited, tiered and independent. The list goes on – with associations large and small, equine, pig and cattle but, for me, best of all we have the BVNA which has held its head high, has been driven by enthusiasts, has been supported by almost every VN, and is respected by all.

“Thank you” BVNA for carving me into the person I am today. 


Ali Deas VN

Ali has worked within the veterinary sector for over 35 years, she qualified as a Registered Animal Nursing Auxiliary in 1978. With experience in small animal and mixed practice Ali was well positioned to take her experience into commerce. Her commercial experience covers many areas including veterinary wholesaling, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, equipment, consumables and nutrition. Ali is currently employed as Product Manager by Nurtured Pets.

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2010.00018.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 26 pp 62-66

• VOL 26 • February 2011 • Veterinary Journal