SINGAPORE - When a dog escaped from its owner outside Island Veterinary Clinic in Jurong last year, senior veterinary nurse Apple Neo and two of her colleagues went on a two-hour chase.
While the owner, feeling tired, gave up halfway, Ms Neo ran onto the road to prevent the dog from being hit by cars.
The clinic staff expected the owner to show relief and some appreciation to them when they managed to trap and return the dog to her. Instead, they were blamed for the dog's escape.
"There are many times (on this job) that no matter how much we contribute, we don't get appreciated," said Ms Neo, 33, who has been a vet nurse for about 13 years.
Demanding humans aside, she has also been scratched by aggressive and skittish animals, with one scratch needing medical attention.
Last month, Ms Neo received the inaugural Veterinary Nurse and Technician of the Year award, alongside another vet nurse, Mr Arvind Anandamohan, 29.
The award was given out by the Singapore Veterinary Nurses and Technicians Chapter (SVNTC) under the Singapore Veterinary Association (SVA), and pet food company Royal Canin Singapore.
In Singapore, the terms "vet nurse" and "vet technician" are used interchangeably. Their duties, which are similar with those of a hospital nurse, include measuring animals' vital signs, inserting IV catheters and taking blood samples, running X-ray machines, and making sure the animals remain clean and calm.
But this somewhat invisible profession has been seeing a high turnover rate over the years due to long working hours, lack of career progression, lower salary and mental health challenges as a result of compassion fatigue, and sometimes, abuse from pet owners.
In addition, the profession is not well regulated. Many local vet nurses, like Ms Neo and Mr Arvind, learnt on the job and took certification courses a few years later. Others come in with a diploma in veterinary science from polytechnics.
Mr Arvind, an operations manager and vet nurse at Pets Avenue Veterinary Clinic in Farrer Road, joined the clinic about seven years ago, aspiring to become a vet.
Amid an ongoing national review to raise the standards of the vet sector here, the SVNTC, formed last year will lead the way in defining the competencies that are expected of vet nurses and technicians from day one of their job, said its co-chair, Dr Teo Boon Han.
It will also help to develop career progression frameworks for vet nurses in clinics, as well as in research, wildlife and livestock, he added.
There are between 800 and 1,200 vet nurses in Singapore.
Higher standards are key because the demand for vet nurses - especially specialised ones in geriatric and critical care - is rising as pets are living longer with better nutrition, diagnostics and treatment. "Pet owners need the support of competent veterinary nurses to provide palliative care for their geriatric pets in cases of chronic renal failure or cancer treatments," said Dr Teo.
Mr Arvind, who decided to put aside his ambition to become a vet and instead aims to pursue further studies in emergency vet nursing, said: "I want to do more for pets that come to us in critical condition, to stabilise them better and to enact any early intervention steps, such as animal CPR, that can save their lives."
Dr Teo added that when vet nurses can do higher-value tasks and contribute more effectively, it justifies a sustainable higher wage.
The starting pay of a vet nurse rarely exceeds $3,000.
Despite the challenges of the job, Ms Neo is staying on as a vet nurse as she is passionate about animals and because of the years of hard work she has put in to master her nursing skills and manage difficult pet owners.
To safeguard the mental health of his colleagues in the clinic, Mr Arvind regularly encourages mindfulness exercises to help them reduce stress.
When he notices a vet nurse or receptionist becoming frustrated, he will tell them to take a break or breathe before answering a phone call from a frantic pet owner.