What makes a veterinary nurse an oncology veterinary nurse? - Veterinary Practice
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What makes a veterinary nurse an oncology veterinary nurse?

“Oncology veterinary nursing is a specialised field of veterinary medicine that addresses the unique needs of animals diagnosed with cancer and involves a wide range of responsibilities”

Oncology nursing is a specialised field of veterinary medicine that focuses on providing care to animals diagnosed with cancer. This multifaceted role requires a deep understanding of cancer, its treatments and the physical and emotional challenges that patients and their families face.

This article explores what oncology nursing involves, including:

  • the key responsibilities
  • the skills and knowledge required
  • the emotional aspects of the work
  • the importance of this developing area of veterinary care

What makes an oncology veterinary nurse?

Just as in human oncology nursing, oncology veterinary nurses (abbreviated here to OncVNs) are a critical component in providing comprehensive and compassionate cancer care. Their responsibilities are diverse, ranging from facilitating diagnostics and administering treatments, to emotional support and education for pet owners.

Oncology veterinary nurses are a critical component in providing comprehensive and compassionate cancer care

Most importantly, oncology nurses play a pivotal role in determining the unique needs of each patient. Part of this is their involvement in the creation of an individualised care plan, which supports the patient throughout their cancer journey.

FIGURE (1) Preparing chemotherapy in a biosafety cabinet using a closed system transfer device

Key responsibilities of oncology nurses

  • Assisting with diagnostics: OncVNs support the veterinarian during the investigation process. This may include sampling/biopsy, imaging and laboratory testing, often requiring patients to be monitored under sedation or anaesthesia. These procedures aid with the identification of the type and extent of disease, which then helps determine treatment option(s)
  • Administration of treatments: there are a range of treatments available for animals with cancer, including radiation therapy, immunotherapy and surgical intervention, among others. OncVNs are mostly responsible for administering chemotherapeutics, which requires a deep understanding of specific protocols and the safe handling of these hazardous drugs (Figure 1)
  • Monitoring and managing side effects: just like humans, animals can experience treatment-related side effects such as nausea, gastrointestinal disturbance, anorexia and fatigue when undergoing cancer treatment. Together with the owner, OncVNs help identify these symptoms and, in liaison with the veterinarian, provide guidance on medications to help improve the patient’s treatment experience
  • Quality of life assessment: health and emotional well-being is the priority when caring for animals with cancer. Using specially designed questionnaires and validated tools, OncVNs help owners quantify the behaviours that are markers of ill health, pain, distress or deterioration. OncVNs can offer advice on at-home care and environmental adaptations to promote comfort and maintain the human–animal bond. They also help recognise when interventional treatments are not working – an indicator that further advice should be sought from the veterinarian
  • Client education: many people have a preconception that veterinary oncology care mirrors human cancer care, so assume animals will have a similar experience. Therefore, owners often need guidance and support to understand their pet’s diagnosis and the treatment options available to them. OncVNs help communicate information on the disease, treatment plan and supportive care methods
  • Emotional support: looking after an animal with cancer can be emotionally taxing for the pet owner. OncVNs provide a compassionate presence throughout the animal’s cancer journey and are on hand to address any concerns or questions the owner may have. They are well-equipped to connect struggling owners with onward professional services
  • End-of-life care: like hospice care in humans, some OncVNs aid with the provision of end-of-life care, which focuses on reducing suffering and maintaining the quality of life for patients with advanced cancer. This is a challenging part of the role, commanding the development of a good relationship with the family to manage the patient’s symptoms and facilitate end-of-life planning during what can be an emotionally distressing time
  • Patient assessment and care planning: regardless of the stage or advancement of cancer, OncVNs are largely responsible for assessing the patient’s physical and well-being needs periodically throughout the patient’s journey. OncVNs play a key role in the development of individualised care plans, which address areas of discomfort, pain or treatment side effects. They work closely with the patient families and the veterinarian care team towards the common goal of ultimately preserving quality of life and maintaining the human–animal bond

Skills and knowledge

Oncology veterinary nursing requires a distinctive set of skills and knowledge base, including:

FIGURE (2) Case discussion of patient with nasal mass imaged by computed tomography scan
  • Clinical expertise: OncVNs need a thorough understanding of different types of cancer, how each disease may present and progress, and the treatment options available. Veterinary oncology is an evolving branch of veterinary medicine, so OncVNs must stay up to date with current medical advancements to provide the best care to their patients
  • Technical ability: administering cancer treatments requires skill and precision – a thorough understanding of the drug or treatment prescribed, how to safely administer the treatments, how to respond to complications and intricate phlebotomy technique are essential
  • Animal handling: cancer treatment requires multiple hospital visits. Competence in recognising aversive and fearful behaviour prompts and the ability to adapt to the patient’s needs will allow for smooth, safe and uneventful treatment experiences for the animal
  • Communication skills: oncology veterinary nurses need to convey complex medical information and sometimes upsetting news to pet parents. Those in the role need a steady and understandable manner
  • Teamwork: oncology nurses advocate for patients’ needs, therefore ensuring they receive appropriate care. This means nurses in this field work closely with the entire veterinary team (Figure 2). Collaboration with veterinary professionals is key to providing holistic care
  • Compassion and empathy: dealing with pet owners who are faced with their companion’s cancer diagnosis requires exceptional empathy and sensitivity. These cases require OncVNs to have good listening and understanding skills as well as the ability to signpost clients to onward support as needed
  • Self-care: witnessing the impact of cancer on animals and the distress it causes their families can be emotionally challenging. Nurses who enter this field need to have mechanisms to decompress and support themselves so that they are at their professional and emotional best for their patients

The importance of oncology veterinary nursing

Cancer is mostly, though not exclusively, a disease of old age. As veterinary medicine continues to evolve, access to and the demand for enhanced veterinary healthcare is resulting in companion animals living longer and, potentially, a higher prevalence of cancer in our patients. Given the value companion animals hold for people, more pet owners are seeking cancer care treatment. This makes oncology nursing a relevant and expanding area of our profession.

Oncology veterinary nurses ultimately play a pivotal role in improving the well-being of their patients, as well as offering hope and comfort to pet families during challenging times

Oncology veterinary nursing is a crucial part of enhancing the quality of life and overall outcomes for pets with cancer. The expertise and compassion of nurses who choose to develop in this area of veterinary medicine contribute to improved patient care, better symptom management and an increased understanding of the disease among pet owners. Oncology veterinary nurses ultimately play a pivotal role in improving the well-being of their patients, as well as offering hope and comfort to pet families during challenging times.


In summary, oncology veterinary nursing is a specialised field of veterinary medicine that addresses the unique needs of animals diagnosed with cancer and involves a wide range of responsibilities. The skills and knowledge OncVNs require is extensive, and the emotional aspect of this profession is both rewarding and demanding.

Oncology veterinary nurses are essential in providing the best possible care and support for pets and their owners during their cancer journey. These contributions not only enhance the quality of life for pets but also offer comfort to those who love them.

Further information

If you are interested in exploring this area of veterinary nursing, Figure 3 provides five steps to gaining more information on becoming an oncology veterinary nurse.

FIGURE (3) How to gain more information on becoming an OncVN

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