Volunteering taught me to rely on my knowledge and my skills

Ellie Paton, vet nurse

Having qualified as a vet nurse, I initially decided to do locum work as it would offer me flexibility – I knew I wanted to travel and do voluntary work abroad.

I was introduced to the work of the Worldwide Veterinary Service (WVS) by a friend. I looked at the opportunities offered on its website, applied online and ended up spending two weeks in Malawi. Now, with a few trips under my belt – to Costa Rica and India, and several return trips to Malawi – I have made good friends with the WVS team both in the UK and abroad.

WVS offers volunteering opportunities for vets, vet nurses and lay people, in many different countries. Costs vary depending on the trip you choose and the website provides lots of information.

My trips to Malawi have been to the Blantyre Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Malawi is a rabies-endemic country and part of the aim of these placements is to neuter and rabies vaccinate as many cats and dogs as possible. This reduces the prevalence of the disease in animals and protects people too.

During my trips we usually worked five days a week, starting early in the morning (around 6 am), sometimes finishing as late as 7 pm, but the pace was relaxed. On our days off, we were encouraged to explore and see the sights. WVS would often arrange trips or activities for us.

'You need to be prepared to see and deal with extreme cases'

Volunteering abroad often involves the need to be prepared to see and deal with extreme cases. Conditions are often left a lot longer than we are used to in the UK because of a lack of knowledge and access to veterinary care.

Malawi’s dogs are incredibly resilient. It is rare to come across a dog without scars – the result of fights, burns or other injuries. Many Malawian dogs are kept for security reasons – as a deterrent to burglars. It is common to be presented with dogs suffering wounds resulting from machete attacks.

The worst case I experienced was a dog named Zebra. Zebra was missing his distal forelimb and his tail was hanging on by a skin flap. He was beautiful and very stoic – after an amputation and some tender loving care, he went home with a very grateful owner.

Tick infestation

This dog had a severe tick burden, which the owner thought was some kind of growth


Nearly all the dogs in Malawi are bred naturally and subject to natural selection, so the resulting population is a sturdy one. They are loyal and protective of their owners, and as a result they are an important part of the local culture. Although the relationship between animal and owner is different from what we are used to in the UK, it is still very special.

My own dog Savannah is Malawian born and bred. I met her on one of my first trips. Her owner brought her to the clinic after a suspected road traffic accident. She had a broken femur, but seemed otherwise unscathed. When I explained that the treatment was amputation, the owner opted for euthanasia, because he felt that a three-legged dog couldn’t be a competent guard for his property. He agreed to sign her over to the society. As she was a beautiful young dog with a lovely temperament, I was sure she would be rehomed in no time.

However, she was still there a year later. I liked her sassy character and she seemed to like to be with me whenever I was there, so I decided to adopt her.

Bringing her back to the UK was a bit of an ordeal, but she took to it like a true African and didn’t appear too bothered by the experience. A year on, you wouldn’t know she used to be a street dog that had to forage for food. It’s fair to say, she hasn’t looked back!

When I took on my permanent position as a neurology/ward nurse at Southern Counties Veterinary Specialists in Ringwood, Hampshire, I knew my travelling would have to be curtailed.

My dual role means splitting my time between two jobs, which offers plenty of variety. On the weeks I am working on the wards I am responsible for medicating and caring for our inpatients – such as postoperative orthopaedic cases or seizuring animals.

As part of the neurology team, I help to prepare animals and monitor them during MRI scanning. It is not unusual to complete several scans each day.

One of my favourite jobs is looking after highly dependent patients because they are often with us for a few weeks. This gives us an opportunity to really build a bond with them and help to make their stay as comfortable as possible. It’s always satisfying to see a patient recover and go home, having arrived in a potentially life-threatening state.

Despite being settled in a permanent job I do still get to Malawi when I can. My practice generously donates equipment and consumables to WVS, and is keen to support me in helping the charity whenever I can.

Here in the UK, we are privileged to have an abundance of equipment and facilities to hand when treating pets, but not everyone is so lucky. I have known some Malawians to get up at dawn and walk for hours to reach a clinic, and then queue all day to get treatment for their pet.

'Volunteering gives you a true experience of the country and the people you are helping'

I would highly recommend exploring volunteering opportunities. You will be working alongside people in the same situation, so you are never alone. You will be well looked after, and you will get a true experience of the country and the people you are helping.

Ellie's CV

2014: Qualified as a vet nurse from Harper Adams University

2014: Worked as a locum vet nurse

2014-present: Volunteer with the Worldwide Veterinary Service in Malawi

2018-: Neurology/ward nurse at Southern Counties Veterinary Specialists

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