Care for the care-givers – the role of a veterinary social worker

Warning: This article contains language about euthanasia.

Veterinary medicine, particularly specialty emergency and critical care medicine at a hospital like Boundary Bay Veterinary Specialty Hospital, can be stressful and traumatic for both pet owners and for the veterinarians who treat the animals.

As an occupation, veterinarians have higher levels of stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, anxiety and depression, and reported more suicidal ideation than Canadians generally, according to a study conducted by researchers in the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC).

Pet owners who bring their animals to our hospital are often faced with difficult news and challenging decisions to make about their animal’s care, and unfortunately sometimes must make the devastating decision to euthanize their companion animal.

At Boundary Bay Veterinary Specialty Hospital (BBVSH), we have hired an on-site, veterinary social worker to help support both staff and clients. Natalie Cruz’s role is to support staff and pet owners as they cope with the realities that occur in a veterinary specialty and emergency animal hospital.

Natalie works both as a veterinary social worker for BBVSH and as a social worker in the human emergency department of a local hospital. Our staff at BBVSH have come to value Natalie as an integral part of the team and of staff culture, and a key resource to help manage the complexities of dealing with the difficult cases our staff often see. As well, many of our clients have built a supportive and trusting relationship with Natalie long after their pet has left the care of BBVSH. Natalie is the pet parent of a husky-lab named Timber, who is also a blood donor at BBVSH.

In honour of National Social Worker month, we sat down for a Q&A with Natalie to learn more about her expertise and her role as a veterinary social worker.

Most people are familiar with what a social worker does in human medicine. What is similar or different about your role in the world of veterinary medicine?

I think the biggest difference is that you are working with providing support to people who are going through immense stress and strong emotions about their family pets, and that adds a different layer to things. However, whether I’m in a veterinary hospital or a human hospital, I am still dealing with people, and in that way the work is the same – to provide a safe space to be vulnerable and discuss the immense feelings that come with difficult diagnosis or end of life decision.

Just like in human medicine, a social worker role in a veterinary setting can look different depending in what kind of setting you work in. There are social workers that work in animal humane societies, veterinary school settings, etc.

Social workers in both human and veterinary medicine provide psychosocial assessments, grief counselling, quality of life discussions, crisis counselling, suicide assessment and prevention, and clinical interventions. Sometimes people simply need the time to process information and a social worker can support them in that journey.

In my role at BBVSH, I am developing and maintaining a social work program. BBVSH has expanded quite quickly in recent years, and with that growth, there’s a higher need for someone to support pet owners and staff with difficult medical decisions or grief and loss that comes with working in a setting that commonly sees crisis and life and death situations.

You’ve been in this role now for almost two years. How has the role evolved? What have you learned?

The role has evolved and changed significantly since I started, and I have adapted to the needs of both staff and clients as those needs became apparent. That is part of this role – to be able to meet people where they are at and walk alongside them during difficult times – it’s my personal motto as well. This is a role that holds a safe space for staff and pet owners to explore and work through some of the difficult emotions that they’re going through. I provide a non-judgmental place for them to share how they are feeling with me, and I am here to provide support to them on that journey.

Everyone comes from different walks of life and has their own personal struggles. I allow time for people to process what they are feeling and are going through. For example, I’ve dealt with people with feelings of guilt, and I allow space and try to help them process and understand their feelings.

It has been a big learning curve for me over the past two years; veterinary medicine is so complex. It has been nice to be able to build a relationship with staff and support them through difficult times. It brings me happiness to know that pet owners have someone they can process their feelings and emotions with even after they leave through the hospital doors.

Boundary Bay’s motto is ‘moments matter’, which means striving to give pet owners more good moments with their four-legged family member. What kind of moments do you hope to enhance or ease here at Boundary Bay?

I think those especially difficult times where families are considering euthanasia, I want to let them know that they can sit in that room for an extra hour, if they want to, until they’re ready to make a decision, or perhaps they want to take their pet home for a little bit more time with them. I think this is really important; these are the profound moments that I think matter the most. I have also personally been through the loss of a pet. People are going to have different ideas about quality of life, so I think it’s important to meet them where they are at, because that’s what their truth is.

What specific support does a Veterinary Social Worker provide for pet owners?

I provide support for pet owners around:

  • Difficult conversations around diagnoses/euthanasia
  • Emotional support
  • Resources
  • Domestic Violence Assessment
  • Trauma Intervention
  • Animal Abuse
  • Follow-up with them once discharged if staff have identified a need
  • Grief & Loss Support
  • Mental Health & Substance Use
What specific support does a Veterinary Social Worker provide for BBVSH staff?

I’m there for staff for issues like:

  • Compassion fatigue & burnout
  • Stress management
  • Debriefing after a difficult case
  • Attending a meeting with pet owners/families if needed
  • Educational seminars
  • Conflict Management
  • Emotional Support
  • Mental health & substance use concerns
  • Life stressors
  • Short term counselling or resources
  • Domestic Violence
How can pet owners or staff request your support or participation?

Pet owners can let their BBVSH veterinarian know they would like me to follow-up with them. At times, the veterinarians and staff will ask me to sit in a meeting with a client and their animal. My hours do vary, but staff are always welcome to come to my office or email me. Staff, RDVMs or pet owners can also reach me at .

More Resources…

If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health, there are free and confidential resources available through Wellness Together Canada. Or visit the Government of Canada mental health website for other resources available in your area. There are also resources available through the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.

Bell Canada Let’s Talk also has some great resources and check out this Canadian Living mental health resources roundup.

If you’re in immediate danger or need urgent medical support, call 911.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call Talk Suicide Canada at 1-833-456-4566. Support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


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