Meet Natalie Cruz: The first Veterinary Social Worker in BC

Meet Natalie Cruz: The first Veterinary Social Worker in BC

CTV News July 7th, 2022 story by Michele Brunoro

Boundary Bay Veterinary Specialty Hospital (BBVSH) has hired Natalie Cruz in the role of Veterinary Social Worker (VSW); the first role of its kind in British Columbia. The purpose of the role is to support both staff and pet owners as they cope with the realities that occur in a veterinary specialty and emergency animal hospital. Natalie previously practiced in the human emergency department of a local hospital. She’s also the pet parent of a rabbit named Gertrude and a dog named Timber. We sat down for a Q&A with Natalie to learn more about her expertise and what the role means to pet owners and  BBVSH staff.

Q&A 

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

Social workers in both human and veterinary medicine provide psychosocial assessments, grief counselling, quality of life discussions, crisis counseling, 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.  

Another similar thing is the emphasis on consent; I want to make sure that people are okay, that everyone feels safe and that they can accept or decline my involvement at any time.  

What’s different about veterinary social work compared to the human world? 

I’d say the biggest difference is simply how rare the role of VSW is in Canada. Because this is a new role, a lot of the veterinarians [here at Boundary Bay] are used to having these sensitive conversations by themselves without the aid of a trained social worker. A part of my new role as a VSW is supporting the staff with stressors and emotions that they deal with as part of their difficult job. This can express itself in the form of anxiety, burn-out, compassion fatigue, etc. I’m really excited about my role as a VSW; it’s a dream opportunity. I think the beauty about social work is that it is not defined as one role but rather supporting clients to navigate the difficulties that life presents us. 

BBVSH seems to be the first veterinary hospital in British Columbia to have a full-time veterinary social worker role. Why do you think there was a need here for such a role? 

This role at BBVSH is unique where I am developing and maintaining a social work program. I think 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 an emergency and specialty setting that commonly sees crisis and life and death situations.   

What kind of environment do you expect to see from having a Veterinary Social Worker here at BBVSH? 

For pet owners I hope that they feel well supported during difficult times with their loved pet. That they know there is someone who can have conversations with them who understands the grief process and the human animal bond. The hope would be that during crisis or trauma that the VSW could sit with families and provide crisis interventions. Finally, that there is someone who is able to follow-up once they have left the building and be reassured that they are not alone during this journey.   

Regarding staff support, the hope is that they have support with various challenges they face in veterinary medicine. I think, as professionals who are working long hours, exposed to traumatic incidents and regularly involved in difficult conversations, we tend to internalize the feelings and emotions that go along with it. Then we go home and it impacts our lives in different ways. This can cause burnout or anxiety or impacts our personal relationships. Instead, staff will have support when these incidents happen, I will be conducting debriefings after a traumatic incident, have an open-door policy where staff can confidentially speak to me if they need someone to talk to or find resources for different community services.  

What is your approach to the role of Veterinary Social Worker? 

I believe in walking alongside people during difficult times and meeting them where they are at; that’s my professional motto. Everyone comes from different walks of life and 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. Also, anytime I meet with pet owners or staff, I make it clear that our conversation is confidential with some limitations that I always disclose ahead of time. 

Do you think the mere existence of your role is a signal from the owners to its employees that they care? An acknowledgement that, especially in a specialty/ER hospital, staff deal with a lot? 

Yes. That’s one of the things that I said in my interview: the fact that Boundary Bay has found that there’s a need for this role just shows how much [the owners] care about what their staff and clients are dealing with. 

Do you have any pets? 

I have a lionhead rabbit, her name is Gertrude, and I have a husky/lab named Timber. They are both rescue animals. Gertrude is a sweet fluffy rabbit who likes to jump(binky) when excited. Timber is a sweet dog who loves all the attention and treats.  

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

I think especially those 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. 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’ll 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’ll be there for staff for issues like: 

  • Compassion fatigue & Burnout 
  • Life stressors, both work and personal life 
  • Stress management 
  • Debriefing  
  • Domestic Violence 
  • Educational seminars 
  • Conflict Management 
  • Emotional Support 
  • Attending a meeting with families if needed  
  • Mental Health & Substance Use Concerns   
  • Short term counselling or resources 

How can pet owners or staff request your participation in a given circumstance? 

Pet owners can let their BBVSH veterinarian know they would like VSW to follow-up with them. At times the veterinarians and staff will ask me to sit in a meeting. My hours do vary as I will be working evenings and weekends at times, but staff are always welcome to come to my office or email me. Staff, RDVMs or owners can reach me at ncruz@bbvsh.com . 

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