Veterinary medicine: Compassion, empathy, and social work

Many, if not most, veterinarians have very difficult jobs.  I recently read an article by Lynne Testoni titled "Dr Alicia Kennedy on the importance of compassionate care"   In her essay, Testoni writes, "Dr. Alicia Kennedy is unique in also employing social workers. It’s all part of understanding the all-important bond between humans and their companion animals."


The joint work of veterinarians and social workers is important in promoting the well-being of the people and their non-human companions. I work with social workers on different aspects of the animal-human bond and animal and human well-being and I know how important they can be, and I'm pleased Alicia could answer a few questions about her unique approach to practicing veterinary medicine.  Alicia is also part of the Perfect Pets team, so this was a great opportunity to provide further insight into her passion and commitment to supporting the human-animal bond.  


18/02/2023 By Marc Bekoff
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Veterinary medicine: Compassion, empathy, and social work image

Marc Bekoff: You have developed a unique component to your practice involving social workers. Why did you do so and how has it helped you and your non-human and human clients get the best care possible?


Alicia Kennedy: Everything we do as an organization revolves around supporting the human-animal bond. The human-animal bond is a key driver in human health and well-being but it only reaches its potential when a companion animal is healthy and well. Much of our advocacy is in the space of why healthy companion pets benefit human health.


The role of companion animals in mental well-being and people is massive, as we know. Vets in practice see it every day, particularly post-pandemic, with the rise in social isolation, loneliness, disconnection, and disadvantage. The role that companion animals are playing in supporting people’s mental health has huge value.


I have always had an affinity for elderly clients and could see gaps in the system. My clients would tell me that they were unwell, and they weren’t going to tell their family or their doctor because they didn’t know what would happen to their dog if they had to go to hospital. So I wanted to find out what the community needed to do to support them so that they could go and get themselves healthy. Cherished Pets employs social workers who work with community organizations and clients to support them and their pets through various health crises, including emergencies, mental health issues, and domestic violence.


There’s been a huge amount of research on pets and domestic violence. Perpetrators of violence will often use companion animals as a tool for coercive control ("If you leave me, I’ll hurt the dog"). Vets play a role in reporting non-accidental injuries because it can actually lead to finding violence and abuse in the home. And most of the refuges don’t allow people to take pets with them, so women and children will choose to stay in an unsafe household rather than be separated from their pets and there’s often nowhere to put the pet. Our crisis care service is around solving that problem.


We get referrals from domestic violence agencies, drugs and alcohol, aged and disability care, mental health, even from the police. And if there’s a companion animal involved, we’ll get in there and coordinate a care plan. It is very challenging work, as we are dealing with complex scenarios. When people face the loss of or separation from their pet, and the bond is strong, emotions are heightened. Our approach is to be kind, empathetic and non-judgemental and to lean into compassion and community to create solutions. This is easier said than done, and the reason why engaging professional, qualified social workers is key.


Veterinary social work is an exciting emerging field at the intersection between animal health and human health.



MB: Do you think that working with social workers can help lessen the burden on practicing veterinarians?


Alicia Kennedy: Absolutely, yes indeed. There is no question that social workers reduce the load on veterinary teams. This is how:


  • The Vet Social Work (VSW) Team provides resources to support vets when faced with a complex human element that is impacting delivery of care.
  • Referral pathway for more complex cases.
  • Referral support for end of life situation.
  • Debriefing and supervising of vet teams, which is especially important in the first few years in practice and helps prevent an emotional toll.
  • Sharing the load across cases: vets can focus on managing the pet’s health, the VSW team manages the human health.


The social worker lens is one that seeks to understand and support humans through compassion, empathy and kindness, with clear boundaries in place; and free of judgement; to empower and build capability in people to manage their pet's health and wellbeing. I witness a “them and us” culture in the vet industry where clients are seen as the enemy. A Human-Animal-Bond (HAB) approach means that we are serving the pet and their human, and we are all part of a triangle of care.



A final note

This discussion reminded me of an interview I did with veterinarian Sean Wensley, who stressed the importance of compassionately connecting with all animals so that, for example, pet rabbits have companionship and horses have their 3Fs (Friendship, Freedom, and Forage) met, and of another with veterinarian Tanya Stephens about her book One Welfare in Practice: The Role of the Veterinarian about how veterinarians can help promote animal and human well-being.   Both worth looking at.



Psychology Today

Conversation with Dr. Alicia Kennedy, founder of Cherished Pets, a social veterinary enterprise that supports the human animal bond through all life stages, including the end. For more Social Hearted Veterinarians visit here:


1) B Lab is the nonprofit network transforming the global economy to benefit all people, communities, and the planet.


The Worlds of Animals Through the Eyes and Heart of a Vet.


Why Veterinary Education Needs Major Improvements.


Veterinarians Can Help Promote Animal and Human Well-being.



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