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B.C. animal hospital brings on full-time social worker for staff, pet owners

The social worker supports both staff and pet owners, whether that's in difficult conversations or having a counselling session after losing a furry friend.

A B.C. veterinary hospital has hired a full-time social worker to prioritize staff members' mental health and provide care to grieving pet owners. 

Natalie Cruz formerly worked in a hospital setting in in-patient psychiatry and emergency departments but has now been with Boundary Bay Veterinary Specialty Hospital for over a month.

"It’s very much needed. It’s a field that a lot of social workers don’t know that there is a possibility to do this and support veterinary staff and the owners,” she says.

Cruz, who holds a master’s degree in social work, hopes more veterinary hospitals will adopt her position. 

“I support them in dealing with grief and support. They’re also dealing a lot of euthanizations, so speaking to them and debriefing them after, supporting them in difficult conversations with owners with diagnosis,” she explains. 

For the pet owners, Cruz supports them with grief and loss support, short-term counselling and psycho-education around some of the feelings surrounding losing a pet. 

Not only is she working as a social worker for the more than 150 staff at the hospital but she’s developing a whole social work program where she hopes to add more roles in the future. 

"I am excited, but of course, it is a bit nerve-racking,” says Cruz.

The hospital is hailing the position as a first in B.C. 

"From what we know in B.C., I am the first in-house, full-time veterinary social worker at a specialty hospital,” she says. "It’s super new here. There are a couple of different veterinary social workers across Canada, from what I know right now I would be the third in Canada.”

Dr. Tiffany Jagodich has been working as a veterinarian at Boundary Bay for four years and has been in the field for eight. The new role is something she welcomes and is grateful for. 

"There is a very high need in our industry for mental health support for both the client and for us as staff members,” she says. "We are a specialty hospital and we see the sickest of the sick and so having her here when things take a turn really quickly, really is a blessing."

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a heavy burden on the industry and, according to Jagodich, many veterinarians have left the field. 

"The pandemic brought even higher caseloads, and lower staffing numbers both due to illness and people leaving the industry. The need is so, so high,” she says. 

Puppy and pet purchasing during the pandemic skyrocketed and Jagodich says they saw more and more patients every day. 

“We are trained in the medicine and we have some communication training, but not a lot of emotional support or mental health training and so having someone there to support us and the clients really gives us even more time to see even more patients,” she says. 

Cruz's hope is staff and pet owners have someone to speak to without judgment. 

“At the end of the day, I really hope that people don’t feel like they’re alone here, whether that is the owners or the staff,” she tells Glacier Media.

Currently, she’s working four days on and four days off, while being available for emergencies. 

"I hope that this just opens the door for British Columbia and other veterinarian offices here to maybe implement a veterinary social worker. It is needed."