Dr Alicia Kennedy on the importance of compassionate care

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Dr Alicia Kennedy veterinarian
Dr Alicia Kennedy: “Everything that we do as an organisation revolves around supporting the human-animal bond.” Photography: Eamon Gallagher

Many practices have nurses and specialists on the books—but 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. By Lynne Testoni

For vet Dr Alicia Kennedy, compassion is the mantra that she lives and works by. Through her holistic veterinary clinic in regional Victoria, she is committed to preserving the bond between humans and animal, working with social workers and disadvantaged people to help them—and their pets—live longer, happier lives.

A vet for more than 35 years, Dr Kennedy operates a veterinary service and clinic called Cherished Pets, which aims to help people experience the benefits of healthy companion pets and a thriving human animal bond. 

As well as being a vet and mother, she’s been active in the volunteer community, joking that she suffers from “OVD (Obsessive Volunteering Disorder)” and counts world famous anthropologist Jane Goodall as a close friend, after working with her organisation, the Jane Goodall Institute, for many years. 

It’s a caring philosophy she has brought to her veterinary practice, located in Ocean Grove, near Geelong.

Cherished Pets operates as a regular general veterinary practice, but also has another section, a social enterprise that helps vulnerable groups in the community: the elderly, people living with disability, people fleeing domestic violence, people experiencing homelessness and those suffering mental health crises. 

The human-animal bond

“Everything that we do as an organisation revolves around supporting the human-animal bond,” she says. “The human-animal bond is a key driver in human health and wellbeing and a lot of our advocacy now is in the space as to why healthy companion pets benefit human health.”

Cherished Pets is a certified B Corp organisation, which is a global accreditation for ethical business practice. “Your business undergoes a rigorous assessment across five pillars,” explains Dr Kennedy. “And essentially what it means is you’re using business as a force for good. In fact, that’s the byline of B Corp, using business as force for good; that you are not just about making a profit, you’re very much profit-for-purpose, be that social benefits or environmental benefits. Your people and culture and the way you interact with your community are all areas that you’re assessed on. It’s not an easy certification to attain.

“The role of companion pets in mental wellbeing 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 really has huge value.” 

When you look at the contributing factors of burnout, it’s the people side of practice; it’s not actually the animals. And the social workers can navigate that territory. 

Dr Alicia Kennedy

Originally working in a mainstream veterinary practice, Dr Kennedy says she always had an affinity for her elderly clients and said she could see gaps in the system because of her clients’ love for their pets.

“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.”

Social connection

Cherished Pets employs social workers who work with community organisations and the 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,” she explains, adding that pets are part of the domestic violence landscape in three ways—perpetrators of domestic violence will often use pets as a tool for coercive control (‘If you leave me, I’ll hurt the dog’); animal cruelty; and crisis care for victims of domestic violence. 

“Vets often see injuries that could be non-accidental and there is a direct link between animal cruelty and abuse at home,” she says. “Vets can play a role in reporting non-accidental injuries because it can actually lead to finding violence. 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 will get referrals from domestic violence agencies, drugs and alcohol, mental health, even from the police. And if there’s a pet involved, we’ll get in there and coordinate. And of course, there’s lots of risks to managing this issue because it is, without question, the most difficult space to be working in.” 

One of the keys to all this work is the employment of social workers in the veterinary space. “Veterinary social work is that point of intersection between animal health and human health,” she explains. 

The Hub

Cherished Pets has what Dr Kennedy calls a community pet hub, which is where the vet social work team is based. Located next door to the regular general practice clinic, it is where the coordination of the program takes place.

Dr Alicia Kennedy veterinarian
Dr Kennedy recognised that elderly and disadvantaged clients needed support when caring for their pets.

“We provide a home pet care assistance community service, for the elderly and people with disabilities who need assistance to keep their pet healthy, such as dog walking or changing kitty litter trays. We have a community vet nurse who does the rounds and supports the health of pets at home by helping with medication, general health maintenance, face and bottom trims, clipping nails. A lot of our clients who get home service have mobility issues and can’t get their pets to care. The social workers coordinate the care, including volunteers to do the visits and the community vet nurse to do her rounds. We have volunteers who transfer pets from home to the clinic or to the groomers or wherever.

“And then another big part of that service is respite care of the pet when the human goes into hospital. All of our community clients get emergency care plans. So if they go to hospital for the short or long term, if they go to rehab or if they die, we have a peace of mind plan in place for their pet.” 

A vet for people

Dr Kennedy says that she sees a huge future for social workers working in veterinary practices.

“The veterinary social worker role is an emerging role in the industry,” she says. “As a vet, I’m technically trained to do what needs to be done to the animal, but I’m not skilled to manage complex human elements. Tricky people, particularly people that are mentally unstable and unrealistic in their expectations, often have this high-level attachment to their pets, but may not be able to afford veterinary care.

“The veterinary social worker becomes a referral pathway and a resource for the veterinary teams to deal with human elements in that scenario. So the vets can concentrate on the animal and the social workers will manage the human.

“When you look at the contributing factors of burnout, it’s the people side of practice; it’s not actually the animals. It’s people not being able to afford to pay and people being difficult and abusive. And the social workers can navigate that territory because it’s really difficult territory and that protects the vet teams.

“They’re particularly helpful in supporting younger vets, supervising them when they’re new graduates, and through those first few years with regular sessions to support their emotional processing stuff, and debriefing.

The bond between pets and their owners is very strong, she says. “People will make decisions that prioritise their pet over themselves.

“Our mission as an organisation is to go in there with a focus on supporting pets. The question that we say every day is, ‘What do we need to do to keep this pet healthy and well, and together with his human for as long as possible?’”

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