Herding cattle with farmers, counselling students and supporting grieving owners are all in a day’s work for Erin Wasson, the first social worker at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).
Although veterinary social work is an established field in the U.S., and the links between animal care and mental health are supported by academic research in the U.K., Australia and the U.S., both research in the field and social workers actually working with vets are rare in Canada. The Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) at the University of Guelph’s Animal Cancer Centre has a social worker who is a grief counsellor; Wasson, who is a master of social work clinical associate under the umbrella of the University of Regina’s faculty of social work and WCVM, is the first social worker to be embedded at a vet school in the country. But there are signs the dialogue in Canada is intensifying, says Wasson.
In February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in six U.S. vets had suicidal thoughts, and one in 10 may suffer from psychological distress. At OVC, researchers rolled out a survey in September to measure burnout, depression, anxiety and stress among farmers, vets and vet students as part of a larger Canadian study.
And it all begins with vet school. Only five in Canada offer a doctorate of veterinary medicine; the application-to-acceptance ratio is grim. This year, 510 hopefuls applied to OVC, and only 119 made it in. At WCVM, 395 applied; 78 were successful. Once in the program, the stress doesn’t ease up. The people “surrounding you are people who have maybe applied multiple times and are hungry to engage with the work,” Wasson explains.
Vets say it’s harder than medical school, because students have to learn the biology of many species, not just one. After graduation, there is a licensing exam to pass, after which they can join the ranks of about 13,340 practising vets in Canada. Students are also introduced to the realities of the job, which include euthanasia, treating cases of abuse and neglect, and dealing with clients whose animals are beloved members of the family or critical to a farm’s economy. “The job isn’t all wellness and vaccinations and cute puppies and kitties,” she says. “It’s like working in a hospital, and your patients can’t tell you what’s wrong.”
In January, Wasson will supervise a master’s of social work student for a research-based practicum, and expects to have more practicums in the future. A full-scale veterinary social work program may be possible one day, but it’s too early to tell. “We want to make sure we are growing at the right pace for the program’s stability,” she says.