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Two vets look after a dog

Exploring the human/animal bond with a social-hearted vet

March 4, 2024
August 29, 2022

Dr Alicia Kennedy, founder of Cherished Pets and Bank Australia customer, has been pioneering a sustainable social-hearted veterinary service for seven years. We had a chat about what that means, and the importance of the human/animal bond.

For many of us, our pets are not only best friends but family members. They become part of our lives – they rely on us, but we rely just as much on them.

Bank Australia customer and founder of Cherished Pets Alicia Kennedy – also known as Dr Lissi – has long been fascinated by the human/animal bond. In her 35 years as a self-described social-hearted vet, she’s held as much interest and concern for the pet’s human as she does the pet.

“I’m fascinated with the connection and relationship people have with their pets,” she says from her Ocean Grove clinic. “I’ve recognised that, as people go through life stages, the importance of a companion pet can increase, but their capacity to take care of their pet can be compromised.”

Alicia Kennedy holds a dog while standing behind a large bush

The groups Dr Lissi pinpointed as needing the most support for their animals include elderly people, people with disabilities, people experiencing mental health crises, people fleeing domestic violence, and people experiencing homelessness.

“An elderly person might find themselves on their own, perhaps their partner has died,” Lissi explains. “Their dog or cat is the reason that they get out of bed each day, but they need assistance to keep their animal healthy and well. So I hatched an idea to develop a service that supports these vulnerable groups.”

Seven years ago, Lissi branched out into veterinary social work, an emerging field that sits at the intersection of human and animal health. Not only does Cherished Pets have a team of vets and vet nurses, they also employ qualified social workers to deliver a ground-breaking multidisciplinary vet social work service. While the vets might provide animals with vaccinations or inspect a sore paw, the social workers spend more time with the animal's human, providing pet owners with extra assistance, knowledge and care.

The beauty of a service like Cherished Pets, who became the world’s first certified B Corp vet service in 2017, is the connection the team can make with the community. As an example, the vet social workers become a touch point to help people within vulnerable groups access other services. “We fit into the story around social isolation, disconnection and loneliness,” says Lissi. “For some of our clients, our volunteers are the only people that visit them.”

An important arm of the Cherished Pets organisation is their charity foundation, which allows them to run a volunteer program and raise much-needed funds. This means the team are able to support people who need extra assistance in difficult times, but that help isn’t just financial. They also work to build people’s capabilities to take care of their pets through financial, physical and emotional support.

“Where people have a high level of attachment to their pets, and recognising the role of companion pets as emotional support animals, it’s not just about the pet,” Lissi explains. “It’s very much about understanding what the needs of the human are.”

A volunteer worker looks after a dog for an elderly woman. They both sit together at a table

Cherished Pets volunteers do a range of things for the organisation, from providing dog walking services, transporting pets to and from the groomers, helping with fundraising and community engagement, and providing respite care. Lissi works closely with clients in palliative care as well, helping create plans for pets after their owners have passed on.

“We try to get into that shared care scenario so that while the client is still on this side, they get to have their pets for as long as possible,” Lissi says. “But when they can no longer have them, they know that they’re loved and looked after. We’ve had some profoundly moving cases in that space, because we get attached to our people too.”

One of the main goals at Cherished Pets is to keep animals and their humans together. “Our service is about looking at the whole,” says Lissi. “What do we need to do to keep this pet healthy and together with their human through all life phases, and who in the community needs to be part of that pet’s story?”

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