Veterinarian Debbie Stoewen uses Laurier social work skills to help pets and their families
was a devastating diagnosis. Boston, 8, had cancer. The radiation and chemotherapy treatments took their toll. Boston found it difficult to do the things she loved, like answering the telephone, opening doors and turning light switches on and off. When she started to limp, she could no longer help her owner, a 21-year-old woman who is disabled. The family, faced with uncertainty, relied on the veterinary team treating their Labrador retriever service dog to provide the support and services they needed to cope. Veterinarian Debbie Stoewen, a PhD candidate at the Ontario Veterinary College, is researching animal cancer care. Boston’s owners are one of 30 families she is interviewing for the study, which will help clarify the needs and expectations of clients whose animals are being treated for the disease. “Finding out a pet has cancer is emotionally traumatizing,” says Stoewen (MSW ‘05). “As vets, we can’t assume what people need when they are faced with a cancer diagnosis.
We need to understand the relationship and bond people have with their pets, and shape our services to fit their individual needs.” She offers a unique perspective on the topic. In addition to being a doctor of veterinary medicine, Stoewen is also a registered social worker. It is a rare combination — she thinks she could be the only veterinarian in the country to hold both these designations. Unlike human medicine and social work, which have been recognized as complementary disciplines for decades, there is little acknowledged link between social work and veterinary medicine. Stoewen thinks this should change. “Animals have gone from the barnyard to the backyard, to the bedroom,” she says. “We share emotions, we share food and we share activities — as society has evolved, animals have become part of our families. Veterinary medicine is no longer about just taking care of an animal’s body, it’s about taking care of the whole family.” • • • • • • • • •
As a teenager, Stoewen’s doctor advised her against a career in veterinary medicine.
“He said it was the last thing on earth I should consider because I’m allergic to everything,” she says. “Dogs, cats, horses, even the hay!” But her love of animals outweighed the medical advice. She got her first pet at 13 as a birthday gift to herself. She searched the classified section of the Toronto Star and arranged to have a purebred Irish water spaniel puppy delivered to her Toronto house. It cost her $35 of babysitting money. Her parents didn’t know until the puppy arrived. “Of course they said no, and I was in tears holding this puppy,” says Stoewen. “Then the next day it was yes, then no again.” It took a year of adjustment, but a bond formed. And Boots, who turned out to be a mixed-breed mutt, lived a happy life for 11 years. It was while walking Boots that Stoewen discovered her career path. A neighbour noticed her checking the dog’s paw and asked if she was going to be a veterinarian. “When I asked her what that was she told me it was an animal doctor,” says Stoewen. “That was a transformative moment for me. I knew straight through
Dr. Debbie Stoewen and her dog, Max, who showed up on her doorstep as a stray.
LAURIER CAMPUS Winter 2010
Winter 2010 issue of Wilfrid Laurier University's alumni magazine, Campus Magazine