In the summer of 2020, Pamela Linden, a UT-trained veterinary social worker, was contacted by a Knoxville woman who was living in her car with her three older chihuahuas. “One had fallen and broke his paw,” says Linden, “and the woman couldn’t afford veterinary care.” Through the AlignCare Healthcare System’s veterinary social work service—part of the UT College of Social Work‘s Program for Pet Health Equity—Linden connected the woman to a vet, who treated the chihuahua’s paw.
“There is so much joy in this work,” says Linden, who directs veterinary social work for AlignCare. “You are helping people and pets at the same time.”
AlignCare was founded in 2018 to address the fact that at least one in four families face barriers to seeing a vet.
“Our clients can’t afford veterinary care,” says Lizett Gutierrez, a student in UT’s online veterinary social work certificate program, who coordinates AlignCare’s western region from her home in Denver, Colorado. “Their pet might be sick, or need injury care, or have other specific needs. In general, we want to align our clients with existing resources and connect people that way.”
A longtime veterinary nurse, licensed social worker, mental health professional, and special education teacher, Gutierrez saw a TED talk a couple of years ago about using the human-animal bond in social work. “It knocked me off my feet,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘This is what I’ve been trying to do for a long time.’”
Veterinary social workers attend to the human needs that arise at the intersection of veterinary and social work practice. They receive special training on the human-animal bond and work to support that bond. Gutierrez heard about the cutting-edge veterinary social work program at UT and applied. Today, she is one of several veterinary social work certificate students working with AlignCare as part of their keystone projects.
“Clients apply to AlignCare and we match them with various partners and vet service providers,” says Gutierrez. “We ask families to fill out an application to determine their need. Around 10 or 15 families a week inquire, and of those about 10 complete the application.”
Sometimes that care means addressing special needs. At around 6 pm on New Year’s Eve 2020, Linden got a call from a man who had been admitted to UT Medical Center with COVID-19. His assistance dog, Duchess, needed a safe place to go. Complicating the situation was the fact that Duchess has cancer and requires regular medication. AlignCare had arranged palliative care for Duchess at Knoxville’s Central Veterinary Hospital several months earlier and was providing support to her owner through its veterinary social work service.
Linden worked with a Knoxville Animal Control officer and Young-Williams Animal Shelter to get Duchess to a temporary home at the shelter and arranged for her medication to be administered while her owner was hospitalized.
“This situation is an example of how a community can come together to provide assistance to pet owners in need,” said Linden. “It was so rewarding to know that we helped this family in their moment of need. The Knoxville community is amazing.”