Dr. Bess Pierce named Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year

Dr. Bess Pierce, associate professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences has earned the highest veterinary honor in the nation for work in the human-animal bond.

Dr. Bess Pierce speaking

Dr. Bess Pierce accepted the award at the American Veterinary Medical Association's Veterinary Leadership Conference in Chicago on Jan. 9.

The American Veterinary Medical Association presented Pierce with the 2015 Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award at its Veterinary Leadership Conference in Chicago on Jan. 9. Named for the late Leo K. Bustad, former dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University and past president of Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society), the award recognizes a veterinarian’s work in preserving and protecting human-animal relationships through practice, community service, teaching, or research.

“Bess Pierce is a truly remarkable and accomplished individual who embraces the honor of Dr. Leo Bustad,” wrote Dr. Zenithson Ng, clinical assistant professor of community practice at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, in his nomination letter. “She is a true community leader and philanthropist who has made significant contributions to the area of the human-animal bond in veterinary medicine, and we are all looking forward to what she will accomplish next.”

Under Pierce’s supervision, Ng completed a residency in the Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s Small Animal Community Practice, which provides primary pet care for clients within 35 miles of Blacksburg, Virginia. Pierce developed the residency program with a combined master’s degree in human-animal bond studies. The combined residency program adds to the growing body of evidence on the benefits of the human-animal bond to both people and pets.

Dr. Virginia Corrigan, a current resident in the program, said that Pierce’s advanced knowledge and expertise in many areas of veterinary medicine is “inspiring.” “She consistently elevates the standards for those around her and has impeccable professionalism and enthusiasm for her work,” Corrigan said. “While she is a very busy person with many responsibilities, she will always stop to lend a helping hand or provide guidance when needed.”

Earlier this month, Pierce joined the veterinary college’s Center for Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine, which trains veterinary students for fields outside of traditional private practice. In this new role, she teaches courses, coordinates senior veterinary clerkships, assists with the center’s international activities, and continues to serve as director of the college’s Center for Animal Human Relationships. Prior to the move, Pierce was an associate professor of community practice in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences.

“Dr. Pierce has a passion for studying and developing the human-animal interface,” said Dr. Greg Daniel, professor and head of the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences. “I suspect this comes from her years in the military in which the relationship between a soldier and working dog can mean the difference between life and death.”

Pierce spent more than 15 years on active duty as a member of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, which is responsible for the veterinary care and conditioning of working dogs across all branches of the military. She is now one of the highest ranking veterinarians in Europe with the U.S. Army Veterinary Reserve.

Prospective students waiting in the hallway

Left to right: Dr. John Brooks, chair of the American Veterinary Medical Foundation; Paulette Soinski and Sophie of Pet Partners; Dr. Bess Pierce; and Dr. Ted Cohn, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Since joining the veterinary college faculty in 2007, Pierce has advanced a number of programs related to the human-animal bond. She helped establish Virginia Tech Helping PAWS (Pet-Assisted Wellness Service), which brings therapy dogs to schools, libraries, nursing homes, and community centers, and instituted the college’s first in-house therapy dog, a black Labrador retriever named Delaware. She also organized the college’s first human-animal bond symposium in 2013 and will host a second symposium this March.

As a small animal veterinarian, Pierce is also known for her professionalism and good bedside manner. Clients Beth and Bob Bodnar of Blacksburg, Virginia, have taken their pets to several veterinarians over the years but especially appreciate the quality of care they received from Pierce in the college’s Small Animal Community Practice Clinic.

“Of all of these caregivers, we would rank Dr. Pierce among the very best,” they wrote in their nomination letter. “We are very happy and fortunate to live in this area where we have access to such outstanding veterinarians as Dr. Pierce.”

Pierce has also served on the board of directors for Saint Francis Service Dogs in Roanoke for the past two years and is responsible for bringing animal-assisted therapy to the Thomas E. Cook Counseling Center and the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech. According to Trent Davis, staff counselor, this “pioneering effort” has had a significant impact on campus.

“It has been the consistent support and guidance of Dr. Pierce that has enabled this effort to succeed after several years of trying,” Davis said. “The addition of animal-assisted therapy to our center has had an immediate and profound impact on both staff morale and client well-being.”

Pierce is not the first faculty member at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine to receive this recognition. In 2005, the AVMA bestowed the honor on Dr. Marie Suthers-McCabe, founder and past director of the veterinary college’s Center for Animal Human Relationships.

Pierce graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Tulane University, as well as a master’s degree in wildlife biology and a doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Auburn University. She holds board certifications from the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, and the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Written by Michael Sutphin.