Learn how social workers benefit veterinary teams and the human-animal relationship.
If you ask veterinarians why they chose their profession, a love of animals typically tops the list. However, the animals don’t bring themselves to the veterinary hospital; they all come in the company of at least one person with whom the veterinary team must interact, whether it’s an owner, animal control officer, rescue volunteer, or even a zookeeper. And while the medicine may be straightforward, interactions with people — particularly in high anxiety situations such as when an animal is injured, sick, or dying — can be complicated. In addition to doing the best for animals, veterinarians often find themselves wading through intense emotions, financial worries, conflicts, and high levels of stress. Wouldn’t it be great if there was someone who understood the importance of the human-animal relationship, and how to navigate the issues that come up for people in a veterinary setting? Good news — there is! They’re called veterinary social workers
Veterinary social work practice (see sidebar below) is generally broken down into four major categories:
1. Animal-related grief and bereavement
If you have ever lost a pet you were deeply attached to, you know what a heart-wrenching experience it can be. In studies, pet owners often identify their animals as friends, companions, their babies or children. Unlike our relationships with other people, our relationships with animals are uncomplicated. For many, animals are a source of companionship, protection, emotional support, and unconditional love. Companion animals are often with their caregivers many hours a day over many years. A pet may set the routine for a person’s day, with walks, feeding, and playtime, all of which can vanish when the animal passes away. When we take all this into consideration, it’s no wonder that the loss of a pet can cause intense feelings of grief.
While pet ownership is common, pet loss is still a form of disenfranchised grief, meaning that the loss is not readily recognized by society in general. Statements such as “it was just a cat” or “you can get another dog” from seemingly well-intentioned friends and family members can leave the grieving person feeling misunderstood, isolated, and confused about the intensity of their feelings.
In a veterinary setting, a social worker can be of assistance before as well as after the death of a pet. For clients who are coping with an animal’s illness or injury, or trying to decide about euthanasia, the social worker can provide emotional support, facilitate communication, and provide tools to help with decision making. A veterinary social worker can be present to support the client during euthanasia, so the veterinarian is able focus on the animal. After the loss of a pet, a veterinary social worker can help normalize what the grieving person is experiencing and help them move through the mourning process via one-on-one counseling, pet loss support groups, memorial events, or a combination of these.
2. The link between human and animal violence
Called “the Link” for short, the link between human and animal violence refers to the correlations between animal abuse and other types of violence, such as intimate partner violence, child abuse, and elder abuse. Animal fighting, such as dog fights or cockfighting, as well as animal hoarding, fall under this umbrella term as well. For hundreds of years, people have acknowledged that when someone is violent towards animals, they are often also violent towards people and display other types of antisocial behavior. Research in this field began in the 1970s and continues today. Based on those results, animal abuse that may once have been dismissed as “only a cat” or “boys being boys” is today recognized as a red flag for other problems. By being aware of the Link, veterinary social workers can help in a variety of ways, such as developing services for pet-owner domestic violence survivors; including questions about animal abuse in child abuse assessments; and treating children and adults who abuse animals.
3. Animal assisted interventions (AAI)
In contrast to pet loss and the Link, animal assisted interventions could be considered the lighter side of veterinary social work. While animal assisted interactions is the all-encompassing term for all kinds of human-animal encounters, animal assisted interventions refers to instances in which an animal is deliberately used for some therapeutic purpose. While dogs and horses are some of the most commonly-used animals in AAI, a wide variety of other animals can be used, including other common companion animals such as cats, rabbits, and birds, as well as livestock animals like goats, llamas, donkeys and other equines.
While bringing an animal into a person’s treatment regime might sound like fun, there are a lot of things to consider. First, what is the purpose of bringing in the animal? Service animals can provide tremendous support to clients living with various types of disabilities. In other cases, the use of an animal in therapy might help a client stay calm and focused when talking about difficult subjects. Animals can be incorporated into physical and occupational therapy, as clients improve muscle strength and balance by learning to ride a horse or improve their grip by throwing a ball for a dog. Visiting therapy animals may be used to brighten a person’s day in a variety of settings, including mental health clinics, hospitals, schools, residential facilities, courtrooms — even some accountants’ offices during tax season!
Animals to be used in AAIs must receive appropriate training and have a temperament suitable for the tasks they will be asked to do. Just like us, animals vary in their skills and preferences, so some will do better in some situations than others, even if they all pass their evaluations. Most importantly, the welfare of the animal must be top priority. Only animals who have been evaluated by reputable AAI organizations should be used. Handlers should be in tune with their animals and intervene if the animals seem stressed or uncomfortable. Animals used in AAIs need breaks and time to rest. Lastly, we must also recognize that there are situations in which AAIs are not appropriate; for example, if the client has allergies, an intense fear of animals, or is violent.
4. Compassion fatigue and conflict management
While the other areas of veterinary social work often focus on animal owners, the last area is centered on animal-related professionals. Compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatic stress, is a form of burnout that shows up as physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion. It can also be described as the result of working very hard, and caring very much, while not recognizing and caring for one’s own personal needs.
The symptoms of compassion fatigue show in myriad ways, including PTSD, or abuse of drugs, alcohol or food. Physical symptoms include headaches, gastrointestinal problems, exhaustion, and sleep disturbances, as well as feelings of hopelessness, anger, depression, and a decreased sense of personal accomplishment. In some cases, these symptoms may lead to suicidal thoughts or actions.
Communication challenges such as giving bad news, coping with difficult clients, and effectively working in teams are often cited as major stressors for veterinarians. Veterinary social workers can help mitigate some of this stress in a few different ways. In some situations, they function as a liaison between clients and the veterinary team, making the communication process smoother and clearer. In other situations, a veterinary social worker might serve in a coaching capacity, providing the veterinary team with feedback on how to approach a difficult topic or client, along with communication tactics and opportunities for the team to practice. In some veterinary colleges today, like the University of Tennessee, students receive communications training as a part of their curriculum in order to better prepare them for their future practice. In addition to working on communication skills, veterinary social workers can also help veterinary professionals develop healthy stress management techniques.
Equipped with the advocacy, communication expertise, and skills of a social work education, along with specialized training related to human-animal relationships, veterinary social workers are a useful ally for veterinary professionals who are working toward bettering the lives of people and animals. To learn more about this specialty, and how to access a veterinary social worker in your area, as well as educational opportunities for veterinary professionals, visit the University of Tennessee Veterinary Social Work program’s website at vetsocialwork.utk.edu.
NASW: Read the Code of Ethics. (n.d.). Retrieved April 6, 2020, from https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English.
National Link Coalition. (n.d.). Retrieved April 6, 2020, from http://nationallinkcoalition.org/.
Veterinary Social Work. (n.d.). Retrieved April 6, 2020, from https://vetsocialwork.utk.edu/.
Strand EB, Poe BA, Lyall S, Yorke J, Nimer J, Allen E, Nolen-Pratt T. (2012). “Veterinary Social Work Practice”. In Social work fields of practice historical trends, professional issues, and future opportunities (pp. 245–271). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.