Over the past several years it’s hard not to notice how pets have become members of our families—with many going from backyard doghouses to our own beds. As these joys and bonds grow, so does the feeling of loss when these beloved family members face illness, injury, or death. A growing field in the social work arena, veterinary social work, was designed to focus on these relationships and help pet owners cope with illness and loss of their pets.
Veterinary social work was founded in May 2002 as a partnership between the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Social Work. It was designed to enhance, support, and inform both professions—veterinary medicine and social work. Veterinary social workers seek to expand the understanding about the services needed at the intersection of veterinary medicine and social work practice. The services provided by these professionals include telephone help hotlines, online chat rooms, one-on-one counseling, group counseling, and more.
Veterinary social workers focus primarily on the following:
Grief and loss
A primary focus of veterinary social work is to assist pet owners with the loss of their pets. However, veterinary social workers can also provide counseling to clients whose pets are facing life-threatening illness or injuries.
Compassion fatigue management
Helping veterinary staff cope is just as important as helping pet owners. Veterinary professionals—veterinarians, veterinary technicians, office managers, assistants, etc.—are prone to emotional burnout. Veterinary professionals deal with death five times more often than those working in human medicine. The emotional toll of being a caregiver in the veterinary industry can be a heavy burden to bear, so veterinary social workers are available to provide counseling services for members of the veterinary health care team.
As therapy animals become more prevalent, veterinary social work focuses on their welfare as well. These important animals work to soothe seniors, socialize mentally challenged adults, provide physical therapy for challenged children, and much more, so attention must be paid to the well-being of these animals. The veterinary social worker can review signs that it may be time for a therapy animal to take a “vacation” from work, or perhaps even retire altogether.
Human and animal violence
Studies have shown that violent or abusive traits in humans often manifest first as violence or abuse toward animals. This behavior then progresses to the violence or abuse of other people. Veterinary social workers aim to assess and intervene when violence toward animals is suspected, preventing those behaviors from continuing on to eventually affect humans.
For more information about veterinary social work, or to contact a veterinary social worker, visit the University of Tennessee Veterinary Social Work website.