Addressing human needs

New discipline of veterinary social work focuses on human side of human-animal bond
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Fran Prince learned of the pet-loss support group at the Animal Medical Center in New York City years ago, after the death of one of her cats.

"It was my first experience as an adult losing a pet, and it was much more harrowing than I thought it would be," said Prince, a life insurance agent and AMC client. "I came from a family that were animal lovers and were supportive—and I needed more."

Counseling of pet owners is one of several areas where the field of social work, which addresses human needs, increasingly is intersecting with the practice of veterinary medicine.

Woman snuggling a small dogPrince went to the AMC support group then, and she has been back again after each loss of three other cats.

Margo Feiden, an art dealer and AMC client, said adopting a cat was a great comfort after the death of her husband.

"Pasha and I became so loving and so close," Feiden said. "Pasha was such a part of my life."

Later, when Feiden's cat died, she turned to the social worker there for one-on-one counseling. Before, she had never even heard of counseling for pet loss.

Counseling of pet owners is one of several areas where the field of social work, which addresses human needs, increasingly is intersecting with the practice of veterinary medicine. A number of veterinary colleges and the rare private practice now have social workers on staff to counsel clients and the veterinary team.

Elizabeth B. Strand, PhD, director of veterinary social work at the University of Tennessee, has defined veterinary social work as a new discipline that includes counseling for pet loss and management of compassion fatigue for people whose jobs involve animal care. The discipline also covers many other positive aspects as well as aberrations related to the human-animal bond.  

Defining the work

Counseling comes in many forms, Dr. Strand said, but social workers focus on the context of a person's social environment—which often includes animals—and take a hands-on approach to solving problems. 

Dr. Strand has found that social work relevant to the human-animal bond generally falls into the four categories of pet loss, compassion fatigue, animal-assisted activities, and animal abuse. She came up with the name of veterinary social work to encompass these categories.

Some veterinary colleges have had social workers for many years, despite the lack of a name for such services. Dr. Strand founded veterinary social work at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in 2002.

The program at the veterinary medical center provides support groups and one-on-one counseling for pet owners who have lost an animal. The program also provides counseling for clients of the veterinary medical center while their animals are undergoing treatment and a variety of ongoing support services for veterinary students and staff, among other efforts.

"If there's a human being anywhere in our setting that needs some kind of help, whether direct help or a referral, they can come to us," Dr. Strand said.

To help develop veterinary social work more broadly, Dr. Strand organized the first summits on the subject in 2008 and 2010. This fall, the University of Tennessee College of Social Work launched a certification program in veterinary social work as an option within its master's degree program.

Graduates of the certificate program might find a position at a veterinary college or a large private practice, Dr. Strand said, or they could take a job with an organization that offers animal-assisted activities. Another possibility would be for a veterinary social worker to provide support services for a group of veterinary clinics.

"I think there will have to be a lot of different models for how practices can utilize veterinary social work," Dr. Strand said.

Dr. Strand added that many people in the mental health community have contacted her to express interest in the idea of addressing the human side of the human-animal bond.

In private practice

Not too long ago, counseling of pet owners was a new concept. In the 1980s and 1990s, a few veterinary colleges started offering counseling services for pet owners, including pet-loss hotlines. The AMC hired Susan Phillips Cohen, DSW, as director of counseling in 1982.

Previously, Dr. Cohen had been a social worker for disabled college students. She noticed the students' close attachment to their pets—and how much they grieved when they lost a pet.

At the AMC, Dr. Cohen started a support group for anyone who had lost a pet or who was about to lose a pet. She also established an outreach program for AMC staff to take their pets to visit nursing homes and homes for disabled people.

In addition, Dr. Cohen began offering one-on-one counseling for AMC clients who had lost a pet. At first, a typical counselee might say, "I'm in therapy with somebody else, and when I came in the second week in a row and said, 'I still feel really bad about my dog,' the therapist rolled her eyes."

More therapists understand the human-animal bond now, Dr. Cohen said, and much of her work is on-the-spot counseling in the course of veterinary care. She spends time in the AMC waiting room, sometimes with the assistance of graduate social work students, helping clients grapple with their pets' diagnoses and treatments. She goes into examination rooms to assist in conversations between clients and veterinarians, often providing feedback to interns afterward about communication skills.

"I just always try to keep myself sensitive to the needs of the clients and the doctors both," Dr. Cohen said.

The AMC orientation program for new interns includes sessions on client relations and stress management, Dr. Cohen said. She delivers lectures for staff throughout the year on a variety of topics relevant to the human dimension of veterinary practice.

Veterinarians at smaller clinics might want to refer clients struggling with pet loss to an outside therapist for grief counseling, Dr. Cohen added. The therapist can be a social worker or another mental health professional. Veterinarians also could bring in the therapist to meet with the staff.

University setting

The University of Illinois offers another example of social work services in the setting of a veterinary college. Cheryl A. Weber, JD, is the college's client counselor specialist.

The UI College of Veterinary Medicine first hired a social worker in 2002, and Weber took the position in 2004. Previously, she had been a social worker in human hospice.

"In human hospice, I was helping families cope with illness and loss," Weber said. "Here at the hospital, a part of my job is helping families deal with illness and loss. For many people, that pet is a member of the family, so emotions can be intense."

Anyone at the Illinois veterinary teaching hospital can refer a client to Weber or ask her to assist on a case. Hospital clients can contact her directly, too.

The university also offers a free pet-loss help line. Pet owners from across the country can leave messages with the help line, and veterinary students return calls three evenings a week. Weber serves as faculty adviser.

Teaching veterinary students is a big part of Weber's job. She lectures in classes, rounds, and rotations on the subjects of compassion fatigue and stress management as well as communication skills and grief.

Weber teaches an elective course on "Bereavement Issues in Veterinary Practice." Veterinarians on the faculty provide instruction on euthanasia of various species, while Weber focuses on client relations.

"I believe students are better prepared to handle euthanasia in practice by learning how to deal with both the medical and emotional aspects," Weber said.

In addition, Weber helps advise students who volunteer for a college program that provides temporary housing for the pets of women staying at local shelters for victims of domestic violence. A pet might be the main source of support for a victim of domestic violence, Weber said, and she might not leave her abuser if she cannot bring her pet along to a safe place.

Human-animal bond

Before defining veterinary social work as a discipline, Dr. Strand devoted much of her research to the relationship between domestic violence and animal abuse. Social workers also encounter animal abuse in other situations, including animal hoarding (see story).

Drawing on beneficial aspects of the human-animal bond, conversely, more social workers are incorporating animal-assisted activities into therapy. Dr. Strand said one aim for veterinary social work as a discipline could be to help promulgate standards for appropriate use of animals in therapy.

At veterinary clinics, counseling of staff and pet owners remain the mainstays of veterinary social work.

Veterinary professionals face death much more often than their counterparts in human medicine, of course, and pet owners may grieve for many animals over a human lifetime.

Prince, the life insurance agent, anticipates returning to the AMC support group after the death of her aging French Bulldog. For her, the support group validates the process of grieving a pet.

As for Feiden, the art dealer, she did adopt another cat. The female cat turned out to be pregnant, and Feiden decided to keep the kittens. Now she has a "loving family" of six cats.