CVC Highlights: Tapping social workers to help support distressed pet owners


CVC Highlights: Tapping social workers to help support distressed pet owners

Referral hospitals and small practices can team up with social workers to counsel clients dealing with pet loss or difficult decisions about their pets' care.
Nov 01, 2006

Petra A. Mertens, Dr Med Vet, CAAB, DECVBM, DACVB
Veterinarians celebrate the strengthening of the human-animal bond because it frequently allows us to provide improved medical care for our patients. However, this bond may also make handling a pet's death or deciding on the extent of an animal's treatment difficult for clients. When an owner with a limited income presents a puppy with a fractured femur, the owner may have to choose between saving the puppy's life or paying that month's rent. Or when a dog develops aggression but is otherwise healthy, the owner can be torn between the risk and effort of attempting behavior modification and the guilt of deciding to end the animal's life. The responsibility to make such treatment and euthanasia decisions can be overwhelming, often placing an emotional strain on clients.

The veterinary community acknowledges the stress associated with such decision-making as well as the stress associated with the loss of a pet. The first recognized pet loss grief support group at a university was formed in 1986 at the University of Pennsylvania. Since that time, similar support groups, in both university and public settings, have become common.


What's more, an emerging trend in academic veterinary medicine is to employ a licensed social worker to counsel and educate clients and team members. The Colleges of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, The University of Tennessee, The Ohio State University, and the University of Minnesota have all formed partnerships with their respective schools of social work to provide such support.

The University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (UMCVM) employs one full-time licensed social worker and teams up with the School of Social Work to offer two field placements at the Veterinary Medical Center for students pursuing a master's degree in direct practice social work. At UMCVM, veterinary social work is considered a subspecialty of medical social work.

Social workers employed in veterinary settings are seeking to more clearly define how social work in the veterinary setting fits into the social work profession. Advocates of a social work-veterinary medicine tie maintain that there are unique issues and challenges relating to the human-animal bond and its effect on individuals, families, and communities. Trained social workers can be invaluable in assisting pet owners with difficult decisions about their pets' care and in some cases may help identify domestic violence, child abuse, or other serious problems affecting family members.

Moreover, as mentioned above, social workers are employed not only for client support but also for faculty, staff, and student support. Compassion fatigue is a new concept in veterinary medicine, but its counterpart has been described in human medicine for years. The social workers employed at the universities help ward off compassion fatigue in the veterinary team as well as teach stress management skills to team members. At UMCVM, support is also offered to area veterinarians through the social work program phone-in referral service. A practitioner may call in for advice on a range of issues—from how to handle a difficult client to how to support a team member through a difficult time.


The UMCVM's Social Work Services Program is partnering with community agencies to deliver a multidisciplinary symposium on the human-animal bond and violence, scheduled for March 2007. This symposium, the first of its kind in the upper Midwest, will bring together veterinarians, human services professionals, and law enforcement officials to discuss the link between interpersonal violence and animal abuse.


Although social workers who focus on veterinary medicine are still mainly found in university settings, several large referral clinics employ social workers, and private practice social workers trained in veterinary medical concerns are available in many cities for client referral. As the human-animal bond strengthens, the developing partnership between the veterinary and the social work communities will likely grow as well.


I wish to thank Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LGSW, social worker at the UMCVM, for her contributions to this article.

Petra A. Mertens, Dr Med Vet, CAAB, DECVBM, DACVB
Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences
College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Minnesota
St. Paul, MN 55108