CVC Highlights: Tapping social workers to help support distressed pet owners
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.
EXPANDING SUPPORT SERVICESWhat'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.
A GROWING PARTNERSHIP
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