Emerging field joins two professions

Temple GrandinTemple Grandin (photo right), an autistic woman who revolutionized practices for the humane handling of livestock on cattle ranches and in slaughterhouses, speaks at the third International Veterinary Social Work Summit in April at the University of Tennessee.

Social workers who are animal lovers might find that veterinary social work offers the best of both worlds.

Even though the practice has been around in one form or another for about 30 years, it’s still emerging as a recognized professional area of social work, said Elizabeth Strand, director of veterinary social work at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

And contrary to what some people may think, veterinary social work is not about social workers tending to the welfare of animals, Strand said.

“Veterinary social work is the opposite of that,” she said. “It is truly a marriage between the two professions.”

Strand not only has led the program at UT since 2002, she said she also came up with the term “veterinary social work.”

“I was studying the link between human and animal violence for my dissertation,” she said. “One night I just sat up straight in bed and said, ‘There should be something called veterinary social work … and these are the four areas it should be in.’”

Strand said the four areas are:

  1. Grief and pet loss
  2. Animal-assisted interactions
  3. The link between human and animal violence
  4. Compassion fatigue management

“What we did at Tennessee was we coined the term,” she said. “Since 2002 we’ve kind of professionalized it, even though we were doing it before.”

UT has a certificate program that trains MSSW students in the four areas of veterinarian social work, she said, adding that the focus is on tending to human needs that arise in relationships with animals and maintaining the values of the social work profession.

Starting this fall, the university will offer a post-MSW certificate in veterinary social work, Strand said.

UT’s social work and veterinary colleges also have held a summit for the past three years, the latest one taking place in April. (See related article this page.)

Strand said she is only aware of two other universities in the U.S. that offer similar training programs — in Michigan and Missouri.

Linda Lawrence, coordinator of veterinary social work services at Michigan State University, said their program is based on the one at UT.

“We visited (the Tennessee program) before we started our program,” she said, adding that the school began setting it up about seven years ago.

Lawrence said the idea for a veterinary social work program first came up because Gary Anderson, director of the university’s school of social work, is a child welfare specialist who has always been interested in the connection between child abuse and animal abuse.

“There is a correlation, so there’s a lot of work being done,” Lawrence said. “Veterinarians are encouraged to report animal abuse, but when we see it, lots of times we kind of question and look into the children’s lives.”

“It’s not a mandated reporting system yet,” she added. “Just a careful look that we do.”

Lawrence has a background as a licensed social worker in community mental health and emergency services. She now works at the veterinary teaching hospital at Michigan State, where veterinary students do clinical rotations at the end of their third year and all of their fourth.

Right now, the veterinary social work program is only offered as an internship for students working toward an MSW. The first class will begin this summer, she said, and will focus on the human-animal bond and what veterinary social work is. Lawrence hopes to have a certificate program in the future.

For now, the interns mainly get experience in counseling and helping those who are dealing with grief and loss.

“We work with anyone in crisis,” Lawrence said. “The reception people, the vets, medical techs and clients.”

Receptionists at the hospital sometimes have to deal with people who are very upset and dealing with a lot of stress, she said.

“They always have to be kind and considerate and helpful,” she said, even when the clients are distressed. “Then they have to give a bill to the client.”

Lawrence and her interns also work with the veterinarians and staff, teaching them stress relief and how to set boundaries and protect themselves.

“The first time I mentioned compassion fatigue to our medical techs, they said ‘Oh, thank God there’s a name for this,’” Lawrence said.

Compassion fatigue can occur in various types of health care workers and caregivers. It results from focusing on others without practicing self-care, which can result in destructive behaviors, according to the website

With grief and pet loss, a veterinary social worker counsels clients after the loss of a companion animal. People not only grieve for the loss of a pet, but may also struggle with the decision to euthanize the animal, Lawrence said.

“The human-animal bond goes back centuries,” she said, “but in the last 30 years they’ve moved into our homes and become so much a part of our families.”

Even though veterinary social work places the emphasis on human needs, love and respect for animals is also involved, Lawrence said. She believes considering what the animal is going through — such as pain and suffering — is the ethical thing to do.

“We do work with humans, but we have to think from the animal point of view as well,” she said.

A veterinarian’s perspective

Kate Knutson, who owns Pet Crossing Animal Hospital and Dental Clinic in Minnesota, said she has had a grief counselor on staff for six years. Currently, her counselor is working toward her LSW and wants to continue in the veterinary field.

“I think there is a huge place for veterinary social workers, both with clients ... and for vets and the health care staff,” said Knutson, who also is president of the American Animal Hospital Association.

For clients, there are support groups for pet loss, and also individual counseling, she said. And the doctor and staff grieve over animal deaths at times. There are different types of deaths, Knutson said, including euthanasia after an animal has been ill for a long time, emergencies and anesthetic death— where a patient dies under anesthesia.

The latter is “probably one of the most exhausting things for the health care team,” she said. “It’s mentally exhausting, so we could really use veterinary social workers in those types of situations. Anesthetic deaths don’t occur very often, but it needs to be more out in the open.”

Knutson said the suicide rate is also very high among veterinarians, partly because the job demands do not fit with the personality profile.

“You love animals, and absolutely want to do everything right, you want to do it best,” she said. “You’re not taught that between you and that patient, there’s the client. That’s who you need to communicate with.”

The client is not always going to do what you think they should, she added, and veterinarians are not trained how to deal with that. There are also instances where a client becomes distraught.

“We learn the technical and scientific skills, but what we’re not getting enough of is communication and relationship skills,” Knutson said. “Veterinarians desperately need better communication skills.”

Veterinarians also don’t get official training on grief counseling and little on ethics, she added. “We are never taught how to euthanize an animal or give a cancer diagnosis.”

Even though veterinary social work is still a relatively new field, Knutson said it’s one that’s needed.

“I think social workers can provide a critical missing piece for both clients and for veterinary health care professionals,” she said.

Summit examines social work roles with animals

In April, the University of Tennessee colleges of social work and veterinary medicine held the third International Veterinary Social Work Summit, drawing social workers, other mental health professionals, animal welfare workers, veterinarians and attorneys.

The theme was “Is there a role for social work in the care and welfare of animals?” Elizabeth Strand, director of veterinary social work at UT, said even though the work focuses on human needs that arise in relationships with animals, the goal of the summit is to explore all aspects of the specialty area.

“It’s creating the space for people to talk about issues of animal welfare,” she said.

Interest in veterinary social work has been growing since the program started at UT in 2002, Strand said, and the first summit was held in 2008. About 50 people attended the first two summits, she said, with 120 people this year.

Seminar topics focused on animal hoarding intervention, animal-assisted therapies, natural dog training, normalizing the relationships between pet owners and pets, mindfulness training for veterinary medicine students, ethics in veterinary social work and more.

Keynote speakers were Temple Grandin and Hal Herzog. Grandin, an autistic woman who revolutionized practices for the humane handling of livestock on cattle ranches and in slaughterhouses, was the subject of a 2010 HBO biopic called “Temple Grandin.” She has appeared in the mainstream media many times and is a best-selling author and professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She speaks around the world on autism and cattle handling. Grandin’s keynote speech was called “The Emotional Lives of Animals.”

Herzog, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, presented the keynote “Some we Love, Some we Hate, Some we Eat: Animals, Ethics and Moral Consistency.”

He gave an “evidence-based and critical-thinking view of the subject,” Strand said.

She added that animal loss may be the highlight of the next summit.

“I’m fairly certain it will be in 2015, at the end of April or beginning of May,” she said. “I’m looking forward to having it grow and grow and grow.”

Recorded tapes of the 2013 summit will be on an open-access website beginning Sept. 1, Strand said.

For more information, visit The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Veterinary Social Work.