Human-Animal Connections: Veterinary Social Work Roles Grow as the Specialty Area Evolves

By Raju Chebium

two cats playing with cutout of human hands petting them

Kelly Bremken is a new kind of veterinary social worker. She personifies how much the practice area has evolved since its inception 21 years ago. Back then, the handful of veterinary social workers sprinkled throughout the country pretty much focused on one thing: helping people cope with the loss of their companion animals.

Today’s VSWs do so much more than that. To name a few items on their growing list of responsibilities, they help veterinary professionals manage workplace stress and build better relationships with their human clients. They watch for signs of animal and domestic abuse. They detect and investigate cases of animal hoarding. They help students and staff at veterinary schools develop sound coping strategies.

Bremken, MSSW, VSW—the first VSW hired by the Oregon Humane Society in Portland—wears many hats, but her work is entirely focused on the human-animal bond.

OHS has a community veterinary hospital and an animal shelter and is the largest facility of its kind in the state. It’s a busy place where Bremken is uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role given her skill set—she worked in animal services for some 20 years before returning to school to earn an MSW and a veterinary social work certificate from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2021.

Bremken helps ease the grief and loss people feel when they decide to end the lives of their ailing or aging pets. But she also resolves a host of other pet-related problems for the humane society’s clients: landlord disputes; referrals to community social services; and the like. Another focus of her work is to connect owners with the right resources to help them keep their pets rather than giving them up to the animal shelter.

“We may not have the community program they need, but I am going to find out,” Bremken said. “Animal welfare as a whole has shifted to the idea that keeping people and pets together is the best plan. That requires us to build programs and increase access to care in a way that a social worker knows how to do best.”

Supporting the veterinarians and clinic and shelter staff to help them cope with the emotions and stresses stemming from the job also is part of Bremken’s portfolio. She said she counsels them one-on-one, leads classes and discussions on mental health, and generally helps her colleagues “feel confident and competent to deal with clients.”

“Walking alongside someone is part of the job,” Bremken said.

Her background in animal services and training in social work has also equipped Bremken to identify and alleviate animal hoarding. She has at times accompanied the OHS’ Humane Law Enforcement team to a potential hoarder’s home to provide on-site assistance.

Increasingly, Bremken said, VSWs are being called upon to identify potential domestic abuse victims who also are clients of veterinary hospitals and clinics. People will often refuse to leave abusive households so they can stay and protect their pets, and VSWs have the knowledge and training to connect human and animal abuse victims with appropriate shelters and social services.

Bremken’s work in this aspect of her job has made her a lobbyist. Bremken wrote to Oregon lawmakers to lobby for Senate Bill 496, which failed to pass last year. The measure sought to improve access to homeless services for domestic abuse victims and their pets.

Today, Bremken said she is one of just 12 social workers in animal welfare organizations across North America. Nevertheless, the specialty is growing. When she was studying to be a social worker, there were occasional job postings for VSWs. Now, she said, there are one or two postings a month, pointing to the rising demand and the increasing recognition of the value these professionals bring to veterinary practices.

“If every hospital and clinic has a social worker, that will be ideal,” Bremken said.

Then and Now

Elizabeth Strand, PhD, LCSW, is widely credited with establishing the nation’s first veterinary social work program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2002. Last year, UTK launched a new iteration of the Center for Veterinary Social Work and remains one of the nation’s premier programs.

horse with cutout of human hand petting it

Strand agrees that the days are long gone when VSWs provided just grief counseling for distraught pet owners. In addition to doing that, VSWs these days make it possible for veterinarians and vet staff to provide knowledgeable counseling to grieving pet owners. And they also are called upon to provide counseling services to veterinarians and vet techs who are in a profession known for its particularly high suicide rate.

“Problems that people and animals face are interlocked,” Strand said. “To intervene in those types of problems requires interlinked teams.”

The profession has four pillars, Strand said: grief and bereavement counseling for pet owners; facilitating intentional well-being for vet staff experiencing compassion fatigue and conflicts with clients; being vigilant for the link between human-animal violence; and providing animal-assisted interventions where appropriate.

Though VSWs are vital cogs in the animal health care field, they focus their professional attention on the humans who provide that care and on the pet owners. So, a VSW could be helping a veterinarian find ways to avoid burnout one minute, working with a pet owner facing a big vet bill resolve a financial issue the next, and leading a class on mental health for students at a veterinary school after that.

Experts point to several reasons why the demand for VSWs is growing. One is the rise in pet ownership, which has led to increasing stress and burnout among veterinarians and vet staff. Another is the growing importance of pets in our lives; they are being viewed more and more as family members and not as property. Still another reason is the growing awareness of mental health issues in society, and an increasing realization among veterinary professionals that they don’t have the tools to counsel pet owners and take care of their own mental health needs.

“Veterinary social workers are in this space to help the medical professionals develop more knowledge and skills and resources in supporting the client care and their own well-being,” said Lisa Stewart-Brown, LCSW, who also has an MBA in human health care, and is the program manager of mental health and well-being at Mars Veterinary Health.

“The social workers are there to help support the clients, but also take that out of the hands of the doctors and the nurses, which is really beyond their scope, and frees them up to do what they need to do and do best,” said Stewart-Brown, who authored a veterinary-specific suicide prevention training and donated it for anyone in the industry to use for free.

Mars, one of the largest corporations worldwide in veterinary care, employs more than 20 in-house social workers at Banfield Pet Hospital, BluePearl Specialty & Emergency Pet Hospital, and VCA Animal Hospitals. BluePearl recruits VSW interns from UTK and—in a sign of the growing demand for the specialty—has established MSW teaching programs in four U.S. universities.

Government statistics on the pay for VSWs are hard to come by. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the authoritative source of pay and the career outlook for an array of professions, does not break out veterinary social work as a distinct employment category. It does provide such data for veterinarians and social workers, but not for VSWs.

Since the VSW field is diverse, the pay varies considerably, said Sarah Bernardi RSW, MSW, the board secretary for the International Association for Veterinary Social Work. But based on job postings and other information gathered by the IAVSW, the annual salary can range from $40,000-$80,000, Bernardi said.

The jobs site ZipRecruiter offered an even higher range—from a low of $34,500 to a high of $117,000—reflecting the specialty area’s diversity.

ZipRecruiter’s state-by-state look at annual average salaries provides a more detailed guide for those interested in entering the field or training to become a VSW. The five best-paying states are Massachusetts ($89,328 per year), followed by Washington, Colorado, Delaware and New York. The bottom five were, in descending order, Kansas, Georgia, Louisiana, West Virginia and Florida ($53,352).

Different Paths, Varied Responsibilities

Stewart-Brown of Mars Veterinary Care said more and more veterinarians and vet techs are going back to school to earn MSWs and become licensed to practice veterinary social work. But you don’t need to earn an MSW to enter the field as a veterinary professional.

two fancy birds on a persons hand

Take Dr. Angela Jasper-McManus, for example. After practicing as a veterinarian for some 20 years, she completed a one-year certificate program in veterinary social work in 2022 through UTK, and now serves as an accommodations administrator at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton, Mass.

While she collaborates with a VSW on staff, Jasper-McManus works primarily with Cummins School students with disabilities who need various academic and clinical accommodations and focuses on reducing the stigma associated with seeking such accommodations.

While in veterinary school at The Ohio State University, Jasper-McManus said she barely heard about the veterinary social work field of practice. But now, she said, VSWs are seen as a key part of the team at any veterinary clinic or hospital—and there aren’t enough of them.

It’s usually the large veterinary clinics— those with 100 or more employees —and vet schools that employ VSWs, Jasper-McManus said. Most small- and medium-sized general veterinary practices don’t have access to them, and that needs to change, she said.

“I wish (VSWs) were available for all practices,” Jasper-McManus said. “The bottom line is veterinarians are not trained to recognize mental health issues. … Having someone who is capable and trained is paramount.”

Social work students seeking to enter the veterinary field will find more training programs soon. According to IAVSW’s Bernardi, UTK’s Center for Veterinary Social Work is collaborating with four other universities to develop VSW certificates for students pursuing master’s degrees in social work.

Some social workers become VSWs without needing to take special coursework. Such was the case with Allison Sevegney-Reynolds, LMSW, the coordinator of veterinary social work services for the past six years at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in East Lansing.

After graduating with her MSW from the University of Michigan’s social work program in 2005, the avowed animal lover worked as a clinician with families and children experiencing grief and loss—experience that transfers nicely to her current role.

“Having been a social worker for nearly 20 years, I feel I have the skills I need to handle what I am doing. … I was able to pair my passion for animals with my skills as a social worker,” Sevegney-Reynolds said. “I continue to learn about the profession and stay engaged with colleagues around the nation.”

She was quick to add that formal coursework or a program in VSW is valuable, especially for those new to the field or for people from other professions seeking social work training. Sevegney-Reynolds said she coached a colleague, a veterinary nurse, who completed UTK’s VSW program for non-social workers. MSU’s vet school also houses one intern from the university’s social work department every year.

Sevegney-Reynolds said her predecessor at MSU’s teaching hospital was more focused on helping people cope with grief and loss after they sought end-of-life care for their pets. While she still provides that valuable service, Sevegney-Reynolds said she’s focused more on supporting MSU veterinary school faculty, staff and students.

People request her services “if they are having a difficult case that they are working on, if they are needing help finding the right words to communicate with their clients ... or having a mental health problem themselves,” Sevegney-Reynolds said. “We help with conflict that happens with the hospital, conflict with a colleague or supervisor, (to resolve it) in a productive way.”

She also gives presentations to students and staff on critically important issues such as compassion fatigue and conflict resolution. And she has one VSW working under her.

When studying for her MSW, Sevegney-Reynolds said she “had no idea there was such a thing as veterinary social work.” She got her current job only after a colleague alerted her to the opening.

What Sevegney-Reynolds finds especially satisfying about her job is being a part of the veterinary hospital’s executive management team. She appreciates having a voice in the decision-making process.

“I am so happy that I have a seat at the table at those conversations and am able to talk about veterinary mental health and wellness and provide my perspective to veterinary hospital management,” Sevegney-Reynolds said.

The Human-Animal Bond

Every social work student ought to learn about the human-animal bond, whether or not they wish to pursue careers as VSWs, said Philip Tedeschi, a clinical professor at the Denver’s (DU) Graduate School of Social Work and founder and former executive director of the school’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection.

Social workers increasingly realize that the most dangerous mental health issues they treat are isolation and loneliness, which are connected to any number of comorbidities and diseases, he said. Companionship and social support are keys to alleviating these twin malaises.

“It turns out that social support doesn’t only occur through relationships with other humans. We can have relationships with non-humans that are often some of the most predictable and reliable and safe relationships that we have,” Tedeschi said. “It cannot be understated. It may arguably be one of the most widespread forms of mental health support that we have in the United States, probably more than anything else.”

Though DU doesn’t offer a VSW program per se, it offers coursework in the human-animal connection that attracts students from all over the world, some of whom end up working as VSWs, according to Tedeschi.

He added that social work schools also should encourage students to examine humans’ relationships with wild creatures and farm animals, how other living systems are affected by our actions, and how declining biodiversity affects human health.

“The important social justice issues of our time are related to how we treat the living world,” he said, adding that DU offers a three-course certificate in human-animal-environment interactions that delves into the heart of this interconnectedness and explores the concept of “one health.”

Tedeschi said animals are involved these days in every human service environment—in schools, with at-risk populations, older adults, trauma survivors, and especially in treating service members suffering from PTSD. Accordingly, DU offers graduate certificates in canine and equine therapy and humane health to teach future practitioners how to incorporate animals appropriately and ethically into therapies aimed at helping people overcome grief, trauma, and a host of other mental health challenges.

“What we are doing … in incorporating a human-animal-environment focus is not all that different than the way we would think about educating any social worker. But it is bringing in this unique dimension, and it has to be part of the conversation,” Tedeschi said. “It’s hard for me to imagine advocating for human beings without being aware of the immediate contact with other living beings.”

Raju Chebium is a writer in Maryland. Previously, he was a journalist for the Associated Press, and Gannett/USA Today.


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