Transcript for Episode 42: Veterinary Social Work

NASW Social Work Talks Podcast

Greg Wright:  Welcome to Social Work Talks. I am Greg Wright. More Americans than ever own dogs, cats, and other pets. 67 percent of U.S. households, or 85 million families now own a pet. Not surprisingly, social work has now moved into the realm of veterinarians. Here to talk about that is our guest, social worker, Dr. Elizabeth Strand. Dr. Strand is the Founding Director of Veterinary Social Work at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. It is the first such social work program in the nation. Welcome to Social Work Talks, Dr. Strand. How are you?

Elizabeth Strand: I'm well, I'm well. Thank you for asking.

Greg Wright: First off, I wanted to ask you, what is the difference between animal therapy and veterinary social work?

Elizabeth Strand: Veterinary social work is an interprofessional practice that includes animal assisted therapy, but is broader than animal assisted therapy.

Veterinary social work encompasses four areas. One is animal assisted interventions, which would include animal assisted therapy, but it also includes the very strong bond that exists between a farmer and his herd, or the moments that we enjoy watching birds at the bird feeder. So, it's very broad, but it also includes animal assisted therapy and that component.

We also focus on the link between human and animal violence. So, domestic violence victims that, maybe, won't leave their home because they're concerned for the safety of their pet.

Animal related grief and bereavement. This, of course, is end of life decision for pets, but also grief and bereavement that occurs in situations of depopulation of herds of animals when there's disease.

Then, the last area of veterinary social work is compassion fatigue and conflict management. As a health profession, veterinarians experience compassion fatigue, just like all health professions, and also benefit from conflict resolution skills and support in those areas.

Greg Wright: If I'm a pet owner, and I have a pet who is either about to die due to a health reason, or has died, how can a social worker who is in a veterinarian's office help that person overcome grief?

Elizabeth Strand: Yeah. The first is to be able to speak to somebody who gets it. We consider, and many have experienced, that the loss we feel at the death of an animal is a disenfranchised grief. When we lose a husband, a wife, a child, a mother, father, there are funerals. The churches, or the synagogues, or the other institutions of religious support have built in systems that help us with bereavement. But, with pet loss, often people hear, "It was just a dog, it was just a cat."

The first way that we help is having a professional that treats is seriously, and gets it. In a concrete way, we also, if we are in the veterinary setting, can be present at the time of euthanasia, if euthanasia is the way the animal dies. We can help connect that person with a crematory, or help them think through other ways they want to handle the disposition of the body. And, come up with ways of memorializing the animal, up and to including small funerals, with family and friends, or whatever the person feels they need to navigate the grief, in a way that helps them heal up.

Greg Wright: I was wondering if a social worker could also play a role in helping a pet owner have a better relationship with that animal?

Elizabeth Strand: Oh yeah, that is an interesting comment. One of the things that I've observed over the years is, and the research supports this, that people tend to have a similar type of relationship with their animals that they do with their people.

So, if I have an anxious attachment with my human family members, my relationship with my pet also is more reflective of an anxious attachment. What that looks like is, I might be worried that my pet doesn't like me, that they're angry with me for some reasons. I might be worried about my pet's health issues, when the veterinarian says that the health issues are fine, but I might be really anxious that there's something terribly wrong with the pet.

I think, through connecting with a veterinary social worker, we can help a person have a more secure attachment with their pet, and one that is a mutually beneficial one, where the pet gets what they need, and the human being gets what they need, and they can feel good together.

Elizabeth Strand: I'm just curious, do you have pets?

Greg Wright: Yes. I have a cat. I grew up with dogs, birds, fish, rabbits.

Elizabeth Strand: Oh, wow.

Greg Wright: Our family has always had animals. They are treated as a family member. I mean, I can say that when a pet died, my mom took that harder than when a human relative died, actually.

Elizabeth Strand: Right.

Greg Wright: For some reason.

Elizabeth Strand: Yeah. That is not unusual.

Greg Wright: I thought it was odd, growing up. Is it really not that odd?

Elizabeth Strand: Mm-hmm, not that odd. I've seen that a lot.

Elizabeth Strand: If you think about, it animals are... The relationship is a lot less complicated. They meet a need in our heart, of being accepted as we are. That really touches us in a deep way, and when they die, because they've gotten into that deep place in our heart, of needed to be accepted as we are ... When they die, it's really sad, it really hurts.

Greg Wright: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I grieve for a few pets that I lost as a child. I mean, I still think of them.

Elizabeth Strand: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Yes, me too.

Greg Wright: How did you, as a social worker, get involved into this area?

Elizabeth Strand: I graduated with my masters in social work, and I became a family therapist. Family therapy really is my first love. I was in a residential treatment facility with adolescent kids, and their parents would see them in family therapy with me.

Elizabeth Strand: I remember vividly, one family wrote letters to their child, from the dog, the family dog.

Greg Wright: Wow.

Elizabeth Strand: I remember the treatment team just being appalled by this, that this was not appropriate, the wrong thing. I remember thinking, well, that seems pretty all right to me. That was my first inkling of the ways in which dogs, and cats, and pets played a real role in the family.

Then, I wanted to get my PhD, I always knew I did. While I was pursuing my PhD, my chair was interested in studying the link between human and animal violence. So, that was my dissertation work. During my PhD, there were some leaders who were interested in the integration of social work in veterinary medicine. You know those wonderful moments when you're in the right place, at the right time, and you've got the energy to work really hard? That's how it all came about.

I was a doctoral student, and there were some masters students that wanted a field placement at the vet School. The deans of both colleges, here at University of Tennessee were like, "Sure, let's give it a shot." I was doing the research on the link between human and animal violence, and reading all the literature. My college let me do my graduate assistantship over in the college of veterinary medicine. So, in 2002, I was paid for 10 hours of work, and I was putting in 40 hours.

Greg Wright: Mm-hmm.

Elizabeth Strand: Yeah. I think that's how good things start, as you're willing to really dig in, and innovate. I was working on the floor, the floor of the clinic for many years, and reading the literature. One night, I sat up in bed and was like, "We have gerontological social work, we have hospital social work, we have school social work. We need veterinary social work." So, that's how it was born.

Greg Wright: At this point, you are the only program nationally? Or, are there more coming out?

Elizabeth Strand: Oh, no. There's more coming out. We coined the term veterinary social work, but I was, just yesterday, giving a talk at the American Veterinary Medical Association Well-Being Summit. This wonderful, young social worker in Massachusetts came up to me, and she says, "I'm a veterinary social worker!" I said, "Really? Tell me about it?" She got a job in a veterinary clinic, right out of school, and is conducting veterinary social work. So, it's a thing, it's happening.

Greg Wright: There was a Washington Post article on you, and we posted it out through our social media, and it went viral.

Elizabeth Strand: Yeah.

Greg Wright: A lot of folks were saying, "This is an area of social work that I really want to do." How many students are enrolled now?

Elizabeth Strand: For our masters program... We have several different certificates. But, students that come for their MSSW at UT can complete the Veterinary Social Work Certificate. Since it started, we have about 53 graduates.

Then, I think we have, in our post-graduate program, I think we have, in total, including students that have committed to the entire certificate, and then students that are just doing continuing education with us, we have upwards of 150 students pursuing some kind of content related to this topic.

Greg Wright: Dr. Strand, though, I was wondering, are vets becoming more open to having a social worker working with them, in their offices?

Elizabeth Strand: They are.

Elizabeth Strand: One of the big career successes that I had been wanting, wanting, wanting, wanting, and it recently just happened. There are larger veterinary corporations that, from a macro perspective, if they started using veterinary social workers, it would be really influential in the field of veterinary medicine, but it would also be really good for our students to get jobs.

Blue Pearl is a larger veterinary clinic, and they have a veterinary social worker on staff. They've hired two of our post-graduate students, and are creating field placements for our students-

Greg Wright: Wow.

Elizabeth Strand: To get experience in veterinary social work, yeah.

Then, I would say, specialty practices... There are some veterinary practices that are 24/7, that have emergency, and critical care, and other specialties like internal medicine, and oncology, and neurology, and they're hiring veterinary social workers. It's happening, people are hiring for sure.

Greg Wright: Wow, wow. Great. I wanted to go back to something that you said earlier. It was on the issue of domestic violence. You said that there is a link there, with a pet owner who might be a victim of this, who won't leave it because of a pet?

Elizabeth Strand: I think this is an important part of veterinary social work. I'm so glad that you asked the question, because there are the lovely side of the human animal bond, but as social workers, we recognize there's also suffering that happens in relationships.

We embrace that knowledge about the link between human and animal violence is a competency. If you're going to work around animals, with animals, and with veterinarians, you have to be knowledgeable about this aspect of care. This is so important, that we have students that come to study with us, sign an informed consent that says they recognize they're going to have to learn about this. Because, it's hard, to learn about animals being abused.

It really got attention in the early 80s, when the FBI started to recognize that, in the childhood histories of serial killers, there was often a history of abuse towards animals. In 2016, I think, is the first time that the National Crime Incident Tracking Institution started to track animal abuse as a crime. Before that, there was no systematic way that we were tracking animal abuse. There are a few states that have animal abuse registries, like sexual predator registries. Tennessee is one of them. It's up and coming, a recognition that abuse towards animals can often co-occur with other forms of violence.

Greg Wright: Wow.

Elizabeth Strand: This brings us to the domestic violence issue, which was my dissertation research. Some of the statistics on domestic violence are that about 70 percent, I think, state that their animals have been threatened, and 20 percent that their animals have actually been abused or killed.

In my findings, women without children delayed longer, to protect their pets, and grieved and worried about their pets more. People will delay up to three months, because they want to protect their pets. It's an important thing, in domestic violence, that asking about pets, and safety and planning about pets is important, for reducing barriers.

Greg Wright: Yes. If I am a social worker, and I'm in a vet's office. A client comes in, and I identify that this person is a domestic abuse survivor. Can a social worker offer them a shelter that also handles animals, too? Is that an option?

Elizabeth Strand: Co-sheltering is a growing approach for protecting both humans and animals in those situations. I know that, for instance, in Nashville, they are just building a co-sheltering approach. I think that it's really a good thing. Those domestic violence shelters, though, really do need to be in consultation with veterinarians and animal sheltering community, to be able to do that appropriately. That's an important interprofessional practice that we really believe in.

Greg Wright: There is also the issue of hoarding. I was wondering if animal hoarding is also a subject that your program delves into?

Elizabeth Strand: Yes. Working with animal hoarders is one of my most favorite things to do. I have a lot of compassion for them, and I have worked with many of them. It's really a thing. There is 100 percent recidivism in animal hoarding if the animal hoarders do not get treatment. Animal hoarding tends to be higher representation in older females, who went through a recent traumatic incident, and also have a history of trauma in early childhood. Some animal hoarders really will do whatever they can... They might say, lie, cheat, or steal, to keep their animals. Many animal hoarders just find themselves very overwhelmed.

Greg Wright: Mm-hmm.

Elizabeth Strand: Like the overwhelmed caregiver, and they just really need help. They got themselves into a situation, and they can't get themselves out of it. It's indicative that they need other social supports, mental health care, housing care.

I have seen, in the past, a real progress in how local jurisdictions are responding to animal hoarders. In the past, they would just go in, and take all the animals away. It would be highly traumatizing for the animal hoarder. Now, I've seen a little staging approach, where animals are taken away in stages, and it co-occurs with the introduction of mental health care, to help that person get the treatment they need.

Greg Wright: Listeners, we'll be right back.

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Greg Wright: We're back! If you could offer a pet owner a few tips on how to have a better relationship with their pet?

Elizabeth Strand: Well, I think that one of the things that helps with a good relationship with their pet, is spending time together, of course. Making sure that the pet has plenty of good exercise, and good healthcare, and utilizing the relationship with their pet to also bond with other people, in the household or at the park.

Elizabeth Strand: Yeah. What do you think?

Greg Wright: They're actually helping you socialize better. When I walked a dog, I actually meet a lot more people than when I'm just out walking, alone.

Elizabeth Strand: Sometimes in today's society, where we get caught on our phones, on Facebook, and scroll, scroll, scroll, we can get isolated. Sometimes people put an emotional burden on their pets that is beyond what the pets can do, because it's a dog. It's not a human that can talk.

I think that one of the ways we can have a better relationship with our pet is to recognize that they are a wonderful and different species, and that they have needs, like exercise, and play time, and that we can really have a great relationship with our pet, if we also have good relationships with people. Our pets can us do that.

Greg Wright: Dr. Strand, are you a pet owner now? How many pets do you have?

Elizabeth Strand: Thank you for asking. I'm smiling, really big. I have two dogs. One is named Chesterfield, and she is a girl. She's a Lhasa Apso Cocker spaniel mix. Then, I have another one named Crockett, and he is a Briard poodle mix. Then, I have a bird, named Hershel.

Greg Wright: I love the names.

Elizabeth Strand: Yeah. I would love to hear from you, and also I would love for the audience, listeners, to consider, we have our pet's names, and then we have the real names.

Like, Chesterfield is Chesterfield, but when I really think she's so cute, I call her Chesterbug. Yeah. Do you have names for your dogs or cats? What do you have?

Greg Wright: I actually have a cat, now. I thought it was, actually, a boy cat when I adopted it. It's an orange tabby cat. Most of them are males, so I named it Boots. Then, I took it to the vet and they said, "No, it's a girl, which is really a rare thing for an orange tabby cat."

Elizabeth Strand: Nice.

Greg Wright: I had to change the name a bit, to Bootsy, usually. Yeah, that's what I ended up going with.

Elizabeth Strand: That's great.

Greg Wright: Dr. Strand, a lot of vets are dying by suicide.

Elizabeth Strand: Yes. It's really a strong thing on my heart, and a strong aspect of, I think, why veterinary social work is so important for the profession of veterinary medicine.

Veterinarians do have a higher rate of completing suicide than the general population. I think women, female veterinarians, are a 3.1 times higher rate, and males 2.1, somewhere around there. I think that all health professions have a higher, a little bit higher, elevated rate, of suicides than the general population, but veterinarians are even a bit higher. I think there's two reasons that people are settling in on why.

One is, access to means. Veterinarians euthanize animals. Then, a comfort with euthanizing, when suffering occurs. In suicide prevention efforts, access to means is one of the biggest protectors for helping a person not act on suicide. Right now, I think veterinary medicine is really looking at access to means as something that has to be attended to.

The other bit is that there's this wonderful book. Some of your listeners will know it. The James Harriet, All Creatures Great and Small book, which is about the life of a veterinarian. It really describes a very bucolic, lovely life, of what it means to be a veterinarian. Often times, our colleagues in veterinary medicine will say that we have the James Harriet Effect. Where you come into school, you think it's going to be like James Harriet, and when you get out of school, you realize that there's a lot of moral stress, where clients can't pay for care, and are angry that they can't pay for care, and blame the veterinarian.

Elizabeth Strand: A lot of human things that veterinarians feel overwhelmed by, and I think that this is an aspect of what might contribute to depression, which then contributes to suicide, suicidal thoughts. Yeah, we're all making progress on it. The whole field of veterinary medicine, and veterinary social work is really at the table, big time, in helping to prevent this issue.

Greg Wright: There are a lot of shows out now, a lot of reality shows, that are either about animal or pet behavior, or it's about a vet. I was wondering if you watch those, and what you think about them?

Elizabeth Strand: I don't watch them, because I live it. I'm hanging around veterinarians all the time. I don't know what to say, it's the best thing. I'm a better social worker, because I've worked a long time with veterinarians. Veterinarians keep my compassion up. As a social worker, I can have all sorts of policies, and procedures, and approaches, and this treatment, and that treatment. But, as we all know, it's that therapeutic alliance that really makes the difference of whether somebody gets better or not. Veterinarians just are compassionate, and often times I just have to look across, standing next to me in an exam room, and see how a veterinarian is interacting with their client and I'm like, "Oh, yeah. Let me drop all of this CBT, acceptance [inaudible] therapy, and let me just connect with this client." It's great.

Elizabeth Strand: Yeah, that's what I think. I think I live it, and I love it.

Greg Wright: Oh, great. Great. It's a wonderful thing to actually love what you do, every day.

Elizabeth Strand: Yeah.

Greg Wright: This was a very interesting conversation. Thank you so much for being with Social Work Talks, Dr. Strand.

Elizabeth Strand: Oh my goodness, it was a great conversation. Thank you for having me.

Greg Wright: Bye bye now.

Elizabeth Strand: Bye.

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