Veterinary Social Work
Emerging field joins two professions
By Laetitia Clayton, News staff
|Temple Grandin, 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
“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:
• Grief and pet loss
• Animal-assisted interactions
• The link between human and animal violence
• 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
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
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
“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
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
Lawrence and her interns also work with the veterinarians and
staff, teaching them stress relief and how to set boundaries and protect
“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,
“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
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
“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
“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.
For more about the UT VSW certificate program, visit www.csw.utk.edu/students/vsw/
For details on the four areas of veterinary social work,
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
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
“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
Recorded tapes of the 2013 summit will be on an open-access
website beginning Sept. 1, Strand said.
For more information, visit vetsocialwork.utk.edu
From July 2013 NASW News. © 2013 National
Association of Social Workers. All Rights Reserved. NASW News
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