How Veterinary Social Workers Save Lives

My heart aches whenever I hear office staff offering condolences to pet owners as they leave the hospital with a leash and collar in their hands. I know the excruciating pain of making an end-of-life decision for a suffering pet. And I understand the heartbreak of holding a beloved animal companion as he or she takes the last breath.

Euthanasia is hard on veterinarians and their staff, too. They have to manage emotions surrounding ending an animal’s life while also dealing with the grief of the owners. Because of the lifespan of the animals they treat, veterinarians experience death at a rate five times that of physicians for humans. This can lead to high levels of stress, compassion fatigue and burnout. A report by the American Veterinary Medical Association found that as many as one in six veterinarians struggles with thoughts of suicide.

Veterinary Social Workers Help Veterinarians

Professionals in the emerging field of Veterinary Social Work offer emotional support to veterinary staff and their clients. The term “veterinary social work” was coined in 2002 by Elizabeth Strand, founding director of the Veterinary Social Work Certificate Program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Students enrolled in this program are trained in the four areas of veterinary social work: The link between human and animal violence, grief and loss, animal-assisted interactions and compassion fatigue management.

While most veterinary colleges have some form of veterinary social work or counseling, it’s not widespread in private veterinary practices. Larger veterinary facilities with multiple locations or corporate chains are more likely to have a veterinary social worker on staff.

The Center for Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Care in Lewisville, TX started a veterinary social work internship program in 2013 to help clients struggling with the loss of their pets. The program was developed by Licensed Clinical Social Worker Sandra Brackenridge. A former associate professor of social work at Texas Woman’s University, Brackenbridge retired from teaching this year to devote more time to developing veterinary social work internship programs for animal hospitals throughout the U.S. This year she developed programs at veterinary hospitals in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Veterinary Social Workers Help Pet Owners

  • Social workers offer support and companionship to clients while awaiting the results of a procedure. They help transfer information from the veterinary team to the pet owner and accompany a pet owner when visiting a pet in the hospital. In an October blog post, Brackenridge shared how one of her interns offered emotional support to a mom and her children when they brought in a dog who had been “bludgeoned” by the woman’s husband. In addition to supporting the family, the veterinary social worker acted as a bridge to other services such as animal control, the police and child protection services.
  • They can help guide clients in making end-of-life decisions and offer emotional support in the euthanasia room.
  • They can provide grief counseling. Clients at the Center for Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Care have access to private and group pet loss support counseling. They also receive educational materials on such topics as helping children cope with pet loss and helping other animal companions in the family who are grieving the loss of a friend.

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Veterinary Social Workers Help the Veterinary Team  

According to an article in a January 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA):

 “…veterinary practice can be fraught with emotional situations, whether it’s family members struggling with the decision to euthanize their dog or a client who has threatened violence. The reality is most veterinarians and their staff aren’t qualified to deal with these predicaments but often are put in that position.”

Social workers can help the veterinary team by providing such services as:

  • Teaching good communication skills to help veterinarians when interacting with co-workers and clients.
  • Teaching stress management skills to help avoid compassion fatigue and burnout. Brackenridge offers group workshops as well as private and confidential consultation/counseling services. When necessary, she makes referrals for outside professional counseling. “Veterinary social workers can teach the veterinary team how to set aside other people’s emotions and how to set boundaries,” Brackenridge said. “We discuss how to care for the body through mindfulness and other techniques.”
  • Provide debrief sessions following a difficult medical procedure or a particularly challenging day at the practice when the staff had to deal with difficult clients. When a client’s erratic behavior is due to grief or stress at not being able to afford the medical care required to save a pet, veterinary social workers can help diffuse the situation. When clients are just  exhibiting rude behavior, the veterinary team is taught coping techniques.“ These situations can cause a lot of stress for veterinary staff,” Brackenridge said. “Through debriefing sessions, we provide them an outlet for discussing what happened so the stress doesn’t fester for years.”

Recently Brackenridge organized a Flower Day at the Center for Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Care. Staff was invited to plant a flower in memory of a pet or multiple pets who were euthanized or died at the animal hospital.

“The staff goes from case to case to case and they don’t grieve well,” Brackenbridge said. “Planting a flower in the garden gave them a chance to memorialize lost pets.”

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