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Issue: 65 - May 15, 2014
Veterinary Social Work: Heard Of It?
By: Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR
interFace Veterinary HR System

Not many people know that the University of Tennessee has combined the College of Veterinary Medicine with the College of Social Work, and created a master’s program called Veterinary Social Work. Here are the four cornerstones of this program. They focus on:

  • Animal-Assisted Therapy (for “humans”)
  • The Link between animal and human abuse
  • Pet loss and Bereavement
  • Compassion Fatigue

The university hosts the Veterinary Social Work Summit every two years. Discussion at the Summit revolves around the different types of therapy and the different training required by the animals…even the species of animal to choose! They also focus on the animal’s well-being while providing this help to humans. The humans using animal assistants acknowledge that the animals need to be assessed and monitored to see what type of work is the best for them to provide based on their personality, when they need a break while doing the work, and when they need to be retired completely.

Next, The Link (between animal and human abuse) has been widely documented; if we cross paths with someone who abuses an animal, they are likely to also be abusing someone else in the household. More states are requiring “mandatory reporting”, where the veterinarian is bond to notify human health services when they suspect abuse or neglect. There are more issues such as: how to remove an animal from a home where women/children may be suffering from abuse and have been relocated, and where can that animal stay (with the family in a facility, or boarded elsewhere?); and how the abused person may be staying because they can’t take their pet, and don’t want to leave them with the abuse; and finally, when a social worker works with a client who is determined to have suffered abuse, should they or how would they ask about any pets in the home who may be victims as well.

Pet Loss and Bereavement

By the very nature of what we do, we are in the position to help pet owners through loss and grief. Most of us do this work without any formal training either from our schooling or our employers. We learn it “on the job”, because death is a part of our job. At the Veterinary Social Work Summit, there were presentations about how to help families through pet loss and bereavement. Along the way, a new document you can find on AAHA’s website came up in conversation (see Resources below). The document is titled Human Support in Veterinary Settings. It’s basically a workbook to help your practice find human support personnel in your region to help your clients with loss and bereavement, among other things. This is an important first step to discovering how our two professions can help each other, help animals, and help a society where the human-animal bond is growing stronger with each passing day. The document includes a chart titled “Human Social Support Recommendations Summary”. This document recommends that for pet loss support, we should contract with a human support professional serving our practice, a group of practices, or a local association. We need to be in on this conversation, because often we are the only resource the pet owner seeks, and we need more training on how to help these families. Perhaps together, the veterinary profession and the social work profession can come up with a plan to educate each other.

Compassion Fatigue

Compassion Fatigue of the veterinary professional is the area where we must participate in the conversation. My very first exposure to the concept of “compassion fatigue” was in 2008 when the practice I managed brought in a speaker from our EAP (Employee Assistance Program, which offers free counseling for an organization’s employees), but it wasn’t referred to in those terms, “compassion fatigue”. In fact, I don’t remember what it was called, because it felt so irrelevant to our lives at that veterinary referral hospital. The EAP speaker didn’t understand what we did in that building, the 10-12 hour shifts when you never get to sit down or eat, the 5 patients euthanized during one overnight shift, the clients screaming at the front desk that we were going to let their cat die because they didn’t have any money. This wasn’t the speaker’s fault, but no one really heard a word she said that day.

Then in 2009, at the beginning of my speaking career, I was asked to speak to the Michigan Association of Veterinary Technicians, and one of the topics they requested was this mysterious “compassion fatigue”. Well, because I knew the topics that I would presenting the whole rest of the day, I accepted the gig and jumped in with both feet to start researching compassion fatigue…and I embarked upon the most satisfying, yet heart-wrenching, topic of my career. I knew compassion fatigue intimately, as it turned out, because I could have been the poster child for the condition! I read, I wept, I contemplated, and finally I presented that Saturday to that wonderful room of technicians. We laughed, we cried, we learned, and we listened, to each other. I wasn’t the “expert”, I was one of “them”, and I was simply opening up the box for us all to peek in and whisper about what we found, the feelings that lay deep inside unspoken. I knew them and their pain; they knew I had shared that pain.

My point is, social workers may want to help us with compassion fatigue and certainly they understand the psychology behind it all, and perhaps ways to treat it, but they just don’t KNOW how it feels to be us, to be you, to be me. Again, we need to find a way to work together, for the benefit of people and animals alike. My hope is that this just starts that conversation.


Human Support in Veterinary Settings (see this document at

For more information about the Veterinary Social Work Summit, visit