All I wanted to do was help my 16-year-old cat, Bobo, feel a bit better, allowing him to live out his remaining days in comfort despite his health issues. But when I took Bobo to our veterinary clinic for several appointments during his last few weeks, I received rushed and confusing “quality of life” advice, and Bobo spent an uncomfortable few days at the clinic receiving round-the-clock hydration. I then booked an appointment with a hospice vet, but before the appointment, Bobo became sicker and had trouble breathing. I brought him to an emergency veterinary clinic to be euthanized.

It wasn’t the ending I wanted for my beloved pet. I felt a pang of regret when I realized that contacting a hospice veterinarian sooner might have saved Bobo weeks of discomfort. When I later learned about veterinary social workers, I wished I had been able to consult one to help me navigate the end-of-life decisions I had spent weeks agonizing over. 

What are vet social workers?

Veterinary social workers interact with veterinarians and pet owners in clinics, animal hospitals and other settings in four areas: the link between human and animal violence; grief and loss; animal-assisted interaction; and compassion fatigue management. I could have used the services focused on grief and loss — veterinary social workers can streamline communication on treatment and end-of-life decisions, and they work one-on-one with pet owners to explain options, answer questions and provide emotional support. They also offer outside grief counseling and grief support groups.

There is no official count on the number of veterinary social workers. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville — which established the country’s first program in 2002 and offers three certificates — has an Internet mailing list of about 1,000 individuals, though some may not be veterinary social workers. 

In compassion-fatigue management, pet social workers support veterinarians and staffers, whose job stresses include performing euthanasia and dealing with emotional and demanding clients. A study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published in January examined the records of 11,620 veterinarians who died between 1979 and 2015 and found their rates of suicide were significantly higher than for the general population.

“There’s a growing awareness about veterinarians’ mental health and I think that has motivated veterinarians to recognize they can’t do it all by themselves all the time,” said Elizabeth Strand, founding director of the University of Tennessee program. “They’re more willing to work inter-professionally, so they don’t have to be both the counselor and the medical professional.”

While many animal clinics may not have the financial resources to employ a veterinary social worker, some clinics share the cost or hire interns from universities.

Why we need vet social workers

One of the reasons we need veterinary social workers is the changing relationship between humans and their animal companions. Many people treat their pets like children and expect them to be treated accordingly by veterinarians. Data from the 2018 General Social Survey, gathered by research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, showed that 76 percent of adult pet owners nationwide almost always considered their pets part of the family.

“I think animals have more of a place in the family than they used to and we’re more involved in the lives of our pets,” said Joanne Fuller, a veterinary social worker at Blanchard Valley Veterinary Clinic in Findlay, Ohio. “People have to some degree always had a relationship with their pets, but since we’ve moved from a society of farming to having them in our homes, I think there’s more of a connection there.” 

Sandra Brackenridge, a veterinary social worker and consultant, agrees. “It’s a more complicated relationship than it used to be when companion animals lived outside and had fleas,” she said.

Fuller said there are more medical options for pets today, and they can live longer, too. “In the past, I think we lost pets more frequently. Even with humans, when people would have eight or 10 children and lose them to death at younger ages, they had more deaths in their lives,” she said. 

Rachel Wright, a veterinary social worker at Summit Veterinary Referral Center in Tacoma, Wash., said veterinary care is similar to human health care in many ways, and clients have high expectations. Today many veterinary clinics have “nurses” who administer drugs, monitor animals during operations and take X-rays, and specialty clinics have vets trained in internal medicine, ophthalmology, and sports medicine and rehabilitation, among other specialties. “If a person is diagnosed with cancer, they go to see an oncologist, look at treatment options — we see a lot of that with animals,” she said.

Brackenridge points out that many owners don’t have pet insurance. “The expense of veterinary medicine is extraordinarily taxing for so many families,” she said. That only adds to the emotional toll.

How vet social workers help 

Veterinary social workers can help ease that emotional toll in many ways. Fuller helps clients at her Ohio clinic conduct quality-of-life assessments — looking at how many good days their pets have vs. bad — and consider their financial and care limitations. (She recommends a quality-of-life questionnaire from Ohio State University’s Veterinary Medical Center.) She also helps with “anticipatory grief” — searching for ways to make those final days good — and offers private grief counseling.

Wright and her team in Tacoma make bereavement calls to every client whose pet dies or is euthanized. They also offer grief counseling, pet loss support groups and art therapy. “The ability to have somebody else go in that room and help them with the emotional pain allows me to step away and have time for other clients and patients while still providing a very high level of support for the client as they need it,” said Sarah Gillings, a veterinary oncologist and the clinic’s founding owner and medical director.

Counseling and group support were lifesavers for Kimberly Aho, whose Shiloh-Shepherd, Ryker, was treated and euthanized at the center. Veterinarians thought he might have degenerative myelopathy and referred him to a veterinary neurologist, but he woke up one morning before the appointment unable to stand or walk.

Aho, 44, who lives in Fife, Wash., felt so guilty and traumatized by the loss that she spent a year in private sessions with Wright and another in one of Wright’s pet-loss support groups. She said it helped to share her grief with someone who understood.

“I think she has a level of empathy and understanding that a grief counselor maybe would have but when it’s specialized with what [clients and social workers] call our ‘heart dogs,’ you’re able to share things with her and she’s able to hold what we call the ‘heart space’ (the grief, sadness and emotion),” said Aho, a registered dental assistant. 

Aho said Wright also suggested practical ways to feel better, such as journaling, rituals of remembrance, art therapy and finding meaning in her loss. Aho created Ryker’s “Legacy of Love,” paying for the transfer of 13 dogs from “kill” shelters to animal-rescue organizations. She also sent care packages to people for their sick dogs. Pet-loss group therapy also helped Aho meet like-minded people and realize she was not alone. She became close friends with several group members. 

Becky Murray, a counselor at the Veterinary Specialty Center in Buffalo Grove, Ill., who is a certified veterinary technician with a master’s in clinical psychology and licensed as a clinical counselor, said her experience working with veterinarians and pets helped her understand the stressors they face as well as clients’ needs.

“A lot feel angry, let down,” said Murray, and make comments about feeling as if their doctor was too busy and didn’t have time for them. While Murray’s background allows her to understand how busy veterinary clinics can get, she said she responds “from the mental health perspective, supporting the client.” 

Having Murray on hand to deal with client questions is an “enormous relief,” said Mimi Noonan, a veterinary internist at the clinic. “Our jobs are wonderful but stressful,” Noonan wrote in an email. “Becky has time available to help families process decisions and discuss options during highly stressful days.” 

Noonan added that the craft projects and puzzles in the break room that Murray provides and her tips for self-care help staff relax during stressful days. “Becky reminds us to laugh, have fun and celebrate our work friendships, as well as to be aware and respectful when we are in the ICU and upset families are visiting their pet,” Noonan said. 

In hindsight, I knew the veterinarians and technician who followed Bobo were under tremendous stress. But I think their focus was on cure or euthanasia, whereas mine was on comfort care. A veterinary social worker might have been able to help me communicate better with staff and recognize earlier that a bustling clinic with a stressed staff was actually diminishing my cat’s quality of life and that home veterinary hospice care would be my best bet.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of veterinary social worker Sandra Brackenridge.

Janice Neumann is a health and wellness writer in Chicago.

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