Owning a pet can relieve loneliness and anxiety, decrease blood pressure, and improve cognitive functioning. Today, about 90 million families — 70 percent of all U.S. households — own a pet, according to the 2021-2022 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association.
The joy that pets can bring to their owners is limitless, but in equal measure, the grief that comes with losing a pet is painful and takes an emotional toll on pet owners and the veterinarians who serve them.
To help owners and veterinarians cope with pet loss, the growing field of veterinary social work is expanding in veterinary hospitals and practices, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Veterinary social workers understand the important role that animals play in people’s lives and the psychological and emotional impact that the death of a pet can have.
Individuals interested in this unique role can benefit from an advanced education in social work.
What Is Veterinary Social Work?
Veterinary social workers attend to emotional needs that arise during the veterinary process. While social workers have long managed issues related to human-animal interactions, such as pet loss and animal violence, veterinary social work is relatively new.
Increasingly, universities offer certificates and dual degrees in veterinary social work. Angela Matijczak, a doctoral student at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work who has researched the emotional connection between humans and dogs, explains why. “There is growing recognition that social workers are needed in the veterinary setting as research continues to explore the impact of relationships with pets on human well-being.”
A career spotlight on veterinary social work in Social Work Today illustrates a common challenge that a veterinary social worker can assist clients with, describing a pet owner whose beloved golden retriever died. In the months following the loss, the pet owner struggled with loneliness and sadness, explaining that it was “like losing my best friend in the entire world.”
Sadly, people who communicate their grief after losing a pet are sometimes met with impatience or insensitivity. However, social workers who understand the central role that animals occupy in clients’ lives can be a vital source of support for those dealing with the loss of a pet.
What Do Veterinary Social Workers Do?
Veterinary social workers focus on the human needs that arise at the intersection of veterinary and social work practice. Specifically, they may support pet owners and veterinary professionals with issues such as the following:
- Coping with grief. Similar to how other social workers assist clients dealing with the loss of a human family member, Matijczak said that veterinary social workers can provide emotional support and counseling to grieving pet owners privately or in support groups.
- Navigating end-of-life decisions. Veterinary social workers facilitate quality-of-life conversations and decisions concerning pet euthanasia.
- Managing compassion fatigue. Veterinary social workers work with veterinarians and practice staff to offer crisis support, wellness information and referrals for ongoing help to combat compassion fatigue and burnout.
- Addressing issues of animal violence. Matijczak noted that some research indicates a link between human and animal violence, particularly family violence and animal cruelty.When it comes to violence or cruelty aimed at animals, veterinary social workers can support animal control officers and child welfare social workers, she said. This support can include equipping those professionals to connect families with “resources and services to help with family violence or animal maltreatment/cruelty.”
Supporting Grieving Pet Owners
For many, losing a beloved pet is like losing a family member. It’s not surprising that stress and grief arise from impending pet loss and the need to navigate end-of-life decisions. Like grief counselors, veterinary social workers can help clients consider quality-of-life issues for their pets and help them during and after euthanasia. They can also help clients explain pet loss to children in a developmentally appropriate way and connect families with support groups, Matijczak explained.
Supporting Veterinary Staff
The increase in pet ownership during the COVID-19 pandemic — and the disruption in the owner-pet relationship when pet owners returned to work outside the home — has spurred a high demand for veterinary services that’s continued to challenge veterinarians. Many practices have experienced challenging staffing constraints. Burnout and compassion fatigue are high among veterinary professionals, according to the Veterinary Nursing Journal. They can lead to depression and anxiety, create an adverse work environment, and may result in clinical errors.
A veterinary social worker can help alleviate this stress. They can provide mental health services and connect veterinary professionals to other resources. “They can also help alleviate some stress that veterinary professionals may be feeling by helping their clients get connected to needed resources, such as pet food pantries or low-cost behavioral training,” Matijczak said.
How to Become a Veterinary Social Worker
The growing field of veterinary social work may be a natural fit for those who are passionate about helping animals and their human caregivers.
The first step toward becoming any type of social worker typically involves earning a Bachelor of Social Work or a related undergraduate degree like psychology or sociology. Individuals may also benefit from pursuing an advanced education, such as a Master of Social Work, which builds on the foundational concepts explored in a bachelor’s program. Postgraduate certificates in veterinary social work are also available, where individuals can gain specific skills and expertise in this specialty.
Take the Next Step Toward Becoming a Veterinary Social Worker
As the needs of pet owners, pets and veterinary caregivers grow, more veterinary practices are looking to hire veterinary social workers. Social work is a broad field with many specializations to choose from, and veterinary social work is just one path.
Students eager to pursue a career as a social worker can explore the online Master of Social Work Program format at Virginia Commonwealth University, which prepares students with crucial social work skills to help them become effective clinical practitioners, administrators and advocates.
Learn how you can take your career in social work to the next level at VCU.