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Veterinary Social Work

Human-animal bond, grief and loss, child abuse, family violence, power control wheel, animal-assisted interventions, compassion fatigue, animal shelter workers


Three sections follow:

1.      Background Material that provides the context for the topic

2.      A suggested Practice Approach

3.      A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!


Background Material


Definitions—Human-Animal Bond & Veterinary Social Work

The human-animal bond is defined as the mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviours that are essential to the health and wellbeing of both.  This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment.  Since 1975 social workers have played a critical role in the field of human-animal bonds through their contributions toward the understanding of how animal companions intertwine with the lives of humans (Holcombe et al., 2016).


The emergence of the human-animal bond has led to a natural integration of social work and veterinary science into veterinary social work.  Veterinary social work is the provision of services at the intersection of veterinary medicine and social work practice (Holcombe et al., 2016).


The human-animal bond – history and recent developments

Greek and Roman societies considered animals had rights; however the Judeo-Christian tradition was indifferent to animals.  Animals were seen to lack the abilities to reason and experience feelings.  Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ gave rise to thinking that humans, having dominion over animals, were free to perform any action on animals.  In the Western world this started to change around the late 1800s with the development of various ‘cruelty to animals’ Acts (Walker et al., 2015). 


There is emerging evidence of the potential health and well-being benefits of human–animal interactions across the life cycle in slowing the development and progression of chronic illnesses by decreasing loneliness and depression, decreasing anxiety and sympathetic nervous system arousal, and improving physical fitness by providing an impetus to exercise (Akrow, 2020).  For example, the American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2023) suggests animals offer many mental health benefits.  Among pet owners, a strong majority (86%) said their pets have a mostly positive impact on their mental health. Dog owners (87%) and cat owners (86%) were equally likely to say so, while other pet owners (62%) were less likely.  A strong majority (88%) of pet owners said they consider their pets a part of their family.  Benefits to mental health include:

  • Helping to reduce stress and anxiety (69%).

  • Providing unconditional love and support (69%).

  • Offering companionship (69%).

  • Providing a calming presence (66%).

  • Being true friends (63%).


Pets occupy central roles in many interpersonal and infra-familial relationships. They may serve as significant others, confidants, attachment figures, and sources of companionship. They can be vital members of an individual’s support system and facilitators to foster social capital, trust, civic participation and a sense of safety and community. The relationships between humans and animals in a household may mirror the status of the health and safety of the people in that family.  Social workers exploring a client’s home life and family dynamics may be missing a significant piece of the puzzle if they neglect to inquire about the client’s animals and the attachments, relationships, and problems with them (Arkow, 2020).


Social workers have historically ignored the central role animals play in the lives of their clients, adopting an anthropocentric view underpinned by human rights and social justice. Recently, however, pets are increasingly being recognised as important because of the central role they can play in a family.  Asking about pets can build rapport and trust.  Discussing pets can easily segue into a discussion about the client’s family support system and how well he or she is utilizing personal resources (Akrow, 2020).


Grief and loss of an animal companion

Loss of a pet can impact on one’s social impact with other human beings, cause disturbing disruptions in daily routines, shift family roles, and change interaction patterns within a family.  Additional changes may include changes in sleeping and eating patterns, withdrawal from social activities, job-related difficulties, and suicidal ideation.  The choice to euthanize a beloved animal involves complicated dynamics and feelings of guilt and anger.  In other words, pet loss can facilitate a grief response and, unfortunately, socially acceptable forms for grieving the loss of animal companions are lacking in Western culture.  The dismissal of a pet owner’s pain can lead to isolation, shame, or suppression of feelings, which makes recovery from grief more complicated and lead to disenfranchised grief (Akrow, 2020; Holcombe et al., 2016).  Winch (2018) points out that society does not recognize how painful pet loss can be and how much it can impair emotional and physical health.  Symptoms of acute grief after the loss of a pet can last from one to two months to a full year (on average).  Winch (2018) provides specific examples to illustrate why society should take pet loss seriously and offer appropriate support.


In 2018 Laing and Maylea conducted a qualitative thematic analysis involving 218 responses to an article on the topic of losing a companion animal.  Their analysis demonstrated the strength of the human–animal bond, illustrated how the dominant anthropocentric hegemony disenfranchises this variety of grief and loss, described the experience of anticipatory grief in the context of euthanasia, and identified the need for professional support. They suggest social workers should exchange their anthropocentric approach for a biocentric view (i.e. broaden their approach from the welfare of humans to include non-human organisms and nature as a whole).  Social workers should also provide support to veterinarians and other professionals, and work toward challenging the social constructs, which disenfranchise companion animal loss.


Animal abuse can be an indicator of violence against people 

International literature draws links between animal abuse and child abuse, family abuse, elder abuse, and childhood cruelty (Holcombe et al., 2016; Walker et al., 2015).  Social workers may find that when animals are abused people are at risk, and when people are abused animals may be at risk.  Emotional attachments to companion animals are often exploited by abusers in violence-prone households to control and coerce victims in domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, and elder abuse situations.  Fear of leaving a pet behind is a significant barrier that keeps women and children from extricating themselves from abusive situations (Akrow, 2020).


Recently the Power and Control Wheel was modified to demonstrate how animal abuse can be incorporated in abusers’ coercive control tactics (Akrow, 2020).


Animal-assisted intervention

Animal-assisted intervention is an umbrella term used to describe therapeutic interventions that include animals as part of a treatment or ameliorative process.  Incorporating animals into traditional psycho-therapeutic models is used to support the therapeutic process.  Literature suggests animal interactions reduced anxiety, improved both depression and feelings of loneliness, decreased agitation, and increased the number and content of social interactions.  These benefits are derived in part from the perceived social support that an animal companion provides.  Animal-assisted interventions vary depending on the nature of the program and the participants.  They can be used in hospitals, schools, out-patients, and counselling centres to provide tactile comfort, affections and companionship (Holcombe et al., 2016). 


Companion animals can provide significant social support, can impact substantially on the dynamics of the family system—they can play a significant role in family life.  Therefore social work practice, education, theory, ethics, and values should move from being exclusively human centered to include animal rights and welfare and the role of animals as family members within a holistic and comprehensive viewing of the ecological model.  Overall, there is a need to develop new social work theory that considers animals as family members, companions, therapy co-workers, and as indicators of risk within families and society.  The role animals in people’s lives should be included in undergraduate social work programs (Walker et al., 2015).


Practice Approach


As the field of Veterinary Social Work gains additional recognition both within and outside the world of social work, additional opportunities will continue to emerge whereby an understanding of human–animal relationships becomes a valuable asset in many aspects of social work practice.  By including human-animal relationships in interventions and assessments and being aware of community resources that can resolve clients’ animal-related concerns, social workers can be more holistic and effective in resolving clients’ needs and challenges and preventing further abuse of vulnerable members of families and communities.  Inquiring about the presence (or absence), stability (or turbulence), attachments, dangerousness, history, and status of animals within clients’ lives can help social workers to obtain more comprehensive family assessments, validate important intra-familial relationships, build stronger support networks, support resiliency, gain earlier recognition of abusive behaviors, and address clients’ animal care concerns with practical, appropriate and affordable solutions (Akrow, 2020).


Veterinary social work extends to four areas: the link between human and animal violence; grief and loss; animal-assisted interactions; and compassion fatigue management. This work may include:

  • Providing grief support, counselling and follow-up after end-of-(animal) life decisions.

  • Advocacy and brokering of resources.

  • Circulating reading materials and educational resources.

  • Crisis intervention.

  • Assessment of suicidal tendencies, mental health issues and domestic violence issues.

  • Facilitation of a pet loss support group for hospital clientele and the community.

  • Staff debriefing sessions.

  • Client consultations and follow-up.

  • Presentations to staff.

  • Referral of staff to mental health services.

  • Recommendations to administrators.

  • Making improvements to client comfort on-site (Akrow, 2020).

This list is consistent with other authors and teaching institutions that offer courses in veterinary social work (Kennedy, 2023; MedVet, 2022; Ohio State University, n.d.;Online MSW Programs, 2022; Sutton-Ryan, 2023; Williams, 2020)


Emerging Opportunities In Veterinary Social Work


Include animals in bio-psychosocial and other assessments             

Animals should be included in family assessments (Walker et al., 2015). Besides gaining knowledge about the quality of pet care, social workers can also determine if the owner has any problems with daily living skills and/or emotional issues.  Social workers can also assess concerns of potential child abuse or domestic violence by observing an alleged perpetrator’s interactions with the family pet or by eliciting information from family members about fears regarding safety of their pet (Holcombe et al., 2016).   


Grief and loss of an animal companion           

Social workers can intervene with pet owners around grief and loss in a number of areas:

  • Provide support to owners distressed by their pets’ medical conditions,

  • Assist with indecision around euthanasia.  Social workers and veterinarians can assess both the quality of the pet’s life and the quality of its death.  Presenting all options helps clients make informed decisions and gives a sense of control.

  • Support pet owners through anticipated grief and subsequent grief following the death of a pet.

  • Provide bereavement support groups to educate, provide support and alleviate grief for pet owners.

  • Assist veterinarians with their grief response and their emotional reactions when assisting pet owners with painful decisions.

  • Train veterinarians and staff about the benefits of the human-animal bond and the consequences of pet loss (e.g. mental health issues and the grieving process) (Holcombe et al., 2016). 


Compassion fatigue    

Veterinary services are shifting from providing care solely to animals to providing care to both pets and their owners.  This can lead to veterinarians and their staff developing compassion fatigue.  Compassion fatigue is characterized by the depletion of internal emotional resources that occurs from listening, relating to, and emotionally engaging empathetically with others who are experiencing emotional turmoil and/or pain.  This is compounded by the pressure put on veterinarians to euthanize animals at the owner’s request, regardless of the veterinarian’s thoughts and feelings about this choice.  Alternatively, owners can insist on prolonging an animal’s life beyond what is in the animal’s best interests. 


Often those experiencing compassion fatigue do not practise self-care with dire consequences on mental health, e.g. contemplating or attempting suicide.  Practising self-care is especially important for treating compassion fatigue.  For example, incorporating personal and social protective factors into a self-care plan, and creating a safe place or sanctuary in the workplace are options.  Social workers can play vital roles in achieving and maintaining the goals of self-care (Holcombe et al., 2016).


Human and animal violence 

Because abusing animals is one of a number of tactics used by perpetrators to instil fear, prevent victims from leaving, manipulate children, and intimidate elders (i.e. abusing animals can suggest family violence, elder abuse and/or child abuse is present in the household), veterinary social workers are ideally placed to explore the family situation in detail with people and intervene with an appropriate approach (Holcombe et al., 2016).  By asking three simple open-ended questions, social workers can learn much about a child’s experiences with the animals and humans who share his or her environment:

  • Are there animals at home?

  • How are they cared for?

  • Are you worried about their welfare?

Follow-up questions about their names, breeds, play activities, deaths or disappearances, recent health problems or injuries, and secrets shared with them may fill in details of the family dynamics, patterns of power and control, and risk and resiliency factors in children’s lives (Akrow).


Intimate partner violence      

Social workers can facilitate the interests of intimate partner violence clients and their children and animals by:

  • Gathering information about the status of animals and their (mis)treatment by asking: Are there animals at home? How are they cared for? Are you worried about their welfare?

  • Coordinating with and making referrals to pet-related services for survivors, such as pet-friendly transitional housing, affordable veterinary care and pet boarding, and foster care with animal care and control agencies. Social workers can compile resource directories so domestic violence agencies know who to call for help with clients’ animal issues.

  • Helping victims to establish pet ownership by getting all of the animals’ documentation in the victim’s name.

  • Including information about assaultive and coercive acts of animal cruelty in mental health assessments and rehabilitation of abusers.

  • Including relocation of pets in domestic violence agencies’ safety plans.

  • Inviting animal-assisted therapy teams into shelters to help comfort survivors.

  • Counselling children regarding incidents of animal maltreatment, death or disappearance of pets that they may have witnessed or committed.

  • Developing community education campaigns to alert the public and cross-train professionals about how animal abuse is linked with intimate partner violence. Veterinarians, in particular, whose staffs and clients are predominantly female, should begin to recognize a responsibility to be alert for signs of, and survivors of, intimate partner violence (Akrow, 2020).


Animal-assisted interventions                 

There are a growing number of social workers who are incorporating animal-assisted techniques in their work (Akrow, 2020; Holcombe, et al., 2016).  Animal-assisted work is generally defined as either

  • Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) where an animal is included as part of the intervention process.  Examples include teaching, socialisation skills, reducing isolation, combating bullying, and enhancing overall health.

  • Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) where the animal is deliberately included in a therapeutic treatment plan.  Examples include Riding for the Disabled, training dogs to support people with disabilities (e.g. guide dogs, epilepsy assist dogs), Outreach Therapy Pets, working with prisoners, PAWS (animals as part of mental health support), and various equine assisted programs (Walker et al., 2015).


Children’s advocacy centres and courthouse facility dogs 

Facility animals in children’s advocacy centres and courtrooms provide emotional support to sexual abuse survivors as they undergo forensic examinations, re-live their experiences, and confront their abusers.  Social workers can facilitate interactions between the dogs and distraught family members and stressed facility staff and be resources who connect individuals and institutions with facility animals in their community (Akrow, 2020).


Animal shelters              

Animal shelter workers experience significant stressors including animal suffering and euthanasia, responsibility for life, abusive clients, negative public perceptions, and attachments to animals under their care.  There are promising opportunities for social worker in animal shelters:

  • Reducing staff and volunteers’ compassion fatigue in an exceedingly difficult and emotionally draining work environment;

  • Placement of shelter pets as Emotional Support Animals;

  • Strengthening community responsiveness to violence through assessing overlaps and differences between child, elder and animal abuse investigations;

  • Creating and implementing educational programming across child and animal protection systems; and

  • Increasing community awareness of the link between violence to animals and violence to humans.

  • Training shelter personnel on the intersectionality of animal abuse and human violence and the procedures for making referrals to social services agencies (Akrow, 2020). 

Hoy-Gerlach et al. (2021) discuss social work with animal shelter workers in more detail finding that these workers are at a disproportionate risk of moral injury, secondary trauma, compassion fatigue and burn-out.  The writers summarise occupational risks and protective factors for animal shelter workers and suggest social work as one strategy for helping to ameliorate the occupational stress of animal shelter workers.


Public policy advocacy               

The well-established role of social workers as advocates for social justice provides additional opportunities to advance legislation that recognizes human–animal relationships, the beneficial aspects of pet ownership on individual and community health and well-being, and the adverse effects of animal abuse on human welfare and safety.  Recognition of the link between animal abuse and human violence and therefore how improving animal welfare improves human society is generating a new respect for animal welfare legislation (Akrow, 2020).  A number of suggestions are provided in Akrow’s article.


Social work and older and disabled populations     

For individuals who are socially isolated, pets may be a significantly vital source of companionship and emotional support. Caring for a pet may be an especially strong motivator for a client to get out of bed, have a daily routine, nurture another being, or go for a walk. The animal may be a last link to a deceased spouse.  However, social workers should be aware that issues can arise with people (younger and older) and their pets: neglect if the person cannot care for him or herself, people neglecting their own needs to provide for the animal, perpetrators of elder abuse mistreating the animal to extract money, profound grief on the death of a beloved pet, fear of entering premises if an aggressive animal is present, and animal hoarding (Akrow, 2020).


Supplementary Resources / References

(Available on request)


Animal Medicines Australia. (2022). Pets in Australia: A national survey of pets and peoplehttps://animalmedicinesaustralia.org.au/report/pets-in-australia-a-national-survey-of-pets-and-people-2/


Arkow, P. (2020). Human-animal relationships and social work: Opportunities beyond the veterinary environment.  Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 37, 573-588.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10560-020-00697-x 


APA: American Psychiatric Association. (2023, March 1). Americans note overwhelming positive mental health impact of their pets in new poll; dogs and cats equally beneficialhttps://www.psychiatry.org/News-room/News-Releases/Positive-Mental-Health-Impact-of-Pets


Cherished Pets. (n.d.).  Veterinary social workhttps://www.cherishedpetcare.com.au/services-folder/veterinary-social-work 


Holcombe, T. M., Strand, E. B., Nugent, W. R., & Ng, Z. Y. (2016). Veterinary social work: Practice within veterinary settings.  Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment, 26(1), 69-80.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10911359.2015.1059170  Retrieved from https://www.scribd.com/document/337491849/Veterinary-Social-Work-Practice-Within-Veterinary-Settings


Hoy-Gerlach, J., Ojha, M., & Arkow, P. (2021). Social workers in animal shelters: a strategy toward reducing occupational stress among animal shelter workers.  Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 8(734396).  https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2021.734396


Kennedy, A. (2023). Social workers.  Meraki Social Work Services.   https://www.merakiservices.com.au/socialworkandanimals.html 


Laing, M. & Maylea, C. (2018). “They burn brightly, but only for a short time”: The role of social workers in companion animal grief and loss.  Anthrozoos, 31(2), 221-232. https://doi.org/10.1080/08927936.2018.1434062


MedVet. (2022). What is Veterinary Social Work? https://www.medvet.com/veterinary-social-work/ 



Online MSW Programs. (2022). How to become a veterinary social worker.  https://www.onlinemswprograms.com/careers/how-to-become-a-veterinary-social-worker/ 


Sutton-Ryan, A. (2023, April 29).  What is Veterinary Social Work?  Interdisciplinary opportunities for social workers.  The New Social Workerhttps://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/practice/what-is-veterinary-social-work/


Walker, P., Aimers, J., & Perry, C. (2015). Animals and social work: An emerging field of practice for Aotearoa New Zealand.  Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 27(1&2), 24-35.  https://doi.org/10.11157/anzswj-vol27iss1-2id14


Williams, K. L. (2020, Spring). Veterinary social workers.  Animal Sheltering Magazine,  Magazine. https://humanepro.org/magazine/articles/career-spotlight-veterinary-social-workers


Winch, G. (2018). Why we need to take pet loss seriously.  Scientific American, 27(4s), 112.  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-need-to-take-pet-loss-seriously/


Wood, L., Martin, K., Christian, H., Houghton, S., Kawachi, I., Vallesi, S., & McCune, S.  (2017).  Social capital and pet ownership: A tale of four cities.  SSM-Population Health, 3, 442-447. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2017.05.002  

 

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