Monday, February 15, 2016

Veterinary social work

dog beach
Are veterinarians really prepared for the depth of emotions they must navigate with clients? Can social work help?

There’s a new member of the veterinary health team joining clinical rounds in some major teaching hospitals in the US: the veterinary social worker. As companion animals increasingly become family, there has been a need to recognise the human-animal bond and enhance the support services we offer. SAT spoke to Dr Melissa Holcombe, a social worker who works with veterinarians.

Dr Melissa Holcombe.

What is your job?

At the current time, in addition to my full-time work as a school social worker, I have a small private counseling practice.  This is where I serve as a veterinary social worker.  I provide pet loss grief counseling, compassion fatigue interventions to animal services workers, including veterinarians and techs, and I work with several veterinary offices to provide in-office support. 

How did you develop an interest in the intersection between veterinary
practice and social work?

I have been a social worker in child welfare and the school system for 21 years.  Because I live on the border of two states, I am a licensed clinical social worker in Georgia and Tennessee.  I came into veterinary social work a little later in my career as a result of my doctoral work at the University of Tennessee.  My natural inclination to "help", and my love of animals, made research and certification in veterinary social work a natural fit.   

Do you think vets get enough training to counsel our human clients through difficult decisions or the loss of a companion animal?

I think a lot of veterinarians do not feel prepared for the depth of emotions that they have to navigate with human clients.  However, I also feel that schools of veterinary medicine are starting to recognize this need and are developing classes and training to strengthen their new students and community practitioners.  There are some in the field that are just innately good at communication with clients.  For those fortunate ones, the classes and training provided will make them even better.  For those who struggle with client communication in emotional times, classes in communication, mediation, and the human-animal bond can provide a framework for vet-client interaction.

Your review paper identified four areas where social workers might attend to the human side of the human-animal bond: grief at the loss of an animal companion, compassion fatigue in the animal services fields, the connection between violence to animals and violence to other people, and animal-assisted interventions. Why did these particular areas stand out?

Dr. Elizabeth Strand, of the University of Tennessee, coined the term Veterinary Social Work.  In doing so, she used her research and experience to define the parameters of the term.  The concept is fluid and includes communication and mediation skills, as well as treatment for animal abusers.  There are so many things that can be considered in the veterinary social work realm, such as homelessness and pet keeping.  It is a constantly expanding field!

How might veterinarians and social workers work together in these cases?

A potential misconception that might arise when you first hear the term veterinary social worker is that the social worker's client is the animal.  In actuality, the VSW may have several "clients", depending on the situation, and all of them are human.  What social workers help with is the nitty gritty of human emotion, be it the pet guardian, the veterinarian, or the technician.  All the while, keeping in mind how to best help everyone to feel heard in the care of the patient, the animal. 

In the animal hospitals that are associated with schools of veterinary medicine, the VSW is part of the morning rounds, emergency situations, group support of students, and ongoing client support.  It is a dynamic team role.  Small animal practices may not have the funding to pay for a full time veterinary social worker in the beginning.  My hope is that they will start small with some contracted work.  Because social workers are expert in the field of human relations, it should be evident within a very short amount of time the benefits that having a social worker can provide, including the financial benefits of client loyalty. 

How might working with social workers help veterinarians look after animal patients better? 

There are several ways that social workers might help with animal patient care.  Social workers can help vet staff and office staff with handling the frustrations of daily life in a clinic.  This could range from financial discussions with clients to communication problems between staff. 

Additionally, social workers can help staff deal with their own thoughts and feelings surrounding animal care, animal death, and client interactions.  An emotionally healthy staff can only benefit the animal patient.  Other ways that social workers can assist is to mediate between the client and the vet staff when a health crisis arises.  The social worker can take care of the client needs, while the staff can focus on the animal in crisis. 

Any words of wisdom you'd like to share with aspiring vets and veterinarians?

In the last twenty years, pet status has been elevated to "family" in most homes.  Additionally, veterinary medical science has evolved to the point that pets can live far beyond the life expectancy of twenty years ago.  This means that veterinarians have the potential to have long relationships with individual animals and their "people".  You all know that being successful in veterinary practice means so much more than just providing excellent medical care to animal patients.  The good news is that you are not in this alone.  Embrace the team approach to animal care.  Allow each member to use their expertise in the care of the client and their pet. 

Thank you Dr Holcombe for your time. If you want to know more about veterinary social work, the paper below is a great start.


Holcombe TM, Strand EB, Nugent WR and Ng Z (2016) Veterinary Social Work: Practice Within Veterinary Settings. Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment. 26(1):69-80