Veterinary social work is an emerging field of practice that attends to the human side of the human - animal bond. Social work is a profession that supports individuals, families, groups and communities to improve their wellbeing. Social workers build on the strengths and resources of people in the context of their physical, social and cultural environments. Veterinary social workers (VSW’s) use knowledge and skills relating to the human - companion animal bond and have insight into the specific challenges that may be experienced by vets and staff working within the veterinary profession.
The areas which relate to veterinary social work include:
People and Companion animals
Social workers have long known about the relationships people can have with animals, as a companion animal can provide a significant emotional bond and are often described as family members. Walking your dog increases social opportunities and benefits physical health. If this animal becomes sick or dies it can be a significant loss which may not be validated by society, termed disenfranchised grief. Vet social workers can support people and families with treatment or end-of-life decisions, bereavement and education around further resources and/or services, through individual counselling or pet grief and loss groups.
There is a current conversation relating to the high level of mental health distress and suicide within the veterinary profession both within Australia and internationally. Research in 2008 found the rate of suicide by vets is up to four times the Australian national average[i], and most vets know of someone in their profession who have taken their life. Vets describe higher levels of depression, anxiety, stress and burnout than the general population. Possible reasons include job stressors and unique work conditions, ethical dilemmas leading to compassion fatigue and moral stress, and access to lethal drugs. Vet social workers can provide education / support around compassion fatigue management, grief, conflict and ways to emotionally support both staff and clients.
Vet social workers have knowledge of the link between human and animal violence, which is often related to family and domestic violence.
VSW’s have training in animal assisted interventions and the unique therapy that animals can provide for people to improve emotional, social or cognitive functioning.
Social workers work holistically and have collaborative working relationships with many organisations and can link people with community supports and further resources.
While there is no specific training for Veterinary Social Work in Australia, there are overseas programs such as the University of Tennessee which offers a post graduate Certificate program.
[i] Jones-Fairnie H, Ferroni P, Silburn S, and Lawrence D. (2008). Suicide in Australian Veterinarians. Aust Vet J. 86:114–116. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]