Social work and animals may not seem related, but there is a strong connection between mental health and the health of our animal companions. In veterinary social work, the goal is to support people as they navigate the sometimes difficult decisions needed to care for their animals. This may be a rewarding career path for those who are passionate about animals, mental health and fostering healthy animal-human dynamics.
What Is Veterinary Social Work?
Veterinary social work supports people as they deal with various issues related to medical care and treatment decisions for their animals. This includes helping families with situations regarding their animal companions, as well as supporting the animal health care staff as they deal with emotionally draining situations.
Human and animal violence: Violence in the home, including domestic violence and all types of animal abuse, is a significant problem. This may include behavioral issues related to animal hoarding and animal fighting. Veterinary social work seeks to examine and understand these problems, including identifying, preventing and intervening in problematic situations.
Grief and loss: Veterinary care may include many situations that lead to negative feelings, stress and even grief. This includes everything from the shock of receiving a difficult diagnosis to coping with chronic health issues and end-of-life situations for critically ill animals. Veterinary social work helps both sides—caregiver and family—cope with these problems more effectively.
Animal-assisted interaction: There are many ways animal interactions are used to have a positive effect on our physical and mental well-being. Veterinary social work seeks to leverage these types of interactions for a variety of therapeutic purposes. This may include everything from building socialization skills and combating anxiety to helping people cope with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Compassion fatigue: Dealing with stressful and emotionally difficult situations can take a heavy toll on people. Unfortunately, emotionally charged situations occur frequently in veterinary practices. As a veterinary social worker you may help the staff combat burnout and compassion fatigue so they can continue to provide excellent care without sacrificing their mental well-being in the process.
Becoming a veterinary social worker includes working directly with people within a medical or therapeutic setting. Depending on your degree, work setting and goals, it may also allow you to become involved in academic research, policy creation and related areas.
How to Enter the Veterinary Social Work Field
While many people understand the importance of the bond between animals and humans, the idea of social work with animals is relatively new. According to Greg Wright, a spokesperson for the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), veterinary social work is a growing field. For those who want to combine their desire to help others with caring for animals or veterinary medicine, becoming a veterinary social worker may be ideal.
The first step toward entering any social work field is often to earn your bachelor’s in social work (BSW). This serves as a solid foundation for understanding the key elements of social work including mental health, social welfare and socioeconomic issues. It may be possible, however, to enter the field of veterinary social work with a related undergraduate degree, like psychology or sociology.
Depending on your career goals, you may need to earn a master’s in social work (MSW) as well. For example, if you intend to work in academic research or policy creation, you may benefit from an MSW. Additionally, there may be related certificates available to help you gain specific skills related to social work with animals. The organization you work for, and how you intend to use your degree, can affect your decision regarding which educational path is right for you.
Benefits of Becoming a Veterinary Social Worker
Social work focuses on helping people navigate through challenges and live healthier, more fulfilling lives. Veterinary social work expands the type of challenges you can help people deal with, extending your reach as a social work professional. As a veterinary social worker, you would be able to advocate for and improve strong, positive animal-human interactions.
Diverse Work Settings and Clientele
Veterinary social work jobs tend to go hand in hand with places that provide animal care services, like veterinary hospitals, clinics and anywhere an animal may be used therapeutically. In these settings, you may work alongside the healthcare team to improve communication regarding health and treatment issues. This includes helping people understand their options, make difficult decisions and deal with emotional situations such as end-of-life care for their animal companions. It also includes helping staff cope with the grief and burnout that may come with constantly dealing with emotional situations.
Veterinary social work jobs may also be found in academia doing research or educating others in veterinary social work programs. Additionally, you may also work within the world of animal and mental health advocacy.
Social worker skills center around communication, support, and crisis and conflict resolution. This requires you to master areas like active listening, critical thinking and communication. Social workers may need to build a rapport and develop trust with their clients, which may allow them to provide better support in difficult situations.
Like many other fields, social work requires ongoing training and skill improvement. This can come through continued education as well as through practice. One benefit of veterinary social work is that some of your clientele are veterinary staff, who may have worked at your location for some time. Unlike other social work practices that may have ever-changing clients, building rapport with long-term coworkers may feel more satisfying.
As with any role, the more you’re exposed to situations through regular interaction, the stronger your skills are likely to become.
When you consider the increased awareness of mental health issues alongside the growing number of families with animal companions, the future does appear bright for those with the right education and skills it takes to work as a veterinary social worker.
Because veterinary social work is a relatively new field of study, there may be an opportunity to help grow and define the profession. Veterinary social workers employ the core tenets of social work including service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity and competence, combined with the code of ethics for social workers to help those with animals.