Veterinary social work: Strengthening the bond

Veterinary social workers are on the forefront of efforts to support the human-animal bond while alleviating some of the stressors for both veterinary team members and animal owners.

By Emily Singler

Trigger warning: Reference to suicide 

Ours is a unique profession in which we are tasked with promoting the human-animal bond by addressing the needs of both animals and humans. With our myriad responsibilities, we veterinary professionals can easily become overwhelmed as we work to support our patients, clients, team members, and ourselves. The never-ending expectation to nurture and care for others, both animal and human, without always being nurtured and cared for in return, is one reason we experience burnout. 

Enter the veterinary social worker: a licensed social worker with specialty training on the unique needs and challenges of veterinary professionals and all those who interact with animals. While they are not trained to specifically treat any condition in animals, they support the humans who care for them.  

A One Health focus for your vet team 

Janet Hoy-Gerlach, LISW-S, PhD, first became interested in human-animal interaction (HAI) while performing suicide risk assessments. One of the questions she was trained to ask patients was, “What has stopped you up until now from acting on your suicidal thoughts and plan?” She was surprised when time and time again, people said that they didn’t want to leave their pet behind. 

“[T]he reason they were still alive … was because of their animals,” she said. This prompted her to look more at this bond as part of her social work practice. 

She is now a professor of social work at the University of Toledo, the author of Human-Animal Interactions: A Social Work Guide, and the founder and CEO of OneHealth People-Animal Wellness Services (OHPAWS).  

When asked about the benefits of having a veterinary social worker on staff in a veterinary practice, Hoy-Gerlach said, “A veterinary social worker really adds a One Health focus to the veterinary team by supporting the human health factor for clients and staff.”   

This sounds great, but it’s unlikely to be feasible to employ a veterinary social worker in every veterinary practice. For practices who can’t employ their own social worker, Hoy-Gerlach suggests seeking out social workers who offer consulting services through their own practices, and others who may be employed by veterinary corporations to support several hospitals. Individual hospitals can also create a veterinary social work internship with the help of an accredited social work program.  

Veterinary social work in action 

Veterinary social workers can bridge the gap between animal owner and veterinary team when needed. They can help make sure the owner feels heard and make sure they understand the recommendations from the healthcare team. They can help support owners as they wrestle with difficult decisions, especially those involving finances and/or quality of life and humane euthanasia. Having someone solely devoted to supporting an owner through these decisions can free up the rest of the care team to attend to other patients and can help the owner to not feel rushed through their decision.  

As mandated reporters, veterinary social workers can also help to spot signs of possible domestic violence and handle the reporting to authorities, a task few veterinary professionals feel knowledgeable about or empowered to perform.  

After a challenging or traumatizing case, veterinary social workers can organize a debriefing for the healthcare team and provide support to team members who are experiencing stress or mental health concerns. Social workers can offer training on communication skills and help mediate difficult conversations between team members or with clients. They can also promote individual wellness through guidance on topics such as boundary setting, compassion fatigue, and avoiding burnout. Veterinary social workers are often employed to provide these services to veterinary students as well.  

On the frontlines of veterinary social work 

Currently, much of Hoy-Gerlach’s focus is on emotional support animals (ESAs) and how both humans and animals can benefit from ESA support programs. She is working with the Hope and Recovery Pet (HARP) Program that places shelter animals as ESAs for adults who have a chronic mental health condition and are at risk of social isolation.   

This program provides much-needed support for at-risk adults as well as loving homes for shelter pets. Hoy-Gerlach and other veterinary social workers are working to reduce predatory ESA letter selling services, some of which falsely claim that a special (and expensive) “disability evaluation” is needed to provide an ESA letter. Veterinary social workers help to educate healthcare providers on how to determine eligibility for an ESA so that they can provide the necessary documentation to their patients without additional cost.  

Through initiatives like these and their many other roles in practices, veterinary social workers are on the forefront of efforts to support the human-animal bond while alleviating some of the stressors for both team members and animal owners. This important and actively growing field offers hope of positive change not only for struggling veterinary teams, but for humans and animals who can receive the benefit of improved mental and physical health from companionship. I hope that veterinary teams can continue to embrace this powerful resource as part of a positive and sustainable path forward for our beloved profession. 

Further reading 

What is a Veterinary Social Worker? 

Human-Animal Support Services (HASS) initiative on integrating VSWs into animal shelter settings  

How VSWs can support the work of animal shelters  

International Association of Veterinary Social Work  

Veterinary Social Workers: Supporting Teams and Clients Through Trauma and Grief (Trends magazine)    

Episode 22: CBT: A Mental Health Toolbox for Veterinary Professionals (Central Line: The AAHA Podcast) 

Interview with Helen Beaman, MSW, LCSW 

112-year-old New York Practice a Finalist for AAHA Award (NEWStat) 

Wellness for Today’s Veterinary Technicians (Trends magazine)    




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