The evolving mission of the Center for Veterinary Social Work
The field of veterinary social work was created in 2002 by Elizabeth Strand, MSSW, PhD, and two social work interns as a collaboration between the Schools of Veterinary Medicine and Social Work at the University of Tennessee. Strand is now the director of the Center for Veterinary Social Work at the university, the first program of its kind.
An expanding mission
The original mission of the Center for Veterinary Social Work was “attending to the human needs that arise at the intersection of veterinary and social work practice.” In its beginnings, the program focused on serving clients, faculty, staff, and students at the College of Veterinary Medicine. According to Bethanie Poe, LMSW, the associate director of education at the Center for Veterinary Social Work, their mission has widened. It now reads, “Attending to the welfare of all species through excellence in global interprofessional practice.”
“While social workers still focus on human needs,” Poe explains, “the center is a space for all professionals with an interest in human and animal welfare to come together to collaborate.” This still includes the work done when the center first came to be, but now, it also includes teaching, conferences, and certificate programs for professionals.
Toward “intentional wellbeing”
Another big shift within the center is the renaming of one of their four areas of priority within veterinary social work practice. According to Poe, just this past summer the center renamed “Compassion Fatigue & Conflict Management” to “Intentional Well-being.” This shift emphasizes that the wellbeing of veterinary professionals involves more than just compassion fatigue and conflict management. Poe states that it also stresses that “there is purposeful action in building healthy individuals and systems.”
As part of their mission, social workers from the center continue to be actively involved in activities at the University of Tennessee School of Veterinary Medicine. This includes participating in new veterinary student orientation, conducting communication rounds, and serving as guest speakers in classes that focus on client communication. They also operate SAVE (Suicide Awareness in Veterinary Education), a suicide prevention program for veterinary students and professionals.
The center is also a source of support beyond the vet med community. Veterinary professionals frequently refer clients to the center for support after they have lost their pet. The center provides direct support for referred clients, and they also maintain a list of books and websites for grieving pet owners and a list of financial resources for pet owners who need help affording their pets’ care. Social workers from the center also accept requests for presentations on pet loss and grieving from the community.
Veterinary Social Work Certificate Program
As the center grew, it began offering the Veterinary Social Work Certificate Program in 2013. This certificate helps social workers learn more about how to support veterinary professionals, students, and clients.
In 2019, the Veterinary Human Support Certificate was first offered. This program helps veterinary professionals learn more about how to support their colleagues and clients while they care for their patients.
Of the human support certificate, Poe said, “[M]any graduates are putting the skills they learned to use in their practice to make it a better working environment for everyone in the clinic.”
In the future, the center also hopes to incorporate more human support certificate topics into the veterinary school curriculum.
The growing field of veterinary social work
The Center for Veterinary Social Work at the University of Tennessee has inspired similar training programs at other institutions. The University of Denver now offers a certificate in Human-Animal-Environment Interactions in Social Work to current Master of Social Work students, and the University of Pennsylvania offers a combined VMD/Master of Social Work degree program.
The field of veterinary social work is sure to continue to grow as social workers find new ways to support veterinary professionals and animal owners in a variety of settings. “We’re very excited about the center and its potential,” Poe said, “and we look forward to many future collaborations.”
The Center for Veterinary Social Work:
Veterinary Human Support Certificate Program:
Resources for Animal Owners:
Suicide Awareness in Veterinary Education (SAVE):
Emily Singler, VMD, is a 2001 graduate of Penn State University and a 2005 graduate of University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Her career in veterinary medicine has included experience in shelter medicine, private practice, and as a relief veterinarian. She currently works as a veterinary writer, consultant, and mentor and enjoys writing for both pet owners and veterinary professionals. Her writing interests include public health, preventive medicine, the human-animal bond, and life as a working mom. She is the author of Pregnancy and Postpartum Considerations for the Veterinary Team, which was published by CRC Press in November 2023 and is available to order now at www.emilysinglervmd.com.
Photo credit: © Denis Novikov E+ via Getty Images Plus
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