Illustration of a trail of paw prints.

Opinion: The secret life of vets

Veterinary social work is an emerging and growing field in other countries, but the UK is yet to catch up. Rebecca Stephens explains her reasons as to why placing social workers within veterinary settings should be made an area of focus.

Headshot of Rebecca Stephens.

Veterinary medicine and social work practice have historically been distinct disciplines in the UK. Although there is established evidence of the strength of the human-animal bond, there is an opportunity for professionals in both disciplines to incorporate a more species-spanning practice approach.

The term ‘veterinary social worker’ was first coined by Dr Elizabeth Strand at the University of Tennessee, USA, in 2002 and has since achieved recognition as a legitimate career pathway for social workers in the USA and Canada. Veterinary social work is defined as an area of social work practice that supports and strengthens interdisciplinary partnerships that attend to the intersection of humans and animals. It was originally established to expand social work knowledge, skills and ethical practice in supporting the human-animal bond.

Whilst veterinarians are adept to care for and treat sick, injured and dying animals, there are often heightened emotions presenting from pet owners. Veterinarians are regularly faced with people’s complex feelings, financial worries and conflictual interactions arising from difficult decisions involving animals. From my interactions with veterinary colleagues and knowledge of the mental health crisis within this profession, it’s not surprising that many veterinarians’ emotional wellbeing can be negatively affected from their work experiences.

Crisis intervention, trauma-informed approaches and bereavement support, among others, are core areas of traditional social work practice in the UK. However, I also believe there is a role for social workers to support the emotional needs that arise from working with and caring for animals, both for veterinarians and their human clients.

The four core areas of veterinary social work – intentional wellness, the link between human and animal violence, animal-related bereavement and grief, and animal-assisted interventions – were developed from established evidence of the needs that arise from human and animal relationships and the emotional impact of practice on veterinarians. It covers a broad spectrum – from the emotional support that veterinary social workers provide to veterinarians, and the guidance that veterinary social workers give to staff and clients regarding animal violence and safeguarding – to difficult care decisions around animal end-of-life and pet-loss support, and facilitating human-animal interactions where the animal is a collaborative member of a therapeutic experience.

I have established a strong peer network of veterinarians and social workers nationally, through which current research, resources and new ideas are shared to promote the development of veterinary social work in the UK.

I also use empirical research and surveys, consultancy and speaking engagements to actively establish partnerships involving social workers and veterinarians nationally and internationally. In my current roles, I lead working groups, undertake research and collaborate with veterinary professionals to find opportunities for veterinarians and social workers to learn with and from each other, as well as incorporate themes relating to human-animal interactions within the social work curriculum and practitioner training.

As I continue to strengthen this new interdisciplinary alliance and develop further educational opportunities to establish veterinary social work in the UK, attending to the health and welfare needs of humans and animals will become a more collaborative effort.

Rebecca Stephens

Rebecca Stephens is Senior Lecturer in Social Work in the School of Education and Social Work and Co-Director of Education for the International Association of Veterinary Social Workers.

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