In his post-retirement years, my father-in-law, Ron, often felt bored and in need of company, so my husband suggested he get a pet. He got two adorable puppies with whom he quickly found himself infatuated. One day, one of the pups escaped the house and ran out into the street and, tragically, was struck by a car. Ron and I rushed the dog to the nearest veterinary hospital, but despite the doctors' heroic efforts, the pup could not be saved. Inconsolable and wracked with guilt, Ron processed the news in a state of shock. Fortunately, a veterinary social worker (VSW) was on hand to guide us through this heartbreaking time.
Shortly after we left, it's likely the veterinary social worker comforted the staff who had tried to save our pet. Faced with such high-emotion life-and-death situations like this multiple times a day, everyday, veterinary staff are also vulnerable to emotional strain, and here a veterinary social worker can help, through a practice known as compassion management.
For many people, a pet is as central to their lives as a child or a life partner. Learning they may lose this beloved part of their life can be traumatizing. That's why an increasing number of veterinary practices now employ the skills of a veterinary social worker (VSW), both to support pet owners through the plethora of emotions and decisions that come when dealing with an ill or injured pet, and to counsel the veterinary care workers who face burn-out from the demands of the profession.
According to Glassdoor, the national average salary for a veterinary social worker position is $53,905. ZipRecruiter reports similar earnings: $51,976 per year. By comparison, according to payscale, the average salary for a generalized social worker is $45,102.
Although many veterinary hospitals and practice groups may want to hire VSWs, veterinary social work has yet to become institutionalized. As an emerging field, detailed data on salary earnings is limited. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) counsels that social workers have "high variability" in the salaries they make, and this is likely the case for social workers in veterinary practice.
A Master's in Social Work (MSW) should increase your salary (according to the NASW, social workers with an MSW earn salaries $13,000 higher than their peers who hold only a bachelor's degree) but it may also limit your options. Until veterinary social workers are established as essential members of a veterinary staff, some facilities will opt to test veterinary social work with cheaper bachelor's-only hires. Check job postings in your area to see how many require a master's degree and how many specify bachelor's-only.
Do you appreciate the bond between humans and pets? Are you an animal lover who is also interested in the social work field? If so, becoming a veterinary social worker may offer you a way to combine your passions.
When people think of the field of veterinary social work, they often think it's focused on animal well-being. But veterinary social work focuses on the human needs of those that support and care for animals. This includes pet owners, and veterinary professionals.
The field of veterinary social work owes its beginnings and leadership to Dr. Elizabeth Strand, who coined the term "veterinary social work" in 2002 at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and developed the profession of veterinary social work practice as it is known today.
She identified four practice areas:
Because veterinary social work involves loss and sometimes abuse, social workers in this field must be able to handle high-stress situations and conflict. Among the tasks they perform for pet owners is: providing pet loss and support (grief counseling), advising on treatment including help with decision making, support through hospice and palliative care, and therapeutic counseling.
Veterinary social workers also provide support to the medical professionals who treat animals, through a practice called compassion fatigue and conflict management. Also known as "vicarious trauma," compassion fatigue is the "secondary traumatic stress or secondary victimization" that occurs when animal caregivers who empathize with their patients—both human and animal—become overwhelmed by their feelings.
While all medical professionals in the frontline of care are at risk for burnout, the unique nature of veterinary work puts animal health care professionals at particular risk. It is not just the frequency but also the intensity of their work that creates high rates of burnout. Veterinary workers see horrific animal abuse and suffering, with the added stress of frequent euthanizations that can leave them depressed or numb. Veterinary social workers play a pivotal role in providing counseling, support and stress management so that these caring professionals stay mentally strong.
Becoming a social worker starts with earning a bachelor's in social work (BSW) or a master's in social work (MSW) from a Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited educational institution. Additionally, many veterinary social work positions require licensure as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) because the work is performed in a medical setting. Most states require a social worker to hold an MSW from a CSWE school to be eligible for licensure. Here's a quick read on why accreditation is so important. You might also want to learn more about state licensure requirements by degree held.
For field-specific training, there are limited few options. The top program in the U.S. is offered at the University of Tennessee—Knoxville, where a post-graduate veterinary certificate program in veterinary social work supplements its MSW. As the leader in this field, the UT-K certificate is highly regarded. Online modules correspond with the four practice areas identified by Dr. Elizabeth Strand at the University of Tennessee.
Michigan State University also trains veterinary social workers through its Veterinary Social Work Service, a collaborative endeavor between the university's School of Social Work and its College of Veterinary Medicine. Still another option is to earn a social work certificate through the Animal Hospice and Palliative Care Social Work Certificate Program (IAAHPC). This is a NASW-approved online module of coursework that focuses on end-of-life issues for animals and their caregivers.
The requirements for performing veterinary social work vary by employer and setting. Some positions require additional credentialing, like a veterinary social work certificate. Earning a certificate demonstrates a deep level of expertise and a commitment to the profession.
According to the 2017-2018 American Pet Products Association (APPA) National Pet Owners Survey, "68% of U.S. households own a pet, which equates to about 85 million homes." In 2018, $18.11 billion dollars was spent on vet care alone.
If you choose to enter the growing profession of veterinary social work, you'll find plenty of opportunities to work in an already surging field: the pet industry.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that because veterinary social work is a relatively new field and not well defined in the general job market, VSW job postings on sites like glassdoor and ZipRecuiter are tough to find. They're also inaccurate. Search for a VSW job on payscale and the results will likely yield jobs for veterinary technicians. That's not very helpful.
So, how do you find work in this field? Connections and networking may be your best bet. At the beginning of your career, securing a VSW position may require a lot of legwork.
A good place to start is at the social work school that confers your specialization is veterinary social work. Most schools provide career guidance and post jobs on job boards, both analog and virtual. Faculty at these programs are another source of help. With any luck, a veterinary fieldwork placement may yield a full-time offer.
Another useful resource for career support and employment is the NASW, which posts jobs and runs an online Multi-Chapter Meeting on Social Work and the Human-Animal Bond. This is a great place to connect with like-minded professionals, and network for jobs.
Finally, the Animals and Society Institute maintains an online list of all social work schools with a veterinary or animal-focused curriculum, and also publishes a professional newsletter for which you can sign up.
As a specialty, veterinary social work currently pays more than general social work. A lack of earnings data should not deter you from this field.
Two trends suggest a career in veterinary social work can be promising financially. First, as we noted, the pet industry is a billion dollar industry. Second, Americans are crazy in love with their furry friends. According to the APPA pet owners survey, the percentage of American households with a pet increased from 56 percent to 68 percent between 1988 and 2018.
Whether it's Lucy Lucy Apple Juice (a missing pup who drove a season of drama on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills) or the chronicles of Nacho Flay, chef Bobby Flay's Maine Coon kitty (with his own Instagram @nachoflay), or simply a rescue, pets are an American obsession. See yourself caring for the humans who care for their pets? You might find a veterinary social work career the cat's meow.
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