In animal hospitals, social workers provide care to humans

Amy Conroy sat alone in a veterinary office, her hands clutching a bottle of water and her eyes blinking back tears. Her 16-year-old cat, Leisel, was having trouble breathing. She was now waiting for an update.

The door opened and Laurie Maxwell entered.

Ms. Maxwell works for MedVet, a 24-hour emergency veterinary hospital in Chicago. But when she sat across from Mrs. Conroy one Monday evening in May, she explained that she wasn't there for the cat. She was there for Mrs. Conroy.

Ms. Maxwell is a veterinary social worker, a job in a little-known corner of the therapy world that focuses on relieving the stress, worry and pain that can arise when a pet needs medical care.

Pets no longer exist on the periphery of the human family: As one example, a 2022 survey found that nearly half of Americans sleep with an animal in their bed. As that relationship has intensified, so has the stress when something goes wrong. These emotions can spill over into animal hospitals, where social workers can help pet owners navigate difficult choices, such as whether to euthanize a pet or whether they can afford to pay thousands of dollars for their care.

While still rare, social workers at animal hospitals are growing in their ranks. Large chains, such as VCA, are starting to employ them, as are major academic veterinary hospitals. The service is generally offered free of charge. About 175 people have earned a certification in veterinary social work at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, which is a hub for the field.

Ms. Maxwell, who supervises the work of five social workers at five MedVet locations, also helps out on busy shifts.

In the room with Ms. Conroy, Leisel's owner, Ms. Maxwell asked one of her favorite questions: “What role does it play in your life?”

Mrs. Conroy smiled. “Well, that's terrible to say, because I've had other cats,” she said. “But he will be my favorite cat I've ever had.”

Ms. Conroy said that when she brought Leisel home from a shelter in 2010, the cat was so scared that it took two years before Ms. Conroy could even touch her. Now the two are closely linked.

“I have social anxiety. And it can be quite debilitating at times,” Ms. Conroy told Ms. Maxwell. “I have a feeling he suffers from social anxiety. We share it, you know?”

“Your soul cat,” Ms. Maxwell said. “I think it's a once in a lifetime cat.”

Down the hall and around the corner, Dani Abboud, a social work student, sat on the floor to talk with Gloria Reyes, her 11-year-old son, Jesreel, and her 8-year-old granddaughter, Janiah. They were visiting Sassy, ​​their 12-year-old pit bull, who was experiencing serious complications from bladder surgery.

“Where were you before?” Ms. Reyes asked Mx. Abundance with laughter. Hours earlier, she had struggled with whether to euthanize Sassy or admit her for a second surgery. “If I didn't see the life in her eyes, then maybe,” she said. “I can't put it down.”

“You know what's in his heart,” Mx. Abboud said.

Social workers' main job is to care for pet owners, but veterinarians and technicians – essentially nurses – say it helps them, too. “I would go home and genuinely wonder what happened to a client,” said Dr. Amy Heuberger, head of MedVet's emergency department in Chicago. Now, she said, “I can take care of more animals in one shift, because I know the clients are still being taken care of.”

Elizabeth Strand, director of the University of Tennessee's veterinary social work program, said having a therapist on staff is becoming a selling point in attracting vets and other workers. The industry is a high-stress industry and suicide rates among veterinarians are higher than average.

After leaving Mrs. Reyes and the children, Mx. Abboud, who uses they/them pronouns, turned his attention to Evrim Topal, who they had helped earlier in the day. Ms. Topal had brought her family's dog, Zorro, a 16-year-old cockapoo, here because he was having trouble breathing. An examination revealed that Zorro's condition would not improve.

Mx. Abboud joined Ms Topal in a “comfort room”, which MedVet reserves for euthanasia. Ms. Topal said her feelings were confused when she arrived. “I don't think I was prepared to make this decision,” she said. But after talking it through, she felt at peace.

Moments later, an assistant carried Zorro onto a cart. A plastic mask provided oxygen. He took Zorro on his lap, while Mx. Abboud moved the oxygen tube so he could breathe more easily. “Está bien, está bien,” whispered Mrs. Topal to Zorro.

After spending some time alone with Zorro, Mrs. Topal rang a bell to let the staff know she was ready. Dr. Heuberger joined Mx. Abboud in the room.

“Thank you guys for being here,” Ms. Topal said.

Dr. Heuberger knelt on the floor and administered the lethal drugs. After a few seconds, Zorro's breathing stopped.

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