If you care for animals as much as you care for people, you might want to consider an emerging social work practice area: veterinary social work and animal-assisted therapy. In this field, social workers help people and pets in crisis. The goal of this job is to integrate animals — and their relationships with humans — into social work.

It makes sense that a love of animals might motivate aspiring social workers to explore veterinary social work, but it’s important to note that social work and veterinary practice puts the needs of people first. There are some cases that might involve the removal of abused animals from homes (for example, a domestic violence situation where an animal is being abused as well), but the main focus of social work is to help vulnerable people, groups and systems. While animals lives may be improved when owners and caretakers are better supported, saving animals is not the primary target of this practice area.

Veterinary social work practice and animal-assisted social work focuses on the interactions between individuals and their pets. It also focuses on animal caregivers, such as veterinarians, and the emotional impacts of their chosen professions. Because animals have a far shorter lifespan than humans, the daily loss experienced by veterinary professionals is much higher than that of physicians. Staff are vulnerable to grief and stress, and frequently develop compassion fatigue.

The main areas of veterinary social work encompass:

  • Human and animal violence

  • Counseling for animal illness, grief and loss

  • Animal assistance interactions

  • Therapeutic use of animals

  • End of animal life decision-making

  • Compassion management and stress fatigue assistance for veterinarians and staff who care for animals

  • Mental health surveillance of animal caregivers

Social workers in this field may offer the following services:

  • Counseling, bereavement support, end-of-life support

  • Running therapeutic groups around issues of bereavement and pet loss

  • Advocacy

  • Resource referral for animal owners

  • Support for economic issues surrounding pet care and treatment

  • Assessment and treatment of animal cruelty

  • Crisis intervention

  • Education and programs for animal owners on site and in the community

  • Mental health assessments and referrals for veterinary professionals — including suicide and depression

  • Supportive services and programs for veterinary staff including stress and compassion fatigue management

  • Program development or service delivery of animal-assisted therapeutic interventions in hospitals, children’s hospitals, hospice homes, prisons, and nursing facilities

How to Become a Veterinary Social Worker

Aspiring social workers who are interested in working in this field may want to pursue a clinical social work track as a Master of Social Work (MSW). Pursuing this track will allow them to develop expertise in counseling and clinical services. They will become eligible for licensure to eventually practice on their own.

Because the primary purpose of veterinary social work is to support people, not to support animals, becoming trained in mental health services is helpful. Furthermore, the majority of employers in this field require practitioners be licensed. Requirements for social work licensure vary by state. Some states license Bachelor’s of Social Work degree holders, but a greater number only license MSW degree holders. It’s also important to seek out a degree at a school accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Training at an accredited school will position you for licensure upon graduation by ensuring that certain requirements are met.

Targeting Your MSW Study to Social Work and Animals

To develop expertise in this area, MSW students may elect to do their required fieldwork experiences in veterinary or animal-oriented settings. The Animals and Society Institute provides a list of U.S. schools that provide coursework or dedicated study on social work and animals, and also details certain courses centered on this practice area. Some MSW programs now target this field of social work, or provide optional certificate programs.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.