In veterinary hospitals, social workers provide care to humans

Amy Conroy sat alone in a veterinary exam room, her hands holding a bottle of water, her eyes blinking back tears. Her 16-year-old cat, Leisel, was having trouble breathing. Now she was 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 Ms. Conroy one Monday evening in May, she explained that she wasn’t there for the chat. 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 aims to relieve the stress, worry and grief that can arise when an animal needs medical care.

Pets no longer exist on the periphery of the human family – to take one example, a 2022 survey found that almost half of Americans sleeping with an animal in your bed. As this relationship intensifies, so does the stress when something goes wrong. These emotions can spill over into veterinary hospitals, where social workers can help pet owners face difficult choices, like whether to euthanize an animal or whether they can afford to pay thousands of dollars for their care.

Although still rare, social workers in veterinary hospitals are swelling their ranks. Large chains, like VCAare starting to use them, just like the big ones university veterinary hospitals. The service is generally offered free of charge. About 175 people have earned certification in veterinary social work from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, which is a center in the field.

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

In the room with Ms. Conroy, Leisel’s owner, Ms. Maxwell asked one of her go-to questions: “What role does she play in your life?”

Mrs. Conroy smiled. “Well, that’s terrible to say, because I’ve had other cats,” she said. “But she’s going to 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 suffer from social anxiety. And that can be quite debilitating sometimes,” Ms Conroy told Ms Maxwell. “I kind of feel like she has social anxiety. We share that, you know?

“Your soul cat,” Ms. Maxwell said. “I think this is 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 to 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 suffering serious complications following bladder surgery.

“Where were you earlier?” Ms. Reyes asked Mx. Abboud laughing. Hours earlier, she had struggled to decide whether to euthanize Sassy or admit him for a second operation. “If I didn’t see life in his eyes, then maybe,” she said. “I can’t put her down.”

“You know what it is…

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