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Treating crisis with compassion

  • A man holding a dog

    Treating crisis with compassion

    Veterinary social workers help pet owners through tough decisions

Pets are family. Navigating a pet’s end of life care can present some of the most difficult decisions of a person’s life.

“Pets can provide so much companionship and stability,” says Tanja Philhower, MSW, LGSW, a veterinary social worker at the Veterinary Medicinal Center (VMC) in the College of Veterinary (CVM). “I talk to so many people who share that the relationship they have with their pet feels closer, more stable, and more meaningful than the relationships they have with people.”

Just like social workers do in hospitals for humans, veterinary social workers like Philhower work with clients who are faced with making decisions regarding their pet’s medical care and grieving the death of a beloved animal.

Studies have shown that veterinarians have an exceptionally high amount of mental distress. So although the VMC’s social work services program was originally created in 2004 to help clients navigate the heartbreaking experience of caring for a sick animal, the trained social workers who ran the program soon became a mental health resource for employees and students, too.

View the full recorded video of Philhower's talk here

“The college recognized that the need for mental health support for the students was very real, but that the clinic was missing the support they wanted to provide to their clients and providers,” says Philhower.

Seeing a need to expand, the CVM created two new roles for mental health professionals that would dedicate their time to helping veterinary students. In November 2021, Philhower stepped into the role of veterinary social worker for the VMC, where her expertise would be reserved for pet owners and the providers they worked with. 

“It’s returning to the roots of the position,” Philhower says. She provides an intangible yet invaluable service: empathy. 

“I hear a lot from pet owners that people in their lives don’t understand why they are struggling with these decisions, or minimizing the challenge of making the decision of treatment versus euthanasia,” Philhower says. “For people who have not experienced that type of bond with a pet, it can be confusing. But it isn’t confusing here. We understand and affirm it.”

Philhower says part of her job is also helping pet owners create a plan so when the time comes to make a tough decision, they can be more present, knowing the decision of when it will be time to let their pet go was already made.

The plans help pet owners sort through when they will know their pet’s quality of life has deteriorated to the point where they are suffering too much. Philhower talks about what their options are at that point––whether or not they are comfortable with euthanasia and if doing it at-home or in the center would be a better choice for them. 

Social workers like Philhower are also trained professionals who have the tools to help manage mental health crises in the hospital.

“Sometimes people have mental health issues that are exacerbated by traumatic news about their pets,” she explains. “The social work position is also intended to help veterinarians have empathetic communication with clients and those who might be struggling with end of life care for the pets they care for, or tough ethical issues with decisions that owners are making.”

Her office is a safe, confidential environment where people can go to talk through what may be one of the most difficult times in their lives.

“We’re all so hard on ourselves for the way we feel. Talking to someone who is supportive, validating of these experiences, and values the human-animal experience can be very affirming and healing” Philhower says.

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