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Archive for Sunday, August 24, 2003

Social workers help grieving pet owners

August 24, 2003

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— Treasure, a 1-year-old Jack Russell terrier, shivered and cowered with his tail between his legs while his owners held him in an examination room. An intravenous tube was stuck in his left hind leg.

Scarlett and Guy Weems were nervous and worried. Treasure had been treated previously for meningitis then redeveloped symptoms that put him in the University of Tennessee's teaching hospital. The couple drove about 90 miles from Telford to visit Treasure for a few minutes.

"I'm a ball of stress," Scarlett Weems said.

Elizabeth Strand understands. A Ph.D. candidate in the university's College of Social Work, she works in the animal hospital to help owners cope with sickness or the choice of putting down a beloved pet.

She helped created the one-year-old program.

Veterinary Social Work Services also teaches veterinarians and students at the College of Veterinary Medicine about how to handle clients' emotions and their own.

Strand listened to the Weemses talk about Treasure as if he were their child. She and another social worker made themselves available if the couple wanted to talk more.

"That's an issue of a sick family member and being separated from the family member. In those cases, we provide a go-between between the family and the animal and sometimes the doctor," Strand said.

"Doctors are very busy. ... They can't necessarily always attend to the emotional anxiety that the owners are experiencing. Frequently we will step in and alleviate the owners' anxiety."

Veterinary schools are paying more attention to the human-animal bond, the stress of the profession and "compassion fatigue." Vets face five times more deaths than human doctors because animals have shorter life spans.

Many schools have counseling services, but most focus on pet deaths, Strand said.

The counseling service started when two masters students in the College of Social Work approached Strand about working with animals for their field placement. All Strand had to do was approach the vet school, and it was warmly accepted.

"It's long overdue," said Dr. Michael Blackwell, dean of the university's College of Veterinary Medicine. "This has moved a bit quicker (than expected), and I think that's a credit to Elizabeth Strand."

Besides Strand, there are three other social work students in the program.

Dr. India Lane, a vet school associate professor, has been pleased with the social work service, particularly with the support it provides students and faculty. She said two vets she studied with at the University of Georgia committed suicide in the past two years.

"We haven't paid attention in the past to veterinarians taking care of themselves," she said.

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