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The Loved Ones -- and Those They Leave Behind

A new counseling program helps the owners of pets -- and veterinarians -- cope with the decision to put down a beloved companion.

September 21, 2003|Elizabeth A. Davis | Associated Press Writer

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — 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 for meningitis but redeveloped symptoms that put him in the University of Tennessee's teaching hospital. The couple drove about 90 miles to visit Treasure for a few minutes.

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

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

She helped create the year-old program.

Veterinary Social Work Services also teaches veterinarians and students at the College of Veterinary Medicine about how to handle clients' emotions, as well as 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," she said. "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 master's 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. It was warmly accepted.

"It's long overdue," said Michael J. 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.

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 had committed suicide in the last two years.

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

The University of Tennessee hospital's caseload can make vets frantic. The small animal clinic treats about 11,000 dogs and cats a year, and the large animal clinic hospitalizes between 2,000 and 4,000 horses, llamas, cows and other farm animals annually.

Students and faculty also treat about 3,000 pets classified as exotic, including snakes, birds, lizards and ferrets. And they care for all the animals at the Knoxville Zoo.

The need for Strand's program reflects changing attitudes about pets.

Since Blackwell was a boy watching his veterinarian father, the pet's place has changed from being a guard or shepherd or mouse catcher to being a companion.

"What we are seeing today are major issues -- clients coming in depressed or very anxious with what's going on with a pet because now this is not just a dog or cat or another animal. It is actually a significant other," Blackwell said.

The social workers often act as liaisons between the pet owners and vets. Many times people wait for hours after their pet has been rushed in for emergency care. Pet owners can't enter the operating or recovery areas, but the counselors can get an update from the doctors.

"It takes a lot of stress off us," said Amy Holford, a resident.

Counselors can help when owners must choose between expensive medical care or euthanizing their pet. Lane said the social workers know how to be frank about the animal's situation but remain calming at the same time.

"We ask them what they feel and really believe about euthanasia," Strand said.

Sometimes counselors unearth other causes for an owner's emotions. For example, the pet may have been a gift from a recently deceased parent or jointly owned with an ex-spouse.

At another hospital, some of Lane's clients became hysterical after they found out the vets couldn't save their very ill cat. Counselors discovered that the couple had recently lost a baby soon after delivery. The social workers summoned a campus priest and helped arrange cremation of the cat. The couple kept in touch with Lane through Christmas cards and a letter to tell her they decided to get a new kitten.

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