We as social workers should care about the well-being of not only humans, but also animals, as we now know the profound relationship that exists between animals and their owners.
A boy greets his best friend and service dog (Photo by Lorainne Murray).
I was scrolling through my Facebook on a typical Tuesday afternoon when I saw a posting about an abandoned, black dog with benevolent eyes and a loveable puppy-dog face. The dog was inconceivably malnourished and according to the post, seemingly very ill.
The person who posted about the stray dog said that they were unable to keep him because of the estimated cost of his medical bills, so they would be taking him to the Humane Society. The author of the post pleaded for help and asked if anyone may be able to take the dog from the Humane Society, knowing that the dog would be put down if no one came to claim him.
Because I am unable to resist rescuing anything with a heartbeat, I found myself an hour later at the Humane Society signing paperwork and driving to the vet’s office with a 30-pound dog consisting of only skin and bones and covered in throw up, cuddled on my lap. As I was waiting for him to see the vet, I was taken aback by the fact that I was not familiar with any programs in the social work field designed to help people with their animals.
The dog (who I would end up naming Buddy) would need medical assistance, totaling close to $1,000, and round the clock monitoring and care. Thanks to generous donations, I was able to take Buddy home and did the best I could to nurse the sweet two-year-old boy, knowing very well that he was incredibly ill and his odds of survival were very slim.
When Buddy’s health stopped improving, he was diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia that had progressed so far that it had done irreversible damage to his lungs. What we found out was that Buddy had a condition called “Megaesophagus disease”, which meant that it was nearly impossible for him to keep food or liquids down unless he was sitting upright.
This disease is almost certainly what caused him to aspirate, consequently leading to the pneumonia.
What is interesting about this particular disease is that when it is caught early enough, Megaesophagus Disease is a completely manageable disease if the owner is aware of how to care for their pet.
Upon learning about this disease, I came to the realization that Buddy’s owner may have not meant to neglect him, but possibly did not know how to care for him when he was unable to keep his food down. His owner may have become overwhelmed or simply lacked the financial resources to assist his sick pet.
It seems like an obvious connection to be able to help both people and animals simultaneously as we are now aware of the profound depth that is the relationship between humans and their pets. With thousands of dogs being abused and neglected each year, it made me wonder what more we as social workers can be doing to help these vulnerable animals.
Those who are not "dog people", don't understand the level of depth that the human-dog relationship consists of. Dogs bring more to our lives than simply just being our four-legged companion. Caroline Pnapp describes the relationship in her Book, Pack of Two, the best by saying:
"Indeed. Just this morning, I came into the house after being out for an hour or so and found Lucille nestled in a corner of the sofa, her favorite spot when I'm away. She didn't race across the room to greet me--she's sufficiently accustomed to my comings and goings by now that she no longer feels compelled to fly to the door and hurl herself onto me as though I've just returned from the battlefield--but when I came into the room and approached her, her whole body seemed to tighten into a smile: the pointed ears drew flat back, the tail thumped against the sofa cushion, the eyes gleamed, the expression took on a depth and clarity that suggested, Happy; I am completely happy. A friend says her dog seems to wake up every morning with a thought balloon over her head that says, Yahoo! That was precisely the look: All is right with the world, it said, you are home. I crouched down by the sofa to scratch her chest and coo at her, and she hooked her front paw over my forearm. She gazed at me; I gazed back.
I have had Lucille for close to three years, but moments like that, my heart fills in a way that still strikes me with its novelty and power. The colors come into sharp focus: attached, connected, joyful, us. I adore this dog, without apology. She has changed my life." After the experience with Buddy, I began researching more about the connection between social work and animals and I was thrilled to discover a field called Veterinary Social Work. Veterinary Social Work has been around for over 30 years in some form or another but has only recently started gaining momentum. The University of Tennessee in Knoxville offers a Veterinary Social Work that is one of the most popular veterinary social work programs in the country, providing a “marriage” between the field of veterinary medicine and social work.
According to their website: “The social work literature has even engaged in debate about social workers' responsibility under the NASW Code of Ethics to attend to the welfare of animals themselves (e.g. Wolf, 2000, O'Brien, 2003). What has been missing is the solidifying and professionalizing of this aspect of social work practice.” Veterinary Social Workers work to help their clients with grief and pet loss, animal-assisted interactions, researching the link between human and animal violence as well as providing compassion fatigue management. This new, innovative field provides training and licensing for social workers interested in working with both humans and animals concurrently. Learning about this program motivated me to learn more about what can be done to strengthen this new profession and to begin researching what bills were currently in the legislative process surrounding animal welfare.
Buddy’s pneumonia had unfortunately progressed too far and after two weeks of constant love and attention, he was unable to pull through. Although it was undeniably heartbreaking to lose Buddy, I am comforted in knowing that he spent that last few weeks of his life in a warm bed, with a full belly, surrounded by people who loved and appreciated him.
If Buddy’s owners had been able to speak with a veterinary social worker, the social worker may have been able to provide the owners with the knowledge and resources on how best to care for him. With these resources, it is possible that he may not have been abandoned and left to fend for himself.
Most people think of their pets as a part of their families, so it is time that we start investing in their well being to ensure that they receive the love and care that they deserve to help not only the pet but the owner as well. In order to encourage positive pet ownership, it is imperative that we do all we can to assist owners with their pets emotionally, educationally and financially. Aside from Micro and Mezzo practice, it is equally important for us as social workers to pass bills and submit testimony in support of the welfare of animals in connection to humans.
Please help me in making sure that what happened to Buddy does not happen to other animals. I am hopeful to learn more about what can be done to strengthen the field of veterinary social work and look forward to hearing from my fellow social workers on advice and feedback regarding this topic.