interview with a veterinary social worker

Recently we had a question from a veterinary social worker, and many readers asked to hear more about the job. Bonnie Downing has generously agreed to tell us more about how that works, and here’s our conversation.

Tell us about the work you do.

I work in a veterinary emergency room in a dual role supporting both outside clients and clinic staff. With outside clients I do short-term counseling, both for decision-making in terms of end-of-life care and financial constraints, and in a support capacity during emotionally difficult visits and euthanasia. This is also part of my staff support role – having a trained and informed counselor to call in during those times gives them more time with patients. With staff I offer short-term coaching and referral to longer-term mental health resources, stress-relieving and team-building activities, and most importantly suicide assessment and intervention. The veterinary field unfortunately has a very high rate of suicide due to several factors, and having someone on hand who’s trained in that area can be crucially important.

How common is this type of role in a vet clinic? I’m guessing it’s something larger clinics are more likely to have than smaller ones?

It’s not terribly common, I think there are fewer than half a dozen of us in my area. There’s at least one corporate chain of vet clinics that has VSWs in clinics, and another that I believe has employed social workers in more organization-wide capacities. There are some VSWs who work independently in association with mobile vets or with large animals, some in veterinary schools, and some like me who are in larger privately owned clinics. As awareness of the VSW role spreads, I hope that we can make services more accessible on an ad hoc basis to the staffs of smaller clinics as well.

However, there are enough that we have an annual international conference! The IAVSW (International Association of Veterinary Social Workers) hosts a fantastic conference with insights and networking with VSWs all around the world.

How did you get into this work?

I was in school for my Master of Social Work and was assigned to a veterinary clinic for my internship field work. I called the school and asked if they’d put me in the wrong program, and they said no, it was a social work program. I spent nine months in that internship and absolutely loved the work, so when my mentor from that position called me a few years later to ask if I’d be interested in an opportunity she knew about, I jumped on it!

What are the logistics of the job — when do they bring you in and how are clients introduced to your role?

For everyone I meet, I introduce myself with my name and my role, and clarify the reason I’m meeting with them. Since VSWs are rare and since people can have vastly different ideas of what it means to meet with a social worker, we want it to be very clear what my role is. Very occasionally I’ll advise the staff to avoid the words “social worker” and just introduce me as a counselor – in a volatile situation with someone who may have had negative involvement with social workers in the past, we want to be sensitive to the current situation and don’t want to get into the weeds explaining that I’m here for support and not to dig into their social welfare history. Unfortunately, one of my rare roles is also to assess and provide resources in cases of domestic abuse.

We have a pretty solid rhythm going for most situations – if a client comes into the clinic for euthanasia, I’m sent in first to assess the situation and talk them through the process. This can save the staff a lot of time and give the client the space they need to talk through their decision with someone trained in that area – sometimes it’s a very quick discussion, sometimes we spend quite a bit of time talking about the pet’s life, the current situation, and the decision-making process. Doctors also have the right to decline a euthanasia procedure if they don’t feel that it’s the best option for the pet, and I know the red flags to be aware of so that I can step out and ask for a further medical evaluation before we proceed with any paperwork. If the client prefers, I can also sit with them throughout the procedure – it can be a very lonely thing to do if you don’t have someone with you, and while some people prefer that, some really appreciate having the support. In other cases the staff will bring me in to help with decisions or to check in on clients they’re concerned about. I’ll often come in to a handful of messages in the morning with information on cases that could use a follow-up and offer of support.

Re: deciding when it’s time for euthanasia — I’ve struggled a lot with this, and I think many of us have a tendency to wait too long, sometimes at the expense of the animal (which can be easier to see in hindsight than while you’re going through it). I remember several years ago when I was trying to decide when it was time for my cat Sam, a commenter here said something that stuck with me — they worked in a zoo, and they said, “A day too early is better than a day too late.” That made so much sense to me. And yet it’s still so hard. I think it would be so helpful to have someone like you helping to guide that decision!

I agree with your commenter, and that’s a great reminder. I’m somewhat judicious in when I use that phrase since — as with anything else — receptiveness really varies. For some people in certain situations, all they’re able to hear is “too early” and it increases their difficulty with knowing whether it’s really time. I’m so sorry about Sam, too — even when it’s been years, we love them just the same.

Can you share some guidelines for how people can know when it is (or isn’t) time?

It can be so difficult! Often with an elderly pet or one who’s been through many medical issues, we can come to a feeling that they’ve been through so much, maybe they’ll just live forever, or worry that we’ll just have no idea how to know when the next crisis is the last one. There’s a lot that goes into the mental equation: one thing that we refer to a lot is quality of life, meaning that we want to consider whether the pet’s life post-medical intervention will be better or worse than their life before. So often there are treatments that are possible to do, but even if they fix the presenting immediate problem there are so many underlying problems that it’s just a temporary band-aid. Those conversations are mostly in the context of acute emergencies and interventions. For progressive illnesses or age-related decline, we’ll typically talk generally about whether they’ve had more good days than bad recently – often a pet will rally with one good day right when you’re starting to feel it’s time, so considering their life quality as a whole can be helpful. I find that it helps to have some concrete factors to think about, so the first I discuss is our metric of “think of 5 things your pet loves to do – when they can’t do 3 of them, it’s time.” Of course, when your pet’s favorite things to do are sleep, sleep, and sleep, that one can be less than helpful. In those cases or when I’m working with someone who needs to find a way to quantify this emotional subject with numbers, I use the HHHHHMM scale which uses numbered scales to evaluate Hurt, Hunger, Hydration, Hygiene, Happiness, Mobility, and More Good Days Than Bad. The last is less helpful in an emergency context, but I found it very useful to keep in mind with one of my own pets as he approached the end of his life.

I would think talking to kids about hard things with animals is in some way its own skill set. Do you have any tips on how to do that?

It really is — development throughout childhood means that two kids within the same family may have very different reactions to what’s happening with their pet and very different understandings of everything going on. My best advice with any age of children is to channel Mister Rogers — straightforward, kind truth. Many preadolescent children just don’t have the ability yet to understand the permanence of death, and often their emotions can be more a reaction to their parents’ emotions than their own understanding. It can also be upsetting to parents when their kids don’t seem to be as affected as the parents expect them to be — I’ll frequently talk parents through some of those stages of understanding, including that kids often come back weeks, months, or even years later to ask questions and walk through what happened again as their understanding of death changes.

Pets are usually the first experience children have with death and it can be a touchstone throughout their lives of their processing of the concept. I tell parents that it can ultimately be a very positive thing — a big fear that parents often have is that the pet they pictured growing up with their kids will be forgotten. In my experience, even a pet who’s passed is still a very present part of a family in pictures, stories, videos, or even the Christmas presents we still get from my husband’s childhood dog. My own kids were 18 months old when we lost our first dog, and while they obviously couldn’t actually remember her, they still talk about her as a beloved member of our family. They tell and retell the stories of them learning to crawl by following her around, and that her name was my daughter’s first word, and that my old doll that my kids slept with as babies has oddly mismatched limbs because she once ate an arm and some toes. In many ways, children keep pets in our living memory even more than we as adults do with their love of stories and repetition, and all of that is part of their own process of development in relation to death as well.

The book I most often use with kids (of every age) is When A Pet Dies by Fred Rogers.

That makes a ton of sense. What a great resource you must be! What do you like the best about the job?

The easy answer would be “the puppies and kittens” — of course everyone thinks that working in a vet clinic is all puppies and kittens, and sometimes it is! My coworkers will call me in to “social-work the patient” when we have a little one who needs the warmth and contact of snuggles. Really, though, what I love about the job is that I get to work with such a wide variety of people and my presence is typically a very welcome surprise, since most of our clients walk in the door not knowing that VSWs exist. My position is as a full-time staff member of the clinic, so I’m able to provide one of the rarest things in this country — free-to-the-client short-term mental health care.

What’s hardest about the job?

Because it is an emergency clinic, we see the most urgent and devastating cases. We’re all in the field because we love animals, and seeing them in pain and distress is incredibly hard. Of course, the patient and their human are our highest priority, so our own feelings about these situations necessarily need to be on the back burner until we’re able to process them later. And while I’m not directly involved in patient care, I also have the third layer of taking care of staff in those hard situations before I’m able to process for myself.

What surprised you about it and/or what do you think would surprise other people about your work?

It surprised me how much we’re needed — a position that most veterinary clinics don’t have and many don’t even know about seems like it might be superfluous, if those other clinics are running fine without a VSW. But the position that pets hold in our homes and our society is unique — so often, the process of working through decisions regarding pet care and end of life is really about reflecting on values, family, connections to lost loved ones, experiences with other pets, complicated feelings about aging and disease, finances and the ethics of the fact that medical science can do so much but sometimes shouldn’t, and that those decisions are always ultimately up to the owners who need time they often don’t have to be educated about the problem at hand and feel like they can come to a decision they can live with. Whether it’s the expected but emotionally complex passing of an elderly pet that is the last remaining link to a late loved one or helping a child understand what’s happening with their beloved hamster, honoring each person’s and pet’s journey is something I’ll never take for granted.

My sister and I both worked as assistants in a vet clinic when we were in high school, and then many years later my niece did too. I don’t think people always realize how hard that work is — you see a lot of really upsetting things. I’ve never loved the term self-care but I can’t think what else to use here — what’s your own approach to self-care to make sure you have room to recuperate and don’t burn out?

As I tell my staff and others I’ve worked with, self-care isn’t a bubble bath and candles… unless it is for you. In my view, self-care is doing the thing that gives you what you need in that moment. For me personally, self-care is giving myself permission to mentally rest between cases and when I get home, and to really leave work at work. I listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks, and I have ADHD so I always want to be doing something with my hands too. I have an absurdly comprehensive collection of craft supplies and cycle through the various things that make me happy to accomplish. It’s also important to me to model self-care professionally — you’ll sometimes find me doing some of my office puzzles and activities myself or crocheting, both as my necessary emotional reset and as a way to very intentionally communicate my availability to the staff. When someone is feeling emotionally vulnerable and talking themself into asking for help, a social worker who seems to be terribly busy all the time can be a barrier to asking for that help. Making it clear that I and my office are always available to help is, in my opinion, a huge part of my job.

I love that. You originally wrote in because when you tell people what you do, you end up hearing everyone’s sad animal stories and you’re not always in a headspace for that. Any progress on that?

Yes — I’m really only giving my full title in conversation when I’m emotionally available for those stories, and otherwise “I work in a vet clinic” tends to be sufficient.

Anything I didn’t ask about that you think would be interesting to share?

I want people to know that their pets are treated with love — it’s hard for owners to leave their pets in the hospital in a scary time and feel like they’re alone, and I’m touched and humbled every day by the amount of love that the techs, doctors, customer service representatives and yes, VSWs give to every patient we see. If your pet is amenable to snuggling and kissing, they’ll get some snuggles and kisses. If they’re not, they’ll at least get lots of mushy baby talk. Everyone (that I’ve met, at least) in this profession knows what it feels like to be on the other side of that clinic door and treats each pet like they’d want their own to be treated.

{ 186 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. online millenial*

    This is really timely for me–I just had to put my beloved cat to sleep last week, and there was a VSW on staff. She was so kind and compassionate and supportive, and made a really awful situation a little more bearable. It was my first time encountering someone who does that kind of work, and I’m so grateful it’s a thing that exists. Thank you so much Bonnie for sharing this behind-the-scenes look and for the work you do.

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    1. Oscar*

      I had to put my wonderful cat down last week as well. Just wanted to say I’m so sorry for your loss and I hope this gets better! Cause it’s really hard right now.

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  2. Bunny Girl*

    I was a veterinary assistant at an emergency vet hospital and I so wish we had someone in this role! It would be so helpful for everyone. A lot of owners were completely lost regarding the payment process because we didn’t offer in house financing. Having someone there to help them navigate the process would have been very helpful.

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    1. Sloanicota*

      It seems like something that might (?) be available and still valuable as a remote or video service too, which would increase the access and utility. Obviously it would be better to have someone in person but that’s probably not realistic for smaller clinics and practices.

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  3. H*

    Yay! I am a social worker as well but work in child trauma and health care. I feed community cats in my personsal life! Very interesting.

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  4. jane's nemesis*

    Thank you so much for this interview! And thank you for your work – compassion fatigue is so real. I have a lot of friends in the veterinary world, both because of a prior job and because I’m a pet owner, and I worry about them a lot. I hope they have someone like you to talk to!

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    1. old curmudgeon*

      Cosigned – the work you are doing is absolutely critical, and I so wish that more vet clinics both knew about and could afford to add a VSW to their staff. Folks who gravitate to veterinary work at any level tend to be (in my admittedly limited experience) incredibly empathetic and feeling, and as a pet-parent, I lean heavily on their loving support as I deal with difficult decisions for my beloved beasts. At the same time, I also worry about my vet’s own emotional well-being, because I know she deeply, deeply feels for every single one of her patients.

      And thank you, both Bonnie and Alison, for the comments about “better a day too soon than a day too late.” We had to say goodbye to our elderly tuxedo gentleman cat last October, and even though we had known he was nearing the end, we still kept second-guessing ourselves about being too quick to call in the euthanasia home-visit service. It really helps a lot to frame it the way you have here.

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    2. Sloanicota*

      (This is a real question, which I preface because it can be hard to tell tone in comments) – do you think a vet’s office is more difficult on staff than, say, hospitals, clinics, animal shelters, dentists, social workers? I feel like I hear about the mental health crisis specifically in the vet field although I’m sure it must also be true in many others.

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      1. MM*

        I think it depends a lot on who you know and who/which conversations you follow online. I have definitely heard plenty about a mental health crisis among teachers and first responders since the pandemic started, and for years before that (but still going strong) among journalists. I hear about mental health in the vet field almost never. This makes sense: neither I nor anyone in my family has a pet (my friends who do mostly live pretty far from me), but my work puts me in touch with a lot of teachers and journalists.

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        1. squeakrad*

          At least here in San Francisco a lot of vets burned out as are vet techs and veterinary nurses. They couldn’t really go remote for a lot of things so I think the stress was huge. And then a lot of people adopted pets during the shut down so a lot more pet owners needed help and some even abandon their pets when they couldn’t deal with it.

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          1. Clumsy Ninja*

            And many pet owners get incredibly frustrated with the limitations of what they can or are willing to spend for health care for their pets. They often blame the veterinary staff for what they can’t/won’t do and make accusations about how we’re all in it for the money (hey, gotta eat!) and are willing to let their pets die. Most people don’t read the explanation of benefits their health insurance sends out, so they compare human health care copays to the full cost of their pets’ health care and express their convictions that they are being price gouged. It really takes a toll.

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      2. Cyborg Llama Horde*

        I once had a conversation with my dental hygienist about how she wound up in that role, and while I don’t remember exactly what she said, I came away with the impression that it was medical-y but also relatively low-stress and something she could generally leave at work at the end of the day. I’m sure there are bad days in a dental practice, too, but I tend to assume that the balance of routine care vs. Something Is Badly Wrong for dentists is better than for veterinarians.

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        1. Sloanicota*

          See, I would assume dentistry would be really stressful because it’s so expensive and often people don’t have insurance that covers the procedures. You’re telling them if they don’t come up with a thousand dollars or more, right now, they’re not going to get pain-free teeth (or worse). Or worse, you already finished and you’re billing them hundreds of dollars they probably don’t have. I have picked up so many friends sobbing at the dentist’s office! And again, I think they’re often accused of being scammers who are just trying to make a buck. But maybe it’s not the hygienist who deals with that.

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  5. Corrigan*

    Seconding the recommendation for “When a Pet Dies” for children. We said goodbye to a dog last year and it was helpful with my then 4 year old. (It’s Mr. Rogers, how could it go wrong?)

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    1. Serenity*

      Agreed that When A Pet Dies is excellent, and we also used I Found A Dead Bird by Jan Thornhill. It’s organized like a DK book, with lots of graphics and layers of information. Very straightforward and clear.

      Great interview and amazing service. Thanks for sharing.

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        1. Felis alwayshungryis*

          We found a nestling the other day that was still alive, but only just, and the only thing we could do was keep it safe and warm till it passed. My 5yo was so upset, and I did a lot of channelling Calvin’s mum from that one!

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  6. Atlantis*

    Thank you so much for sharing this, and for what you do!

    I hope as time goes on that vet social care workers will become more common. I just watched my brother go through the passing of a beloved pet, and I would have loved if there was someone like you to offer your support to him.

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  7. NYanon*

    Thank you so much for what you do. I would imagine that the vets you work with are so grateful you are there. Reading this made me a bit teary since I still think about our experience last spring of saying goodbye to our 17 year old cat, our first baby. Our vet told me he’s been in the profession for over 25 years, and yet on the day when he told me it was time for her (which we already knew in our hearts), he got tears in his eyes too when I started to cry. And it made me wonder… how on earth does he do this all the time? I suppose he has figured out how to manage–but wow, I wish there could be VSWs everywhere!

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    1. Language Lover*

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who was weepy. I’m glad I’m work-from-home today because it has been over a year since it was time for our dog, and it still gets to me even though it was the right time.

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  8. RabbitRabbit*

    Thank you for supporting the staff! Suicide / depression / etc. rates are so high in the veterinary industry, and they need and deserve so much assistance.

    And I know what you mean by hearing sad stories – as a rabbit owner I frequently have to head off stories from people who discover that I own rabbits, because I will near-inevitably hear something heartbreaking or horrifying, and sometimes they’re totally unaware of how awful they come off in the process.

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    1. BadWolf*

      Yeeees! I had indoor pet rabbits for several years and I stopped voluntarily telling people I had them because people would tell me what I deemed “dead rabbit” stories. If people asked if I had pets, I did tell them and it was often better (though still a distressing about of pet rabbits with unfortunate ends). My theory is that if I mentioned rabbits unprompted, people tried to contribute to the conversation by bringing up any rabbit related thing (which was often negative). If people asked about pets, their brain was on pet track and telling me about their dog killing cottontails was not always the first thing that popped up in their brain “rabbit” database search.

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        1. Hawk the Gerbil Mom*

          Rabbits are so, so complex and hard to care for. I think that’s partly why. I’ve heard the horror stories and experienced my own with a beloved pet rabbit. I think that’s why I get my fill of rabbits now by following rescues.
          I own gerbils, and I also get the horrible stories (mostly about hamsters, since gerbils are rarer pets), but like RabbitRabbit said, people don’t even realize they’re horrifying to an experienced owner.
          And I agree, @BadWolf, it’s totally a mental “trying to stay something related to the topic” thing.

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          1. Eldritch Office Worker*

            I have reptiles and I totally get the “horrifying to an experienced owner” angle. I think with fuzzy things in particular though, people don’t even think ahead about what they’re getting into. So sad.

            I think the impulse to share is similar to what Bonnie describes with people instantly sharing all their terrible pet stories when they hear about her job. Just wanting to be relatable. I think I’m going to try really hard to be more mindful of my impulse to do that, hearing these impacts.

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          2. NeedRain*

            It’s weird, b/c “trying to say something related” is a social rule, but I thought “don’t tell someone you just met a horrible story” was also a rule. Apparently a lesser one.

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      1. Sloanicota*

        Eep I dealt with this when I kept reptiles. People would always tell me about how their long-lived reptile died so young and poorly, and I would think “you did not provide proper care for that animal” but of course the person was well meaning and didn’t understand the complicated care they require and it’s not really appropriate for me to say that when someone is sharing their experience. It was awkward. I don’t bring it up any more.

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    2. It's great to be a grownup sometimes*

      Yes. I used to volunteer in animal welfare. “Oh, you work with animals– let me tell you my incredibly upsetting animal story now!” Yes, I know they have a burden they want to get off their chest, but I eventually reached the stage where I couldn’t handle it anymore.

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      1. Sloanicota*

        I noticed this when my sister was pregnant. People couldn’t seem to stop telling her horrible pregnancy/childbirth/infancy stories. What IS that in the human psyche??

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      1. RabbitRabbit*

        I pretty much try to run with “yeah I own rabbits – I don’t tell people about them often/right away because some people feel compelled to share awful stories about how their childhood pet rabbits met terrible ends, and mine are so sweet and loving that it’s heartbreaking to think about.” If I’m in a blunt mood and don’t get time to share that first, if someone starts with “Oh you have rabbits? When I was a kid…” I will sometimes interrupt with “Does this have a bad ending?”

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  9. Eldritch Office Worker*

    Oh my god the answer to the last question just made me tear up at my desk. I have a wonderful vet, and have had nothing but positive experiences despite my current puppy having extreme vet anxiety. But nonetheless the times that I’ve had to leave my pets – be it for an hour or for a day or two – it’s always gutted me because I don’t know what they’re feeling or experiencing. I’ve been told over and over that it’s easier when the owners aren’t around but idk your answer to that really kicked me in the feels. Thanks Bonnie, you do amazing work.

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    1. Princess Trachea-Aurelia Belaroth*

      Yesss last summer I had to leave my cat at the emergency clinic for five days after bringing her in the middle of the night, my entire support system was out of town on vacation and I didn’t want to bother them, and I was just worried that she was alone in an oxygen box by herself. scared without me.

      When I went to get her, the vet and the receptionist told me that after she perked up (still don’t know what was wrong with her), she would sit at the front of her kennel with her arms out the front of the bars, begging for attention. They didn’t specifically say that they gave her any, but the fact they noticed and told me made me think that they did, and that made me feel better about leaving her.

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      1. Atomic Tangerine*

        Haha. I work in the veterinary industry. If a cat was reaching through the bars trying to get hugs I am 100% sure they got tons of attention! Only a true grinch could resist that!

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        1. Fedpants*

          My Saint Bernard was in the ER for what turned out to be constipation, and when I picked him up they said he was so much fun and everyone wanted to walk him and snuggle him. They sent me photos of him bounding around the staff area.

          He was a murderous hellbeast at home (resource guarding me as the resource from all the other dogs on the street). So I was like “mine? Are you sure you don’t have another saint back there?” But I’m glad he got to be the staff therapy dog for a day and a half.

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        2. File Herder*

          Our cats went to the boarding kennels at the local vet when the family was on holiday. One of them often did not want to come home afterwards because he was so cute and fluffy and adorable and “what do you mean I’m not a dog?” that he was spoiled rotten by the kennel staff. :-)

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      2. Cyborg Llama Horde*

        We foster greyhounds, and the friendly ones usually LOVE going to the vet because they get attention and pets from a million people while they’re there.

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    2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      Yes. My first two dogs (one passed at 14, the other is now 8.5) have both always been absurdly healthy, like the worst we ever had was a claw broken off at the quick that needed in-office anesthesia to tidy it up properly, and it grew back with no problem. So when my four month old puppy popped a URI last spring that showed no symptoms until she suddenly had double pneumonia and a fever, and she had to spend five days in the veterinary hospital, I was a WRECK because it was so far beyond my experience. (She came out of it just fine and has been in fantastic health ever since.)

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    3. Mallory Janis Ian*

      Yes I was really glad to hear about all the hugs and loves. I could tell that was the case when my poodle was in the hospital. She got a feeding tube and had an IV and stayed there for about a week, but when we would go to pick her up and to take her back for outpatient visits, I could tell she loved everyone there, so I know they were kind to her.

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  10. Jon*

    What a wonderful interview! Thank you both for taking the time to share. If you’ll excuse me I have to go take a lunch break as I can’t stop the tears from this one!

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    1. Sloanicota*

      I also teared up. (content warning: suicide) – When I took my brand-new-to-me (adult rescue) dog to the vet for the first time, I was overflowing with questions and fears and curiosity – and the vet was so wonderful and patient. I only met him that one time, but I really had the best impression of him. Sadly, I found out that he (the vet) passed very suddenly shortly after, almost certainly by suicide, although nobody said that exactly. It’s strange because we only had that one interaction and I still think of him all the time, because it’s like he gave me my dog.

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  11. oranges*

    I love all the “interview with a” posts!
    I’m not even a pet person, and this was all super interesting. Keep up the great work, LW!!

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  12. ZSD*

    Thank you so much for the work that you do! I love that you support not only the pet owners, but also your fellow staff.
    Out of curiosity, how does the clinic charge clients for your services? Do they build the cost of your salary into the cost of basic check-ups, etc., or do they charge a la carte when you need to be brought in? (I’m assuming the former since the additional cost could deter some people from using your services when they very much need them.)

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    1. Bonnie*

      The former – one of the things (maybe THE thing) I love most about this clinic is that the owners and management are completely committed to doing the right thing above all else. So our fees aren’t any higher than any other ER (in fact, significantly lower than many) and I’m paid as part of the staff even though my contributions aren’t necessarily quantifiable. We could possibly tally up time that I’m saving the staff, but there are a lot of other factors to what I do besides that.

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      1. soshedances1126*

        I’ve frequently wondered how this works (especially because private practice veterinary medicine can be so production driven these days). I’m glad to hear that people are out there doing it this way! Your clinic sounds lovely.

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        1. VetSpouse*

          All vet med is production driven and always has been. The good old days 20 or 30 yrs ago were prob a lot worse than now. Private practice is in fact less production driven than the big corporate chains like Banfield and VCA – those vets can be seeing 50 patients a day!

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  13. Missing My Hat*

    I will very purposely avoid dropping a sad pet story, and say thank you for the answer to the last question – I needed that today, in this moment, and I am so grateful I happened to swing by AAM today when I did. Thank you for all you do, and all your colleagues do!

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  14. NeedRain47*

    This is lovely and I’m glad to know this job exists! I keep thinking about the poor vet who was at the emergency clinic when my cat had a crisis last year (not a sad ending, he’s fine now). The vet was very kind but probably would have appreciated not being the one to deal with my lack of sound reasoning at the moment.

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    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      All the vets I’ve been hysterical and irrational around have been wonderful – but that emotional labor is killer and having someone trained and ready to step in must make a HUGE difference.

      Reply
      1. Sloanicota*

        Yeah, I mean (as someone who gets weirdly irrational about my pet) I would really love to not be taking up a trained medical professional’s time with my emotional reactions – since presumably their expertise could be better spent helping other animals with medical issues, not dealing with me! Plus, as in medicine, a skilled clinician may or may not necessarily be equally skilled at dealing with interpersonal matters.

        Reply
    2. louvella*

      My cat was diagnosed with heart failure the day after my now-ex broke up with me (completely blindsiding me). I uh, probably shared too much about my overall situation with the vet in that moment.

      Reply
  15. Karen*

    I put my dog down a few years ago and it was devastating. She certainly could have lived much longer, but I just felt like she shouldn’t. The light had gone out of her eyes and her struggle with mobility was sapping her love of life. I have always worried whether I made the right decision. Bonnie the social worker’s words here really gave me some comfort. And I can’t help but feel like Bonnie the English Bulldog, the dog my husband and I adored for 14 years, played a role in sending me this message.

    Reply
    1. It's hard*

      I’m so sorry. Those decisions are so hard, and you did the right thing by ending her suffering. We give them a good life, and in the end we have to give them a good death, too.

      Reply
  16. Rage*

    I love the idea of this job existing! It’s just a wonderful thing to offer, both for pet owners and the veterinary staff who care for them.

    Know that you are getting 2 thumbs up from me, and big happy tail-wagging greetings from Clifford and Thiago (and probably a head-butt from Cinnamon, though she would never deign to admit it).

    Reply
  17. Slow Gin Lizz*

    Thank you so much for this post! I am struggling myself with helping a friend through her cat’s end-of-life decision…I’ve lost two cats (my first babies) and it was of course very hard, but it is somehow harder to counsel a friend through it and probably especially so since I have zero training as a counselor. The ideas in this post will definitely help me to help her, so thank you thank you thank you!

    (Also I’m in a FB group that is for cat lovers who went to my alma mater and I’m definitely sharing this post there.)

    Reply
  18. Turtlewings*

    Thank you so much for what you do, Bonnie! When I had to make the decision to put my dog down a year ago, the vet staff were really wonderful at helping me through it, but I wondered who was helping *them* through doing this kind of thing. I’m glad you have things in place to help yourself as you help others, and I hope roles like yours become more widespread.

    Reply
  19. ThatGirl*

    With our dog, who left us in Dec 2021, he had a bad last day that to me was clearly him saying it was time. And honestly, I knew it wasn’t going to be much longer – but it was so much harder for my husband to accept it. I don’t know if we’ll ever have another dog, but if we do, having a general checklist for quality of life helps put these things into perspective and I think would make him feel like it wasn’t purely on us to decide.

    Anyway – thank you for doing the job you do, I’m sure it’s hard but I’m sure you make so much difference.

    Reply
  20. HannahS*

    Just wanted to chime in on it from a staff perspective (although for humans, not animals,) to reflect that having you there to sit compassionately with families and support them in ways that the vet may not have time to is so, so valuable. While the primary value is to the family (obviously,) I’d imagine that your work makes the other staff’s work much easier, too.

    Reply
  21. Massmatt*

    This was a fascinating interview, I had never heard of this career before the VSW’s original letter and then it struck me just how necessary these services are, both to pet owners dealing with traumatic experiences and the veterinary staff. I had no idea suicide rates were high in the industry but reading all this it makes sense.

    I hope this exposure helps to spread the availability of VSW services. I can only imagine that clinics and hospitals without VSW’s either try to provide some of these services without training and in between other duties, and/or the needs just go unmet. Hence the many sad stories the LW was subjected to when people heard what her job was.

    Reply
    1. irianamistifi*

      Yes. Before the original post, I had no idea this role existed and now I can’t believe there aren’t more! I also love that there’s no additional costs to the patients for this kind of care, which is absolutely critical. Veterinary care can already be so expensive and if a clinic had a VSW on staff but charged extra fees for it, I think many pet owners would probably opt out, not realizing what a difference it could make.

      Reply
      1. Dust Bunny*

        Except there would be, just not directly. Overall fees would have to cover that person’s salary/wages, as well, which goes into “veterinary care can already be so expensive . . . “. I suspect that the necessity of making sure they can pay someone enough to hire and keep them when they already struggle to balance staff pay (which is too low across the board) and benefits with costs to pet owners is one of the biggest deterrents for a lot of clinics.

        Reply
        1. Marni*

          If you scroll up you’ll see a comment from Bonnie that her clinics costs are not higher than others in the area. Apparently having VSW on staff can be cost-effective because it frees up the other staff from those duties, allowing them to maybe see more patients. I’m sure our clinic Hass to be of a certain size before that math works out.

          Reply
          1. Marni*

            Voice to text error, I meant *a* clinic, not “our” clinic

            And changing “has” to “Hass” is a thing my phone does weirdly often.

            Reply
          2. Dust Bunny*

            “of a certain size” is a big if, though.

            Where I am, the animals ERs are usually part of bigger chains and often have bigger staffs than regular GP vets. They’re also significantly more expensive that GP vets, even though their costs might be in line with other emergency rooms. And, yes, GP vets see emergencies all the time, too, because they’re a) familiar to the client, b) cheaper, and c) more likely to do payment plans if they know you (the ERs where I am require payment in full).

            Some of the GP vets are part of bigger chains but a lot of them are independent small businesses (and clients seem to want them to stay that way).

            Reply
  22. something about sharks*

    Thank you for this interview, Bonnie! You have a fascinating job – as someone who works at a vet school (not on the clinical side) and has spent a whole lot of time at the vet with my cat over the last few years, I can absolutely see how important your role is to your coworkers and clients. (As far as I know, neither my job nor the clinic I go to has one, but I may have to ask!)

    Re: your last comment: my semi-feral kitty gets sedated for her vet visits for everyone’s safety, and it was the highlight of my week the day I found out the vet staff take that as an opportunity to give her scritches while she’s not objecting. It’s very funny to watch a vet tech coo “aww, who’s a good baby? yes you ARE” at a snarling cat carrier, but I’m glad to know they’re at least getting the occasional chance to pet her!

    Reply
    1. Bonnie*

      We love spicy babies! In fact, typically it’s staff pets who are the spiciest, so we really appreciate all the sass.

      Reply
      1. something about sharks*

        I’m so glad “spicy kitty” is becoming the standard descriptor for her particular type of attitude! She is The Spiciest. We send our clinic thank-you cards (and sometimes apologies).

        Reply
      2. Bookmark*

        My dog is the opposite of spicy– the note on his file says “VERY WIGGLY!!!!” and would very much like for every person he can see at the vet’s office to say hello to him. He mostly entertains the vet staff by the goofy and ultimately benign reasons he ends up in there. To date, they’ve included:
        – eating half a bag of candy corn and not regretting it at all
        – a weird back/leg spasm that was over by the time we got him to the vet, so he spent his time under observation wiggling and play bowing at everyone
        – eating (?) a stinging insect (?) while home alone in his crate and wandering around with a dopey puffy face, confused about why people were making a fuss. This time he was triaged so low at the emergency vet that they just sent us to the drug store for human Benadryl.

        Reply
        1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

          on the back/leg spasm: My Elder Statesdog Gone Beyond scared the heck out of me with a really weird leg thing that … as far as anyone can tell, turned out to have been her paw falling asleep because she was laying on it. Looked really weird, but yeah, completely gone by the time we got to the vet’s office, so she took a nap under the exam table.

          Reply
      3. Sharp-dressed Boston Terrier*

        Spicy kitty roll call!

        An ex of mine had a Norwegian Forest Cat who, because of numerous medical issues he struggled with as a kitten, absolutely HATED veterinarians. As far as he was concerned they were evil incarnate and needed to be peed on regularly, if not outright destroyed. He had the little Flashing Red Triangle with Exclamation Point of Doom on all his computer records.

        During one visit he was heavily sedated, and the vet for some reason placed their hand on him while talking to my ex. Out of nowhere came the lowest, most vicious demonic growl from hell – even while knocked out, that kitty’s spice knew no barriers. The hatred of veterinarians ran just too deep.

        Having related all this, I would like to thank Bonnie and Alison for an extremely fascinating Tuesday morning read. It’s rare that I run across something where my impression is “I never knew such a thing existed, but now that I know about it, why does it not exist more extensively?”

        Reply
    2. Dust Bunny*

      Ha ha ha my totally non-feral cat gets sedated because she is an absolute demon at the vet’s. The vet staff are the only ones who have actually gotten to rub her gloriously fluffy tummy.

      (It also means they can draw blood from her so I also asked them to run bloodwork on her the last time she was in, just to see how she was doing at 10 years old, because if her kidneys or something are starting to go, treating her will be a nightmare. Bloodworked looked great, which was an immense relief.)

      Reply
      1. something about sharks*

        Mine is one of those one-human cats where I am the only person she likes, close friends who visit a lot are tolerated if they do not touch, and everyone else is Disliked With Teeth. We do our best!

        She’s also hyperthyroid, so we’re in a minimum of once every six months (averaging closer to once a month since October because *somebody* figured out how to eat around her meds and hide the results). I hoped she’d adjust to the vet a little more as she went more often, but that does not seem to be the case!

        Glad your kitty’s bloodwork is good. It’s always a relief when that comes back with a positive results.

        Reply
    3. MEH Squared*

      The brother (Raven) of my cat (Shadow) was my spicy cat. He had to be taken away from me in order to be examined. They had to put him in a straitjacket of sorts and probably think it was better to do it not in front of me. He was very sweet and loving otherwise. Shadow, on the other hand, freezes up when he’s examined, poor thing. He just looks completely terrified and as if he’s pretending to not be there.

      Reply
      1. something about sharks*

        Awww, poor Shadow! At least he’s not hiding? (Which is what my spicy girl, Prowl, did the one and only time we tried to do a non-sedated exam – got herself between the scale and the wall and made it very clear she Was Not Coming Out, No Thank You.) Hopefully his visits go quick.

        Prowl gets taken straight to the back, carrier and all, as soon as we walk in these days. I’m told it’s because they want to sedate her ASAP before she can stress herself out too much about the Scary Office, but it keeps me a lot calmer too! (The clinic cats help, admittedly.)

        Reply
        1. MEH Squared*

          There was one time Shadow was so scared, they couldn’t find his veins. Poor baby! I have a new vet, and everyone in the office is so gentle with him. It makes me feel better about the whole experience in general.

          Prowl sounds like my Raven and I’m glad that your vet office seems to be good at dealing with her. It really helps to have a good vet and staff.

          Reply
  23. Rainbow Bridge Troll*

    This is so great to know about. I wish the vet clinic had had a VSW on staff when I had to put my elderly cats down during the pandemic. The vet docs and techs were very kind, no complaints, but I was very alone and depressed, and would have been well served by someone in that role. I’ve never heard the “better one day early . . . ” saying, but it’s made me feel a little better. Thank you for this interview!

    Hugs to all still in mourning or facing the decision.

    Reply
  24. Kelly*

    I’m an in home euthanasia veterinarian and I HIGHLY recommend the Ohio State Quality of Life Checklist. I don’t think I can post links, but it’s easy to Google. It’s easy to use as an owner or family or with your regular vet. There are other ones out there that get kind of nitty gritty and mention things like feeding tubes, but this one is really simple and thorough.

    Reply
    1. old curmudgeon*

      You are another Hero of the Revolution to work in that field! Thank you, thank you, thank you – both times that we have used an in-home euthanasia vet when we had to say goodbye to a beloved kitty were very much appreciated. If you are anything at all like the wonderful folks at Journeys Home, you are acting as a de facto VSW in addition to giving dying pets a gentle, compassionate release, and speaking as a client, your services are deeply, deeply appreciated.

      Reply
    2. Burger Bob*

      I wish so badly that we had had in-home euthanasia as an option for my previous dog. The part I hated the most about having her put down wasn’t that we would miss her (we did and still do, but we knew it was time). It was that I kind of felt like I was deceiving her. Here we were, taking her to the vet’s office, which she knew as a place that she didn’t *love* but which she would enter feeling sick and then go home feeling better. So she was feeling sick, and we were taking her in….but she didn’t get to go home feeling better. I wish so badly you could explain that kind of thing to dogs, because, again, we knew for sure it was time, and I imagine if one *could* explain it to a dog, she would have been fully on board with the decision. But you can’t. Being able to do it at home would have helped alleviate my feeling that I was pulling a bait and switch on her, I suspect.

      Reply
    3. Playing With Puppies And Kittens All Day*

      Seconded – I’m an assistant in an ER and I refer clients to the Ohio State “How Do I Know When It’s Time” page all the time – I actually also recently sent it to my own parents for our family dog. It’s a great resource.

      Reply
  25. Kay*

    This is such a wonderful position and I dearly wish the vet practices I used during the last few years of my dog’s life had a VSW. It would have made everything go so much more smoothly–thank you for sharing this interview and giving us so much to think about!

    Reply
  26. yala*

    I just want to say thank you for the work you do. I would love to see this sort of position become more common. Not just for patients and pet-owners (because lord knows I dread that), but for the vets as well. As you said, it’s a job with a high suicide rate, and from what I see of my cousin’s job, it’s just deeply stressful and exhausting, but driven by love. But love only goes so far without emotional support.

    Reply
  27. Lead Balloon*

    “I have an absurdly comprehensive collection of craft supplies and cycle through the various things that make me happy to accomplish.”

    I love how this is phrased as “absurdly comprehensive” rather than something negative. I find craft really helps me to regulate my mental health and also have a very comprehensive stash of craft materials, and a philosophy that what feels right is the right self care in this moment.

    Reply
    1. Curmudgeon in California (they/them)*

      As an ADHD person myself, the phrase resonates with me so much. I … shift … between crafts as I get bored with one and move on to the next. I never throw out the “old” craft supplies, because in anywhere from six months to a year I will want to take it up again, often finishing half finished projects and moving on to the next. It took me years to figure out that this is my cycle, and I would kick myself for giving stuff away that I now wanted again.

      Reply
  28. Hiring Mgr*

    Interesting, I wouldn’t have known about this kind of field… Completely unrelated, but curious why Alison doesn’t like the term “self-care”.. It seems an accurate description

    Reply
    1. Robin*

      My guess is that it got seized by marketing to be really…fluffy? The roots of the term are in activism and much more about the radical love it takes to care for a body that society seems disposable and/or unworthy of care.

      Self-care is budgeting, brushing one’s teeth, taking the meds, eating the veggies, and all the drudgery that have a body and mind requires. It is also finding those moments (carving them out, protecting them) of joy and relaxation to restore oneself.

      Marketing latched onto the latter: bubble baths and yoga mats, while ignoring the context entirely.

      Beyond that, it can also get exhausting to hear about “self-care” from corporate mental health programming that is inherently shallow, even if well-intentioned. It becomes a meaningless phrase.

      Reply
      1. Lunch Ghost*

        I really appreciated the “self-care isn’t a bubble bath and candles… unless it is for you” framing, as a person who gets frustrated with the rigid “treating yourself isn’t self-care”. I’m less likely to not do stuff there’s a practical reason to do, like brushing teeth and eating veggies, than stuff that’s purely for enjoyment– the whole “saving it for a special occasion” mindset.

        Reply
      2. Insert Clever Name Here*

        Yeah, this. When I’m telling someone about how I’m worried because one child told me literally as they’re getting on the bus that they cry every day in 3rd grade because the boys are mean, I’m anxious about what a diagnosis will mean for my other child, work has been overwhelming, and they respond with “you should make some time for you! Go get a manicure!!” it’s just…(intensely frustrated noises here).

        Reply
    2. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Not Alison, but I don’t love it either. I know it’s accurate. Part of it is I really don’t like the self-care industry, and I find it hard to separate what I find to be really important internal work from the sort of cheeky commodification of “have a treat” or “spend money with us you’ll feel great”.

      I also think, as Bonnie eludes, that it has become synonymous with “have a bubble bath” and it’s hard to have a really nuanced conversation about what we mean when we say “practice self-care” because of the preconceptions we have attached to it now.

      DEFINITELY overthinking it and I am certainly not going around spreading a campaign for people to stop using the term. Still, words have a lot of meaning and I feel there should be better language for this conversation. This is the vibe I get from Alison, too, in how she words her question. But I could be wrong. We all see things through our own lens.

      Reply
    3. Bonnie*

      I’ll say from my perspective on the other half of the conversation, I agree with her – it’s a phrase that’s become reductive and synonymous with candles and bubble baths. For people who are very driven and under a lot of stress (like my staff), a simple self-care recommendation feels dismissive and unhelpful. I always make it a deeper conversation about what it means to care for *you specifically.*

      Reply
    4. Dust Bunny*

      It also feels like it’s making the target responsible for alleviating a bunch of systemic forces. Like, you’re stressed at work? Self-care! Not “your employer is exploiting you and and underpaying you!”

      Personally, I don’t like it because my self-care involves intensive crafting, which I’m now seeing criticized as “capitalism has brainwashed you into thinking that even your downtime has to be productive”. I understand the criticism but, for me, I chose this and, secondarily, I actually do love the feeling of ticking off a bunch of nagging personal errands and projects.

      Reply
      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Yes! I can’t engage with conversations about self care with anyone besides my therapist. People get weirdly critical.

        Reply
      2. Sloanicota*

        I agree, “self-care” often gets used as a way to dismiss structural concerns like overwork, underpay, our crappy medical system, etc, like if we just bought the right fluffy products and gave ourselves a spa day we wouldn’t be in this mess. I realize that is not the intention of many people who use the term, it’s just a gut reaction I have.

        Reply
  29. Corrvin (they/them)*

    I’ve been so lucky to have vets who managed that last vet visit empathetically and kindly with us. The “will there be more good days?” is always a good question. Thank you for being there for so many people.

    Reply
  30. Lumos*

    This is so timely for me. My senior cat has started having health issues and I’m already agonizing over how to know when it’s time to let him go instead of fighting to keep him here. thank you for what you do and I wish there were more VSW available.

    Reply
  31. stephanie*

    I can’t even say HOW MUCH I love this article (is it called an “article”?). Bonnie, you are amazing– thank you for what you do! I wish my vet clinic had a VSW. My 3-year old Shih Tzu, Oliver, has multiple congenital defects in one of his front legs. (I decided not to have surgery because it would be incredibly expensive, the only surgeon is a few states away so lots of travel involved, a really difficult post-surgical recovery, and not a high chance of great improvement.) I was told two years ago that he had “a few years” before it would be so painful it would need to be removed. The problem with that is: Shih Tzu’s don’t do well with one front leg, since their bodies are long and stocky… it causes a lot of pressure to be put on the other leg, wearing down the joints and causing pain. So the question will be: do I want to remove the leg when the pain gets too bad (probably soon) or just go ahead and let him go then, since pain with the other leg will come soon. Heart breaking. Hoping I will have someone like you to talk it through when the time comes!

    Reply
  32. Jayem Griffin*

    I am so grateful that there are people like you out there. Thank you for everything you do – and for modeling good self-care practices! Your clinic and your clients are lucky to have you.

    Reply
  33. Hawk the Gerbil Mom*

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, to you both for this post and its contents. Bonnie, I wish the emergency vet I had been to had a VSW a few months ago. I think it would have helped all of us in a very rough situation that in the end was complicated by stress and the fact that that office was over an hour from home (I own gerbils and the closest emergency exotic vet is in another state).
    I also deeply appreciate the conversation about death and approaching the death of a pet with children. While I’m not a parent, I have watched people I know go through the process of talking with kids about the death of a pet.
    I’m recommending this post to a number of people that I know because this is a job I would love to see more people doing (also library social workers).

    Reply
      1. I love vacations*

        Many public libraries are hiring social workers.

        This recent NPR story gives some background: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/01/03/1063985757/why-your-local-library-might-be-hiring-a-social-worker

        More background from the Public Library Association: https://publiclibrariesonline.org/2021/09/guidance-for-social-work-positions-at-the-library/

        Also, here’s an example of how it works: https://tulsalibrarytrust.org/program/adult-programs/

        I’m a librarian, but not in a public library. I love to see these programs pop up. Being able to connect people to services and resources *in* the community is an excellent use of space and time. It also frees up library staff from having to work outside their expertise.

        Reply
  34. evrry*

    I had to put both my cats down last year, and I’m still hurting from it. I feel so guilty and ashamed, and I miss my little babies every day. But, this interview really reassured me that I used the proper guidelines to determine the time was right. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. June Bee*

      I’m so sorry and sad that you lost two kitties last year. And that you feel guilty and ashamed? I don’t know you or your experience, but I know that the love we share with cats is real and the pain of losing them is real. Please go easy on yourself! I hope your heart will mend one day.

      Reply
  35. Marz*

    I’ve hear the day too early / day too late phrasing first as better a month too early than a day too late, in my vet-advice pet fb group, and which I offer as a tweak that may be helpful for the piece Bonnie identifies, of, not to stress people out who are going to feel like that cuts it a bit fine, like a day isn’t much margin. Although the framing still offers a possibility of a too early, which may be the problem. I haven’t had to make that decision in my life yet, but I think it brought me a bit of confidence when I do, how totally, universally people agreed, that it was better to do it sooner than later. I know that won’t make it easy, but to start accepting early that it is a kindness.

    Reply
  36. KTB1*

    Cannot emphasize how valuable a VSW or hospice vet can be for pet owners. We had the most wonderful hospice vet care for my 14yo lab during the last year of her life and it made SUCH a huge difference in both our ability to assess her quality of life, and managing our own emotions at a really stressful time. Bonnie, you and your colleagues are amazing humans.

    Reply
    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      We had a hospice vet do an at-home euthanasia for our last dog and I can’t tell you what a comforting experience it was. She was so nice, and took such good care of us through the process. These services are amazing.

      Reply
  37. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Thank you. I love these interviews Alison does.

    And as a long time owner of cats; I absolutely wish we had someone with your job in our area. Just having someone sitting with you who knows what’s going on can make so much difference.

    Reply
  38. Random Bystander*

    I really appreciate reading this. One of my cats (approaching his 11th birthday in April) was recently diagnosed with GI lymphoma. We just had his annual visit today, and he’s actually gained a tenth of a pound since his last weight check. Unfortunately, he has contraindications for other treatment, so I know that decision day is coming a lot sooner that I ever thought when I adopted him (I have another cat who is almost 15, so I clearly expected her to be the first one, but since she started Cosequin, she hasn’t been having any arthritis issues and that was the only issue she had).

    Reply
  39. soshedances1126*

    My dream is to have this role at the shelter I work at (I direct both shelter medicine and our community clinic, and this role for us would be wildly helpful). We see a lot of mental illness, a lot of substance abuse, and a lot of under-resourced clients. One day! I said this in the original post, but I cannot thank you enough for what you do. Having a mental health professional on staff in a veterinary clinic just makes so much sense, and this profession has a long history of not always knowing how to deal with the people side of veterinary care. I’m glad to see that changing.

    Reply
  40. The Rural Juror*

    I’m very glad Bonnie added that last bit. I recently went through a pet accident the day after Christmas in a rural area where there are no emergency vet clinics. It was a Monday, and a VERY busy day at the vet’s office. Not only was I leaving my dog with a vet I didn’t know well (I was visiting family and they referred me there), but dropping her off on a day when it wasn’t certain when she would be seen. Unfortunately for several patients and clients there that day, there were a couple of pets with more pressing situations. When she was all stitched up and we were leaving, they offered to let me come back to the kennels to carry her out (with the assistance of a vet tech). Several of the other techs stopped for a moment to pet her and tell her goodbye, all remembering her name. It was a comfort to me as much as it was to my dog.

    Thank you to Bonnie. Thank you to everyone who works in animal healthcare. It’s so special and it doesn’t go unnoticed.

    Reply
  41. sagewhiz*

    Let me add my gratitude to both Alison, for doing this, and Bonnie, for all the help and comfort you give. The post was so heartwarming and informative that I sent it to the wonderful veterinary office who cared for—and ultimately had to euthanize—my beloveds, a 14 yr old dog and then a 17 yr old cat, several years apart. Even though I knew, both times, that it was the right thing to do, for them, it was so hard. I wish I’d had a hand to hold while my tears flowed. As they are now doing again.

    Reply
  42. Kimmy Schmidt*

    I teared up reading this. Thank you for the work that you do.

    The bit about growing up with memories of a family pet, even if a child doesn’t remember, is so true. My family cat Sadie passed away when I was a baby, and I could still tell you lots of stories about the shenanigans Sadie got up to. In a way, it made me feel more connected to both my parents and my deceased ancestors, talking about this through-line of the pets we love.

    Reply
    1. Bonnie*

      How funny, the dog I mentioned was named Sadie. My daughter loves the video of herself crawling around after her calling “Yadie! Yadie!”

      Reply
  43. Anon4This*

    Regarding euthenasia, the problem we encountered was our Vet was extremely resistant to putting any animals down, even when they clearly needed it. I tried several times to talk to her about the option and she’d always blow me off. This was for an elderly cat (17 years) who had been suffering for well over a year, had increasingly serious health problems, cancer, high blood pressure, arthritis, and was in pain. She just wanted to keep trying new meds and have me bring him in weekly, which was very stressful for him. Eventually I put my foot down and said it was time, but it still upsets me that she wasn’t more willing to talk about it. I honestly don’t know if she was trying to get more money out of us, or was so emotionally invested in the pets she treated that she couldn’t bear to entertain the option.

    Reply
    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      In my experience, that’s uncommon and I would get a different vet. But that must have been so painful for you, I’m sorry you had to go through it.

      Reply
      1. Momma Bear*

        I agree – different vet. We had a situation where the local vet and ER vet kept suggesting things and eventually the pet died after weeks of what I now consider to be expensive and unnecessary treatment. If the vet was simply not willing to do the euthanasia, then she could have suggested a colleague. We hare happier with a different vet now, and I will travel to a different ER if at all possible.

        Reply
      2. Anon4This*

        I haven’t checked recently, but the last few times I tried calling around to find a different Vet no one was taking new clients because of how bad things got during Covid (lots of people adopting new pets + shortage of veterinary workers)

        Reply
      3. NYanon*

        Echoing this–so sorry, and I hope you can find someone, although I know the shortage is bad. Our cat saw the vet a lot in her last year, but those visits were really more about reassurance for us that her quality of life was still good and she wasn’t suffering–until the last visit when things shifted. The vet did tell us about various interventions that were possible if we wanted to seek specialty care elsewhere, but he didn’t push anything, he just wanted us to be aware of them in case we did want to take extreme measures (nope, not doing lung surgery on a 16/17 year old cat).

        Reply
    2. Sloanicota*

      I admit I’ve had a similar discussion with my current vet. They are clearly going to stop at nothing and leave no stone unturned lol (my cat is 18). They also don’t weigh any of the difficulty *I* have in managing the symptoms and treatments as having any relevancy. I plan to use an at-home service when it’s time and not go through that vet.

      Reply
  44. Evil loaf of bread*

    Thank you for all you do, Bonnie!

    I hope you don’t mind another question, so feel free to ignore. What are your opinions on euthanasia at home vs. at the vet? I’m honestly not sure which will be worse.

    Reply
    1. Bonnie*

      I think that either can be the right choice, depending on circumstances and needs. Does the vet have a comfortable, peaceful place and a procedure that allows you to be with your pet? Do you feel like everyone would be more comfortable at home? On the flip side, would that memory association be something that would be difficult to have at home? Do you have other pets or family members who would want to be present and be more comfortable in your own space? There’s not a wrong answer, and at our clinic and many others we work hard to make things as comfortable and peaceful as possible and to give families all the time they need, but we also refer to at-home services when someone is just more comfortable with that. Frequently in an ER setting there just isn’t time to arrange it at home, but if someone wants to spend more time with their pet and the pet is able to go home without suffering, it might be a great idea processing-wise to take the time to schedule with an at-home provider.

      Reply
    2. Eldritch Office Worker*

      We did at-home for our last dog. She had been through several painful vet visits recently, and we decided that we didn’t want her last moments to be scary. We made her favorite breakfast, she was sat across our laps. The nurse was unbelievably kind and considerate. She talked us through everything. And when it was over we were home, and we could grieve, and it was all much more manageable for us.

      There’s no wrong choice. Every situation is different. Bonnie gave you a lot of factors to consider. But for us there was no doubt at-home was the right choice and I do like to share that experience with people who are considering their options.

      Reply
      1. Momma Bear*

        We had a traveling vet for one of our pets for similar reasons. Unfortunately the vet said that most of his work was like that, so I try to suggest him to people for routine care anytime I can.

        Reply
    3. old curmudgeon*

      We have used an in-home euthanasia vet to bid farewell to two cats in the past about six years, and prior to that, the pets who we had to say goodbye to were euthanized in the vet’s office. For us, the at-home option is far, far better.

      Our Labbie was euthanized at the vet’s office. The vet was gentle and compassionate, but the setting was just an exam room, with a cold, hard tile floor and a steel examining table. My daughter and I sat on the floor and cradled our old fellow as he received his release, stroking his ears and telling him what a good boy he was, but I know that the last sounds he heard were foreign to him, and the last smells he experienced were not those he was comfortable with. And the walk back out to our car afterward was dreadful.

      When both our cats died, they were lying on my lap as I sat on the sofa in the living room. The music that was playing was the usual type of music we always play (classical). The smells that surrounded them were the safe, reassuring smells of home and Mom and Dad. The sensations were the soft, warm lap they were lying on, the gentle stroking of their face and ears, and the soft murmur of conversation. Yes, there were tears, but afterward I didn’t have to walk through the lobby of the vet clinic with my face all blotchy and tear-stained.

      In both the vet clinic and at home, the practitioner was gentle, compassionate, respectful, and clearly cared deeply for our pet. For me, though, the difference was that I didn’t have to stuff a terminally ill cat into a carrier and take him to a place that terrified him for his final departure. That meant all the world to me.

      Your mileage may vary, of course, especially if your area does not have an in-home euthanasia vet service. But in my experience, the in-home option was far less awful than the other option. Sending hugs if that is welcome; I hope you don’t actually need to make a decision either way for a very long time.

      Reply
  45. curmudgeon*

    I wonder what the self-care advice would be when the vet hospital has no respect for a work/life balance.

    (It’s why I quit the vet world. I was past the point of burn out, we were understaffed, it was the middle of the pandemic and our hospital manager’s answer for everything was “we can’t turn anyone away” even though this wasn’t an emergency hospital. Yes, there is always an element of the unexpected but this was stupid)

    Reply
  46. SoAnonToday*

    This was a wonderful interview. I want to thank you for supporting the staff as well as the clients. I was a vet tech in specialty medicine for many years (E/CC, IM) and we had social workers at one hospital where I worked. Unfortunately, they were really only there for the clients and it was such a letdown for those on staff who were really suffering mentally. It’s amazing that you are there for both clients and staff!

    Reply
  47. TotesMaGoats*

    I did not know this was a thing but am definitely sharing with my alma mater who has a counseling/social work program. Could be a great fit.

    Also, I shared the “how do you know the time is right” with my husband. We have a geriatric cat. His sister passed suddenly earlier this year and we were honestly surprised he hasn’t passed already. It was good information to think about.

    Thank you for what you do.

    Reply
  48. MEH Squared*

    Thank you, Bonnie, for this interview (and thank you, Alison for asking the questions!). I felt quite emotional reading it for personal reasons. I wish there were more in your profession, but I can’t imagine how stressful it must be.

    I have an almost-17-year-old cat of my own who went through a medical crisis a decade ago (I was told it’d be a miracle if he survived), and I will never forget the woman from the vet’s office who compassionately talked me through my decision making if my cat didn’t reach the number he needed to reach by the end of the day in order to have a chance. He met that number and now is just fine for an gentlecat of his age.

    This was a great read and I wish there were more VSWs because I think everyone could use one.

    Reply
  49. Carol the happy (but teary-eyed) elf*

    I am so glad your profession even exists!
    We met with someone like this at the Vet, when our little old dog needed to be released from her pain. They had a procedure I’d never seen before, and it was really healing. “Mackerel” was 16 years old and had been mine when Husband 1.0 (the failed prototype) cheated on me “because of breast cancer”- which made her my therapy dog. She ran the house and the children, she was a Cairn terrier, and losing her was losing the last thing that spelled my childhood.
    Mackie decided that the New Guy (friend of friend) needed to stay; she took his shoes and ran off with them out the back doggie door in Minnesota winter weather.

    (Husband 1.0 still had some winter clothes there, so when he came to shovel the snow, i.e. meet the new guy, we had the deep enjoyment of watching Ex learn that his gloves and boots were much smaller than New Guy’s. This seemed to matter to Ex, for some bizarre reason….) Mackie adored the New Guy, to the end.
    Years later, Mackie began to decline. The vet commented that at fifteen years old, her health was passable, but her body was wearing out.

    She advised us to keep in mind that an old dog can’t understand pain, and the only reason to make them experience it is if it can be cured. My dog had a fairly good last year, but she declined quickly- the vet and a colleague walked me through the procedure almost three months before the end. She told me to bring a favorite cotton blanket and an old laundry basket, and we took Mackie in for three appointments before we could actually go through with it. She had told us that often, old sick pets still perk up at the vet’s and we might not be able to go through with it; she called these “pre-grieving trial appointments”.

    When we went there for the last time, the Vet Tech saw the look on our faces and asked,”This time?” She lit a candle and dimmed the office lights a bit, and hung a sign on the desk about someone losing a beloved pet. We went into a treatment room, where the Vet gave Mackie a treat, and spread her blanket on the treatment table. She gave our dog a shot, then left us with soft music. We had a photo album, and years of exam pictures the clinic had, and we’d been asked to bring any more we pariucularly liked. While Mackie’s sedation started taking effect, we went through the album and selected a favorite. The vet came back in with her stethoscope and gave another medication with a small IV setup.

    When she came back a third time, I had already used the stethoscope with my husband and kids, and I heard her heart slow down and stop. The vet listened for her heart, and said, “You have just done the kindest, hardest thing a loving owner can do for an animal. You saw her pain, you did all you could to make it stop, but then you bravely made it end. The last thing she knew was love, not pain.”

    She took Mackie’s paw and pressed it into a box of plaster, and took her collar off. (“You won’t be needing this where you’re going, old girl.”) We took Mackie and went (out the back exit) to bury her at home.
    As we went out, the techs were lined up by the back door, and the last thing we did was blow out the candle with “Mackie” on it.
    A few days later, my husband went to get some of the paperwork, and they gave him the “Mackie” candle, a resin plaque with a picture embedded, her paw print sticking up a bit (to touch), her collar clipped to it, and her tags in the resin. They had shown us how to take a rectangular plastic laundry soap box, and tip it, and fill it with Quick-crete, so there was a small angled gravestone to attach the plaque on. They also made a dvd with every photo we had, funny music, sweet music, and a video we had of Mackie getting in a bath with my kids. Our kids still sometimes watch the DVD, even in their 30’s. Sometimes the little ones want to watch the “Mackie Movie”.

    When we moved, we took the plaque and we keep it in the den wherever we go. We have since done something like this every time we lose a pet, but this first time was magically healing. My children saw their father/stepfather cry, and we were able to comfort each other.

    Yes, there is a need for this, for everybody involved.

    I am a pet owner, not a dog’s “mom”, but my pet was sweet and special and loved until the end and beyond. These people all helped me validate the life, and honor the death, and find peace in the process.

    Cost? 25 years later, who cares, because it was priceless. (Maybe $150 back then, but they gave us tasks and assignments before the procedure, and what we came away with was peace.)

    Reply
    1. turquoisecow*

      I didn’t know the vet did this but they gave us a plaster cast of my cat’s paw print and it has been a treasured possession ever since.

      Mackie sounds like a great dog.

      Reply
  50. Loss*

    Thank you for doing this job, and for sharing more about it! I wish every vet had access to a VSW. The services you provide to both the vets and the patients/owners are invaluable.

    Are you able to provide resources to owners in the aftermath of the euthanasia as well? Whenever we’ve had to put one of our pets down, the vets were deeply compassionate and supported us during the immediate transition. But the days and weeks afterward were hard, and it didn’t feel like there were many good places for us to reach out. So many grief counselors focus on humans, and it was hard to find someone to talk to about a beloved pet. Honestly it felt like the world around us thought we should just move on. Are VSWs available in that capacity, or at least have therapists/groups/books/etc. they can point the owners to?

    Reply
    1. Bonnie*

      Yes, I tell my clients, “Once you walk through this door, you’re ours.” That includes follow-up calls and availability and right now, referrals to support groups, although we’ll be starting one of our own in the next few months. I also give every euthanasia client a packet with quite a bit of information and book recommendations for both adults and kids.

      Reply
      1. Loss*

        Thank you so much for your response! That sounds like a great system, and your clients are lucky to have you and the other additional resources you’re able to give them.

        Reply
  51. turquoisecow*

    This is wonderful. Having to put a cat down was THE hardest thing to do – I still tear up about it almost ten years later – even though I was 100% sure it was the right time. The vet staff was wonderful and compassionate and gave me a bunch of literature to read about coping with pet loss (which I forgot I had until cleaning out a closet recently).

    Thanks for the recommendation on the Mr. Rogers book about death. We have a ten year old cat and a two year old daughter and while right now they don’t interact much, I’m sure as they both get older they’ll get closer and his death might upset her at that point. (Also we do intend to always have cats, so we’ll probably encounter this situation in the future.) The part you said about kids keeping pet memories alive is so true. The dog we had as kids lived for a long time and was so good for us – my brother would fall asleep on his back and pull his ears and tail as a toddler and the dog was fine with it. My memories (and my siblings’) of childhood are tied in with the memory of our pets; it’s really wonderful to think of the same happening with my toddler and cat.

    Reply
    1. Gracely*

      Big Cat, Little Cat by Elisha Cooper is also a good children’s book for understanding pet death, especially if there is more than one cat in the house.

      Reply
  52. Can't Sit Still*

    Two questions:
    1. Is there any easy way to search for a clinic that has a VSW on staff? It would be nice to know if I ever have a choice between hospitals.
    2. Did your job get more intense during the pandemic? I have a medically complex cat, so we were at the vet a lot in 2020 during lockdown, and I saw so many parking lot meltdowns. Some of them were truly frightening, on top of being extremely worried about my cat.

    My baby is a DMH with a natural scowl, but he’s also fluffy and adorable with round kitten ears. He doesn’t understand why, when he’s giving the vet or vet tech his best glare, they are laughing so hard. He doesn’t growl or hiss or nip, he just glares, and it’s hilarious.

    Fortunately, he likes still likes people, despite all of the procedures he’s been through. I feel confident that means he’s only received the best of care at all of the clinics he’s been to, even though I haven’t been able to go in with him since January 2020. He’s recovered and doing well now, so only has to go in for his annual wellness check.

    Reply
    1. Bonnie*

      1. I wish there was, but we pretty much use our internal listserv to help locate fellow VSWs in areas where we know of someone who needs one.
      2. Very much – between the massive increase in pet ownership and having to have everything other than euthanasia on a dropoff basis, the staff were under an extraordinary amount of stress.

      Reply
  53. Momma Bear*

    This was a great discussion, thank you for sharing your role and insight. I can clearly see the burn out at my local vet hospital. I think all vets should have someone like you on call, if not on staff FT.

    As a pet owner, having someone sit with me when making hard end of life decisions for my pet would have been appreciated. I can make the call, but the actual letting go is so hard.

    I hope that as the word gets out your profession expands. There is a huge need for your services. Thank you for what you do.

    Reply
  54. Adds*

    Oh my goodness, I had no idea that there was even a title/job for this kind of thing! How equally wonderful but also very … difficult on a daily basis. I’m glad to hear that you offer short-term support with referrals to longer-term support to the staff at your clinic.

    I always feel terrible for our vet when we have to bring in one of ours for euthanasia. He gives us space to grieve and say goodbye in the treatment room with no rush afterward, which is kind, but he always rushes out and then looks so awfully miserable when we see him through the gap in his office door on our way out and I never know what to say or even if I should say something. I hope he has someone like you in his life because I know the practice doesn’t.

    Reply
    1. CorgiDoc*

      Of course I can’t speak for all vets, but I am a veterinarian and I thought you might like to know that euthanasia is one of the aspects of my career I find to be most rewarding (a sentiment I’ve heard echoed by many of my colleagues). It is always a sad occasion but it is very rewarding and meaningful to be able to provide the client and the pet with the smoothest, most comfortable and compassionate experience I can.

      Reply
      1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        When we had to say goodbye to the Elder Statesdog, she went downhill really fast over a holiday weekend and our normal vet was on vacation the following week, so when we took her in on the Tuesday for the last time, we had to work with a different vet. When our normal vet came back, I was surprised to hear that she was sorry to have missed it – my husband and I had actually been thinking of it as a small grace, that she hadn’t had to be the one to push the button (as it were), but in retrospect I can see pros and cons.

        Reply
  55. MCMonkeyBean*

    Wow, thank you so much for sharing. Add me to the list of people who had no idea this was a job, but it sounds like it would be so extremely helpful to so many people at one of the worst times.

    This is tangential but I want to note in case it helps anyone else because it is also a vet service I didn’t know existed previously: when I had to put down my cat a few years ago I learned while trying to do the “how do I know it’s time” research about a few places in our area that offered in-home service. I assume it costs more than going through your vet and I’m sure many people would prefer to stick with the doctors they already know but for us for many reasons it was a huge relief to be able to do that and made a very difficult time slightly easier.

    Reply
  56. Kyrielle*

    Thank you, Bonnie, for sharing this. Fascinating and awesome stuff! And re your last point – yes. Vet folks are some of the best folks. I think you may enjoy this story:

    A number of years ago we had a cat get I-131 treatment for hyperthyroid. We’d caught it early, and she was always a calm cat, so apparently she was the least-grumpy I-131 patient they’d had in some while. To the point that, while she was still in radioactive isolation and they weren’t supposed to touch her, she was trying to get them to pet her while they were cleaning her cage. They started bringing along an extra brush tool to pet her at a distance, for their own ability to follow safety protocols.

    We had fairly young children at the time, who would not have been able to follow the exposure rules, so we boarded her until she was safe to resume all human contact. And when she came out of “no touch” into “X minutes a day” I am told that she got a *lot* of loving from various staff – a big enough vet clinic that they could follow the exposure rules and love on our glow kitty.

    Hearing that helped me get through the waiting without losing my mind. It’s hard to send them in for a major medical procedure, even one that should be entirely helpful, and moreso when you have to board them after. But the staff are there because they love these animals, and to the extent that the animal welcomes and is safe to be affectionate with, they definitely will. :)

    Reply
    1. Pibble*

      Aww, I bet she was thrilled to go to “x minutes a day” even if she didn’t understand why!

      I loved finding out that one of my rats had his own personal vet tech any time he was in for a longer procedure – she’d hold him every time she got the chance!

      Reply
  57. AthenaC*

    I’ll share quickly how I completely bungled my cat’s death a few years ago in hopes others can avoid this –

    – I started to notice occasional red-brown spots on the floor. I didn’t think anything of it; with 3 kids there’s always weird stains / spots everywhere because someone has always spilled / dripped / been clumsy with SOMETHING and not cleaned it up.
    – Cat started being more lethargic. We had been warned that she would be lethargic after her check-up / shots. So between the timing of all of that she had been lethargic for about 3 weeks and most of that was expected.
    – Cat started being really cuddly with me. I assumed she was going through an “I’m still recovering and want to cuddle” phase because she had done that before.

    All of the above developed / happened over about a month. Then one day my husband picked up the cat and noticed that her lower abdomen seemed really swollen. After some Googling, off we went to the 24-hour veterinary ER. Turns out she had an infection from probably about the last time we took her to the vet and she needed surgery. So we got her the surgery, they called us when she was out, and said she was recovering nicely. Then she suddenly took a turn for the worse and died. My husband made it to the parking lot but wasn’t able to get inside to say goodbye.

    So basically –

    – I failed to differentiate expected things from problematic unexpected things
    – I then messed up my cat’s plan to crawl next to me and die peacefully; in trying to save her I made her die in a sterile vet clinic all alone.

    As I said I bungled that in the worst possible way, so I’ve definitely learned my lesson on what to look for and when to call the vet! Hopefully none of you make the same mistakes I did.

    Reply
    1. Sloanicota*

      Aw, I’m just a stranger on the internet but I don’t think you bungled this. You didn’t know, and cats are good at hiding their symptoms. You had to try the surgery because it might have worked out and she could have had more good years. Obviously, if you had known the outcome you would have done things differently, but that’s so often the case, and we lack that power. Hugs if you want them.

      Reply
  58. Anon for this one*

    I’ve had to say goodbye to five pets of my own now; two dogs and three cats, three in a vet’s office and two at home. I will definitely do the at-home vet thing in the future.

    I really wish I’d had a VSW the first time I had to do it, though: it was a young dog with behavior issues who’d bitten me on the face and broken the skin with the teeth on both jaws — just a few millimeters over, and I’d have lost my eye. Once I got over the shock, I called up my dog trainer, who was also an animal behaviorist, and told her what happened. She told me my dog had meant to hurt me, and now knew that biting worked. I’d never noticed she was a resource guarder because I’d never tried to take anything from her — until that moment, when she thought I was trying to take her chew from her. A whole lot of odd little behaviors that I’d noticed but not really paid attention to started to make sense, like the way she would freeze when I would walk by as she was eating or with a toy, but was fine with me trading her something for the toy.

    I knew our relationship was forever changed, and my trainer, Deb, gave me some steps to do to re-establish some kind of safety. I worked at this for two weeks, but the dog still bared her teeth at me if I displeased her.

    Yet she was still all love and kisses to people in the neighborhood when I took her out. I knew I could never explain what happened to them, because all the crappy behavior took place behind closed doors.

    I made the decision to put her down. I couldn’t just send her to a shelter, because she seemed like a friendly dog, but what if some kid got hurt? My dogwalker, who was such a stoner she couldn’t figure out how to close the baby gate once she opened it, was furious when she heard because she thought she could have handled the dog. She called me a murderer.

    I got a lot of guilt from the vet, too, about putting down a healthy young dog, guilt I really didn’t need with my face still bruised and two weeks of intensive training that didn’t work. I was a wreck already about it. I wonder if a VSW would have handled things better.

    I knew I made the right decision a few months later when a dog in the next building killed a baby — the dog had been the parents’ for 10 years before the baby came along, and the grandmother was watching the baby and let her attention lapse. My dog could have hurt a kid like that if I’d just passed the problem along.

    Reply
    1. AlabamaAnonymous*

      I had a similar situation. Putting the animal down was the right decision, but it was still devastating. I feel your pain.

      Reply
    2. squeakrad*

      A good friend of mine had a very similar experience and had to put her dog down. Unfortunately you did not have the support that my friend had. Everyone around her understood including the vet, Nneighbors, family and friends. I hope you can have peace with your decision as I think it was the right one. It’s hard to put down an otherwise healthy young dog but sometimes they can’t be helped.

      Reply
    3. Clumsy Ninja*

      Please check out the facebook group Losing Lulu. It’s a great resource for many people coming to terms with behavioral euthanasia. Your dogwalker had zero business saying that to you, and I’m sorry for the guilt your vet gave you. Unfortunately so many veterinarians have been asked to put animals down for convenience and so many have not yet experienced for themselves the animals that really do have a screw loose and need to be euthanized for safety – they are trying to set boundaries for their own mental health, but you were a casualty. I’m sorry for your loss and glad that you were able to make that call.

      Reply
  59. VetSpouse*

    I’m married to a vet and selfishly would like this type of service in their clinic to take some of that emotional burden off them. (And me! I’m totally burned out.) Although I can’t see how the finances work out in a general practice, where techs are super skilled yet paid minimum wage. General practice is so much less expensive than emergency and people still balk at the price.

    What a valuable skill set to have in a vet med setting. I think most people including (especially?) pet owners have no idea how brutal the vet med working environment is!

    Reply
  60. Cafe au Lait*

    I wish there was a VSW when I had to euthanize my beloved kitty in late 2021. It was unexpected, due to a blood clot, and I barely had any time to process it before making the decision. I was lucky because earlier in the year she’d been diagnosed with lymphoma. Her vet and I had already spent quite a bit of time discussing how much treatment I wanted to put her through. So when the emergency vet recommended euthanasia I already had a baseline when it came to her quality of life.

    Telling my just-turned-four year old was incredibly hard. I was too wrapped up in my grief to look up any books to help her out. I’m pretty sure I bungled the explanation because randomly kiddo will ask “Was Arya cooked over a campfire?” (I had kitty cremated).

    One thing that would’ve made the process easier is if someone from the e-vet reached out to my regular vet and let them know Arya died. I got notices for “It’s time for Arya’s six month check up!” a few months later in the mail and I found it upsetting.

    Reply
    1. Bonnie*

      Cremation is one of the hardest things to explain to kids! We used to work with both a cremation company and an aquamation company, which actually made it a bit easier to elide over the “how” with “there are a few different ways” and just go to “we send them to a place that turns them into ashes that can go in a box.” Even adults don’t want to think too much about the “how.”

      Reply
  61. CatMintCat*

    I’ve not heard of this position in my area (rural/remote Australia) but what a wonderful thing. We had to put our 18 year old cat to sleep last year and it would have been so helpful to have someone to talk it through with at the time – although I’m confident we made the right decision. I’m looking at our other elderly (almost 19) cat and found the “if they can do three out of five things they enjoy” helpful – he is currently doing three at once.

    Keep up the great work.

    Reply
  62. Sack of Benevolent Trash Marsupials*

    Thank you for this! I worked as a vet tech for almost 15 years (I left in late 2013) and never heard of this role, but it would have been a lifesaver for us and for our clients. I hope it is widely adopted! Such an amazing resource. Especially in talking to children who come in with a possible euthanasia. I did a lot of talking clients through the ‘is it time’ conversation and felt like most of the time it went pretty well, but never knew how differently to approach the conversation with kids in the room (no kids of my own). We all did the best we could but someone actually trained as a counselor would have been incredibly helpful.

    Lastly – thank you Bonnie, for calling attention to the massive mental health crisis in vet med, and also for letting readers know that the folks who work at your vet do genuinely care about your pets. You would not believe the number of people who assume and/or accuse veterinary workers and veterinarians of being “in it for the money” (AS IF). It is really soul-crushing. It was one of the factors that led me to find a new career, as much as I loved surgery and anesthesia (my area).

    Reply
  63. CorgiDoc*

    I am a veterinarian who has worked in practices with and without a VSW and I can say wholeheartedly that it is an absolutely tremendous resource to myself, my clients and my staff. We, as veterinarians, don’t always have the time (or training for that matter) to devote to the long, in depth conversations some clients need to process a traumatic event or end-of-life situation, because we are typically understaffed, overworked and swamped with medical needs of a variety of patients that we need to address at any given time, especially in the ER. Knowing I have someone helping to give the client what they need while I’m stabilizing the patient/caring for their immediate needs is a huge weight off my shoulders and really allows me to practice the best medicine I can.

    Reply
  64. TheMonkeyShuffle*

    As a social worker who once interned with a VSW in a vet school and worked there during a summer I am thrilled to see people learning about this much needed role! This was my dream job for years but I wasn’t willing to move (or wait for my former supervisor to retire lol).

    Reply
  65. Curmudgeon in California (they/them)*

    I had to put my cat down last December. She was in stage 5 kidney failure, and they couldn’t bring her numbers down and get her eating and pooping with all that they had available. When I made the decision to euthanize her, my reasoning was this: It’s not right for me to prolong her life in pain and distress just so I can have a few more days of her company.

    After I got there and spent some time saying goodbye, the process was quick and painless. I still bawled my eyes out. The vet staff who dealt with her sent me a very nice condolence card, because she was actually a very sweet cat.

    I didn’t need a VSW, but I can definitely understand how some people might. This was not the first time it was my decision, but the first time it was exclusively my cat. It still wasn’t easy, but I feel no guilt about the timing.

    Reply
  66. Alpal*

    I so wish I had had a VSW in November when the puppy I had had for 5 days went into the ER and never came home. Thank you for the work you do and for sharing <3

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  67. Here we go again*

    I’m curious if Bonnie works with just house pets or livestock too. The vet I take my dogs to also specializes in horses and cattle. I used to work 3rd shift at a call center and one of the accounts was for a vet that worked with livestock I had a lady call who was so hysterical I couldn’t understand her. She put someone else on the phone and their goats were attacked by coyotes. I could see how a social worker could help with that.

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  68. HMS Cupcake*

    I was alone when I had to euthanize my cat during the height of the pandemic. Reading this interview, I dearly wish there had been a VSW available at my clinic. Sometimes you just need somewhere there to acknowledge all these feelings that you’re going through.

    This interview was lovely and I hope VSWs become more common at vet clinics.

    Reply
  69. Playing With Puppies And Kittens All Day*

    Bonnie – thank you so much for everything that you do! You make such a difference to everyone in our field, both in your direct support and in helping facilitate these often-challenging conversations with owners.

    I’m actually planning to leave the field shortly (at least for a while). I’m coming up on 5 years in so I’m hitting the statistical expiration date for veterinary support staff, and the burnout is very real.

    Reply
  70. Adalind*

    This was really interesting. I’ve worked at a vet (part time, have a diff full time job) for 10 years and I had no idea this type of job existed. It sounds extremely beneficial to both clients and the vet staff. I didn’t need this for my last cat personally (lymphoma), but I’ve definitely seen instances where this type of thing would have been helpful! I hope it becomes more common.

    For those who are unsure of if/when it’s time, this is something we hand out that helps (if you don’t have a VSW!) – https://vet.osu.edu/vmc/sites/default/files/import/assets/pdf/hospital/companionAnimals/HonoringtheBond/HowDoIKnowWhen.pdf

    Reply
  71. Adalind*

    What an interesting post. Thank you for sharing. I’ve worked at a vet (part time, have a diff full time job) for 10 years and have never heard of this type of job! It would be extremely beneficial to clients and vet staff alike. I didn’t need a VSW for my last cat (lymphoma), but have seen instances where this would have been really helpful. I hope it’s something that becomes more common.

    For those who don’t have a VSW, we hand out something from Ohio State University called “How Do I Know When it’s Time?” It can be found via google.

    Reply
  72. bereaved cat parent*

    Just wanted to thank Alison for posting this and Bonnie for both being willing to share and for your deeply meaningful work. My spouse and I just said goodbye to our beloved kitty this past Friday after a quick decline due to a chronic condition he had. The VMC we took him to has veterinary social workers and interns available for support, and we actually just met with one last night. It means a lot to have a compassionate listener who gets what we are going through and is supportive of our grieving process.

    Reply

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