The dilemma in the July/August issue concerned a lame eight-year-old dog with a chronic non-healing deep ulcer over the carpus, which was infected (In Practice, July/August 2014, vol 36, pp 374-375). The dog had been seen about a year before for a lesion in the same place and, although the owners had been asked to come for a follow-up, the owners hadn't returned until now. Richard Green proposed that the best approach would be to keep at the centre of any decision-making the knowledge that the vet's primary responsibility is to the animal. This would mean taking an utilitarian approach, in which the best result for the dog was of utmost importance. He suggested trying to understand the owners' situation, without letting them off the hook, in order to create an opportunity to improve the lives of both the dog and it's owners - with the caveat that if things didn't improve a more robust intervention, such as reporting the owners and confiscating the dog, might be necessary.
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Siobhan Mullan is a research fellow at the University of Bristol with interests in practical welfare assessment and animal ethics. She holds the RCVS diploma in animal welfare science, ethics and law.
RICHARD Green's illustration of how we can often feel more like a social worker than a vet made me think about the roles of different professionals within the veterinary setting. We are very used to working with others who have particular skills that complement ours, with veterinary nurses being the most obvious example, along with physiotherapists, farriers and nutritionists, to name a few. Specialist medical social workers have been in place in hospitals in the British Isles for almost a century. They work as part of a multi-disciplinary team and help to identify the needs of hospital patients during their stay and particularly during their transition back home.
A new field of veterinary social work is emerging, in the United States at least, where social workers trained to work in the veterinary setting are available to provide support to both staff and clients. Currently based in university veterinary hospitals, the main focus of social work with clients surrounds the loss of their pets and bereavement, but can start before the pet's death through helping with communication between veterinary professionals and clients, and supporting the decision-making process. Following pet loss, social workers can provide individual or group grief counselling sessions to those clients who need it. These American veterinary social workers particularly identify compassion fatigue, low morale and difficulties with interpersonal relationships as areas they can help veterinary staff with.
Whether the use of veterinary social workers by first-opinion practices will ever become commonplace, even in the USA, is not yet clear. In a survey of 59 veterinary practices within the Michigan area, conducted in 2008 by the Michigan State University School of Social Work, a majority already referred clients to free pet loss support groups provided at the university. However, perhaps revealingly, there was more interest in having an on-call veterinary social worker available for staff than clients (Rudder and others 2008).
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