Professional Support Offers Comfort Through the Loss of a Pet

Veterinary social workers are rare, but experts are working to expand pet grief services

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(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – Pets are a part of the family, and when it is time to say goodbye, losing them can come with a lot of grief and heartache. In human hospitals, social workers are there to help families through difficult times, but these resources rarely exist in the veterinary field. Honoring the Bond at The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center is one of the few programs in the country that staffs a full-time social worker to support pet owners as they make difficult decisions about end-of-life care and say their final farewell to their beloved animals. 

     “I would love it to be standard that every veterinary medical center staff at least one social worker, just like it is in human hospitals,” said Joelle Nielsen, a social worker who leads the Honoring the Bond program. “Having that support not only helps pet owners process what’s happening and make difficult decisions, but simply having someone there to talk to or to acknowledge their grief can be immensely helpful.”

     Nielsen says until social workers are more common in veterinary hospitals, there are a few things pet owners can do to get through their loss.

  • Don’t compare your experience to others – “It’s important to know that what you’re going through is typical and that you will get through it,” said Nielsen. “Some want to talk about it, others might want to read grief support books, while someone else may just want some time alone. The important thing is to find ways to cope that work for you.”
  • Find an outlet for your emotions – Talking to family and friends and remembering your pet can help, but even if talking isn’t for you, it’s important to avoid bottling up your feelings. “You can write in a journal, make a memory box, create a scrapbook, anything to help you remember why your pet was so special to you,” said Nielsen.
  • Ask for help – If emotions are unbearable or the sadness does not ease with time, seeing a therapist to work through your grief can help. “People often ask how long they will feel like this, and unfortunately there is no standard timeline for grief,” said Nielsen. “But just being able to say, ‘I need help,’ is really important.” 

     Nielsen developed and coordinates the Hospital-Based Veterinary Social Work group which brings together the small niche of social workers that are employed by veterinary medical centers across the United States and Canada. This group not only provides support and collaborations for those in this emerging social work specialty, but the hope is that it will provide a model for veterinary medical centers and help expand support services to more pet owners.

To learn more about coping with the less of a pet, visit: https://go.osu.edu/copingwithlossfactsheet

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Sally Malaret made a scrapbook to remember her dog, Max. Talking to a veterinary social worker after Max passed away helped Sally cope with the loss and open her heart to her new dog, Fiona.

Joelle Nielsen speaks with a pet owner at The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center. She says that, while social workers are emerging in the veterinary field, more are needed to help pet owners through the loss of a beloved animal.

Sally Malaret visits a nursing home with her therapy dog, Fiona. Talking to a veterinary social worker after her dog, Max, passed away helped her through her grief and open her heart and home to Fiona.