The Intersection of Social Work and Animal Welfare

by | Mar 30, 2022

A victim of domestic violence chooses to stay in an abusive situation because they do not want to leave their companion animal behind to be harmed. A veteran experiencing homelessness is forced to surrender their service dog because there are no pet friendly shelters. An older adult can’t stay to receive treatment at the hospital because there is no one to watch over their cats during their recovery. These are just a few of the intersecting and tragic situations involving animals, their humans, and complex social issues.

Social Work has historically and exclusively focused on the human members of society without much concern for how the lives of animals intersect. Today, companion animals are widely present in U.S households with an estimated 57% of homes owning a pet. Animal welfare penetrates a variety of social work specialties and societal issues. Focusing more on our non-human members of society does not crowd out humans, but rather it increases and enriches our capacity to serve.

 

The Human-Animal Relationship

Humans and animals share an amazingly special bond. Paying close attention to the human-animal relationship can assist social workers in the delivery of services, including identifying risks and resiliency factors, promoting social and environmental justice, and expanding attention to all vulnerable members of society. Service animals, emotional support animals, comfort dogs, and animal-assisted therapy animals are just a few of the ways that animals have a round impact on clinical social work practice.

There are many health benefits of human-animal interactions across the lifespan that social workers ought to be aware of, such as slowing the development of chronic illness, decreasing loneliness and depression, and improving physical fitness, to name a few.  These benefits are especially important for older adults and those at risk of social isolation. Pets can offer older adults a vital source of companionship and emotional support. Caring for a pet may be a strong motivator for a client to have a daily routine, get exercise, and be involved in the community. The animal may be a last link to a deceased spouse and serve as an important resiliency factor against depression and other mental health issues. Social workers help older adults age in place with their pets as well establish services for pet owners in need of medical care or long term hospitalization where they can foster or temporarily house their pets until they return home.

 

Another vulnerable group of individuals that social workers frequently work with are those experiencing homelessness or housing instability. Nearly 3.5 million Americans who experience homelessness annually have dogs and cats that provide emotional support, safety, a sense of responsibility, and combat loneliness. Because most homeless shelters do not allow pets, these restrictions deter pet owners from seeking out shelters and stabilizing resources. The Street Dog Coalition, operating in over 50 cities across the country, is committed to protecting the human-animal bond and caring for both animals and humans. Social work, veterinary and medical school students host free medical clinics and provide other related services to pets and people experiencing, or at risk of experiencing homelessness. 

Street Dog Coalition

The human-animal relationship in a household can often serve as an indicator and precursor to forms of family violence such as intimate partner violence, child maltreatment, and elder abuse. Pet abuse is one of the four predictors of domestic partner violence with 85% of women and 63% of children who enter shelters in the United States reporting incidents of pet abuse.

How to Prevent Pet Abuse Infographic (K9 Of Mine)

Social workers must use this knowledge to inform their engagement, assessment, and intervention with their clients. Simply asking clients about their animals can assist with building rapport and trust and yield significant insights into the well-being of the household. For children in particular, companion animals assist with feelings of safety, unconditional love, and contribute to cognitive, emotional, and language development. Animal-child relationships could also signal to the social worker that further assessment of family issues must be explored. The relationships between humans and animals in a household are strong indicators of the safety of the people in that household.

Social Workers in Animal Shelters

Animal Shelters have often operated in isolation from human service agencies and other non-profit organizations concerned with the well-being of human beings. This can lead to the silo effect in which cross-disciplinary collaboration rarely happens, leaving gaps in service for humans and animals. Social workers can facilitate bridging segregated service systems by promoting interdisciplinary communication and intervention that promote human-animal relationships. Animal shelter workers are also at a disproportionate risk of secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout. Positioning social workers within animal shelters is one strategy to help alleviate the stress associated with this occupation. 

 

With the understanding that there is an inextricable link between domestic violence and animal abuse, animal shelters and domestic violence shelters can form partnerships that open pathways for survivors to receive help. Victims of domestic violence may delay leaving abusive situations, fearing their companion animals’ safety. In no situation should a survivor have to choose between their own safety and the safety of their pets. As can be seen, there are many untapped social work opportunities within animal shelters that have yet to be explored. Students in social work programs would be well suited to do their field practice as well as serve in long-term roles in this setting.

Helping People in Crisis Who Have Pets

At some point, individuals and families may experience some type of crisis. Whether it be housing instability, food insecurity, or domestic violence, social workers must be equipped to help people in crisis who have pets. Below are links to a variety of resources and toolkits every social worker should have in their pocket when serving a client with a pet.

Homelessness and Pets                                                                            Animal Hoarding
Domestic Violence and Pets                                                                      Safety Net Programs
 Aging in Place with Pets                                                                               Other Resources
Affordable Veterinary Care and other resources

Visit the Humane Society of America or American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) for more information on other issues and resources. 

Veterinary Social Work: An Emerging Field

 The social work literature has engaged in debate about social workers’ responsibility under the NASW Code of Ethics to attend to the welfare of animals. What has been missing is the creation and unification of a specialty area of social work practice focused on animals. Veterinary Social Work has been slowly emerging into a larger field of study. Veterinary Social Workers help their clients with grief and pet loss, animal-assisted interactions, researching the link between human and animal issues, advocating for public policy as well as providing compassion fatigue management for veterinary staff. This field provides training and licensing for social workers interested in working with both humans and animals concurrently. Learn more about this emerging field here. 

University of Tennessee: Veterinary Social Work 

Animal Rights is a Social Justice Issue

 Social workers or anyone committed to social justice must consider the interests of all beings, not only humans. Let’s look at a few reasons why animal rights fall under the purview of social work.

Animal agriculture has been hurting vulnerable populations since its inception. The meat, dairy, and egg industry not only exploits animals, but also their workers who are often primarily immigrants or people of color. Further, animal agriculture is one of the leading contributors to serious environmental challenges such as climate change and loss of biodiversity. As a profession dedicated to supporting the most vulnerable, social workers can play a key role in the fight for environmental justice, helping to prevent and address the consequences of climate change through advocacy, community action, and research. 

Animals often fall victim to violence with no one to represent the interests of the animal. To remedy this, Courtroom Animal Advocate Program (CAAP), laws have been introduced in many states. CAAP laws allow advocates to speak for animal victims in criminal cruelty cases and make recommendations on behalf of the animal. Consider watching this short film that speaks to the importance of giving animals a voice.  

Food insecurity impacts millions of Americans and their pets living at or below the poverty line and in communities with limited resources every year. Animal advocates across the country are lobbying for Congress to take action and revise the definition of food covered by SNAP to include pet food. This is another example of the unique intersection of issues where social workers are key players in making long lasting change for pets and their families.

Issues that impact humans and animals cannot simply be managed by micro level intervention. Legislation and social policy are critical pieces of the puzzle. Social workers must advocate for public policy that improves the lives and well-being of all beings. With human concerns largely ruling the purview of legislative issues, it is critical to educate lawmakers on this undeniable link for human well-being. Let your elected officials know about the issues and begin a dialogue on how your state can strengthen and enforce stronger laws to protect animals and humans. 

Social workers should sign up for newsletters from the Animal Legal Defense Fund and other organizations such as Animal Wellness Action, The National Link Coalition, and Humane Action Pittsburgh to learn about the latest action items that will better protect animals and the people they serve.

 The inclusion of human–animal relationships should be considered more widely in training, practice, and professional code of ethics as part of social work’s commitment to social and environmental justice. Social workers should care about the well-being of ALL living beings, as we are aware of the profound relationship that exists between animals and their humans. 

While this blog post is heavily geared towards those in the social work profession, it is equally as important for all individuals to be aware of the intersections that exist between social issues and animal welfare. To learn more how you can get involved with these issues, please reach out to us as info@humaneactionpittsburgh.org or apply for one of our many volunteer positions here.

AUTHORS

Aimee Douglass is the Director of Compassionate Living. She has been a volunteer with HAP since 2018. She is an active participant in the Compassionate Living campaign and in 2019 tabled at her first event for HAP. Aimee works in the healthcare industry and has a bachelors degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and a masters degree in Communications with a health care focus from Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in Penn Hills with her husband and their three dogs.

Hannah Lewis is the Assistant Blogger and grant writer at HAP. She has been working with HAP since July of 2020. By day, she works as a literacy educator. She is an avid hiker, but also loves to spend time indoors curled up with a book and her long-haired cat, Frejya.