Human-Animal Connections: Veterinary Social Work Roles Grow as the Specialty Area Evolves

May 29, 2024

Cats illustration

By Raju Chebium

Kelly Bremken is a new kind of veterinary social worker. She personifies how much the practice area has evolved since its inception 21 years ago. Back then, the handful of veterinary social workers sprinkled throughout the country pretty much focused on one thing: helping people cope with the loss of their companion animals.

Today’s VSWs do so much more than that. To name a few items on their growing list of responsibilities, they help veterinary professionals manage workplace stress and build better relationships with their human clients. They watch for signs of animal and domestic abuse. They detect and investigate cases of animal hoarding. They help students and staff at veterinary schools develop sound coping strategies.

Bremken, MSSW, VSW—the first VSW hired by the Oregon Humane Society in Portland—wears many hats, but her work is entirely focused on the human-animal bond.

OHS has a community veterinary hospital and an animal shelter and is the largest facility of its kind in the state. It’s a busy place where Bremken is uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role given her skill set—she worked in animal services for some 20 years before returning to school to earn an MSW and a veterinary social work certificate from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2021.

Bremken helps ease the grief and loss people feel when they decide to end the lives of their ailing or aging pets. But she also resolves a host of other pet-related problems for the humane society’s clients: landlord disputes; referrals to community social services; and the like. Another focus of her work is to connect owners with the right resources to help them keep their pets rather than giving them up to the animal shelter.

“We may not have the community program they need, but I am going to find out,” Bremken said. “Animal welfare as a whole has shifted to the idea that keeping people and pets together is the best plan. That requires us to build programs and increase access to care in a way that a social worker knows how to do best.”

Read the full story in the NASW Social Work Advocates magazine.