Dear To Your Heart

Dear To Your Heart

By Stephanie Piper

It’s the news no pet owner wants to hear.

For Debbie Arnold, a diagnosis of cancer for her German shepherd, Max, was the last thing she expected.
Max had been receiving physical therapy for hip problems at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital in Knoxville. Arriving for treatment one day last fall, he was barely able to get out of the car.

“I thought it was his hips,” Arnold recalls. “But the doctor did an ultrasound and discovered a mass in his stomach. They did emergency surgery to remove his spleen, but he was terminal. I was devastated. I’ve had him since he was five weeks old.”

As she struggled to process the news and decide on the next steps, Arnold found she was not alone. UT’s Veterinary Social Work program went into action.

“They saw that I needed someone,” Arnold says. “They were with me from the first day. Max lived another three weeks, and they were with me the whole time. When my car broke down and I had no transportation, we did counseling sessions by phone.

“The key thing is having someone who understands the animal is dear to your heart. I knew they had that empathy and understood.”

Veterinary Social Work is a partnership between the College of Social Work and the College of Veterinary Medicine. Designed to enhance, support, and inform both professions, the program offers graduate and undergraduate training and focuses on grief and bereavement, compassion fatigue, the link between animal and human abuse, and animal-assisted therapies.

Dr. Elizabeth Strand developed the program in 2002 with the guidance and support of Social Work dean Dr. Karen Sowers and former dean of the veterinary college Dr. Michael Blackwell. Now in its eighth year, Veterinary Social Work has evolved into a nationally recognized model. Other universities study UT’s program when they consider establishing a similar collaboration between veterinary medicine and social work.
The area of practice most visible to the community is pet loss and grieving. Eight free counseling sessions are available to any client of the UT Veterinary Hospital, and four free sessions are offered to the public. In addition to individual counseling, a free pet-loss support group meets four times a month.

“The intensity of pet loss is stronger for some people than the intensity of human losses,” Strand says. “The innocence of the animal, the unconditional love, makes the loss of that love difficult to ignore.”

Caring for the caregivers is another essential aspect of the program.
“Veterinarians and others who work in the profession experience death at a rate five times higher than doctors who treat humans,” Strand says. “There are vets who leave the profession because they have expended their compassion and care. Veterinary social work gives permission to set clear and kind-hearted boundaries.”

Classes in communication and stress reduction are offered to the staff of the veterinary hospital, as well as one-on-one counseling.

“My motto is ‘Be kind to yourself, or else,’ ” Strand says. “If we know someone has done three euthanasias in one day, we seek them out and ask them what they are going to do for themselves.”

The program’s vision is “to expand understanding about the human needs at the intersection of veterinary and social work practice.” As she reflects on the past eight years, Strand says she is struck by the exchange of wisdom between the two professions.

“Sometimes in social work, we are around such deep suffering that we become fatigued. We lose our compassion. In caring for people who care for animals, in witnessing the healing power of animals, I have the opportunity to grow in compassion every day.”

Online Certificate Program to Launch

Beginning this fall, students enrolled in the online master’s degree program in the College of Social Work can also earn a certification in Veterinary Social Work.

The new certificate program is being launched in response to a steady stream of inquiries and requests, said Veterinary Social Work Program founding director, Dr. Elizabeth Strand.
“I was getting e-mails every week from people asking how they could become veterinary social workers. The inquiries came from social workers, from undergraduates at other universities, from psychologists, teachers, veterinarians. All of them wanted some formalized way of learning about this new field.”

The certificate requirements can be completed within the 2-year framework of the online master’s degree program. Two summer classes and four weekend trips to campus are also required.
Strand hopes the online certificate program will help to create “a movement of social work professionals who understand the ethics and practice of caring for people who care for animals, as well as using the healing power of animals.”

More information on the Veterinary Social Work Certificate Program can be found on the College of Social Work website at

Mallicotes Endow Fellowship

Education is an important part of the Mallicote family history. Just among themselves, Richard and Patty Mallicote and daughters Martha, Sarah, and Mary Rachel have earned ten college degrees. Seven of those degrees came from the University of Tennessee, and the Mallicotes are proud of their Big Orange heritage. Richard has a master’s in engineering from UT Knoxville. Patty is a triple alumna, with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, a master’s in social work, and an MBA. Martha is a graduate of the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Sarah has both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting. Mary Rachel’s degrees are from Boston University.
When the family decided to endow a scholarship at UT, they were looking for an area that reflected some of these varied interests. They found the right fit in Veterinary Social Work. “It was a perfect way to give to both colleges,” Patty says. “As a social work graduate, I understand the importance of the program, and our daughter Martha recommended it from her experience as a student in the vet school. Pets have always been a part of our family, and we understand that there is a very special relationship between pets and their owners.”

Last fall, the Mallicotes had the opportunity to meet the first recipient of the Mallicote Family Endowed Fellowship. Anne Cain, a first-year master’s student, joined them at the College of Social Work tailgate before the Georgia game and shared some insights about her work in the program.