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Helping Pets and People in Crisis

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As more research emerges about the link between human welfare and animal welfare, it has become increasingly clear of the relationship that binds the two together. In recent years, the animal welfare community has fully embraced the human-animal bond issue as animal shelters across the country work to reduce the number of owned animals being surrendered due to emergencies and find innovative ways to strengthen pet owners who are at risk of falling through the larger safety-net.

These new efforts are raising awareness of opportunities to better address the link between child abuse, elder abuse, and animal abuse and cruelty by expanding cross reporting and training among all first responders. It is now a pertinent time for human service agencies to begin to integrate animal welfare issues to meet the needs of the individuals they serve.

While it may initially seem awkward for social service organizations to expand their scope in this arena, this is actually not new for social workers who are historically at the front lines of addressing the needs of most marginalized populations. Today, more than 65% of the US population are pet owners, and it is very likely that some of these individuals and families face significant challenges impacting their housing, health, and safety.

Incorporating animal welfare into the work of human service organizations is not hard difficult but does require a meaningful pivot in thinking about helping a person/family in their whole environment. In terms of key social work interventions, much of the work remains the same from engagement and assessment through treatment. However, by recognizing a pet in the household, engagement and assessment can actually be stronger, thereby facilitating a treatment that is comprehensive for people and animals in the home. Incorporating animal welfare into traditional human service work can be done through these ten areas:

Engagement: Ask about the pet’s name and learn about the client’s relationship with the pet. Knowing about the animal (history, age, veterinary care, behavior) can reveal issues related to the individual as well.

Document: Include the presence of pets in all chart documentation, including a photo of the pet if possible. That way, the information of an animal can be shared with new workers. Include a Pet Information Page to collect information about the pet and services needed.

Assessment: Using the animal as an assessment point can showcase gaps in care (is there pet food, is there human food) as well as address environmental issues. Identifying pet needs (veterinary care, spay/neuter, grooming, food) is useful to the understanding of the client in the environment. In addition, assessments can highlight the relationship between the pet and person, whether there is a risk of human or animal neglect, or if there is a concern for elder abuse or animal cruelty.

Learn about the Issues: Pet owners face a number of crises along with the rest of the population including domestic violence, eviction, and illness. Some states have protections in place legally for situations of domestic violence including naming pets on Orders of Protection. One starting point is the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals online toolkit for social workers:

Explore Resources: There is an increase of low cost/free services targeting at risk pet owners to encourage spay/neuter and regular veterinary care.

Advocate: Front-line workers in under-served communities can advocate for animal welfare issues including spay/neuter, community cat issues, and increase of services (such as pet food banks) to help clients at risk of relinquishing their pets.

Collaboration: Human service agencies can partner with animal welfare organizations to address needs in the most under-served communities and assist the most at-risk clients. By recognizing the issues and understanding solutions, human service organizations can meet additional needs by monitoring and following up with clients and animals in the home.

Early Intervention: Early acknowledgement of pets in the home requiring services can allow interventions for individuals facing emergencies (hoarding, domestic violence, health/mental health issues) to encourage pet retention versus pet relinquishment.

Emergency Planning: Recent events showcase that everyone benefits when preparedness is encouraged whether the emergency is a terrorist attack, a large-scale hurricane, or other event. Social workers can encourage pet owners to secure emergency supplies for themselves and their animals, identify emergency temporary pet caretakers (in case of hospitalization or other emergency), and compile pet go-bags so that no one is left behind if an emergency is activated.

Program Expansion: Human service programs can address gaps in service delivery by expanding their initiatives to better meet the needs of vulnerable pet owners. Several ideas for expansion include identifying pet owners and assessing needs, providing pet food banks, implementing pet foster programs, offering veterinary clinics, and developing small grant programs to help pet owners in case of hospitalizations.

Having a pet that is loved and considered a family member should not impede accessing a level of assistance that non-pet owners can easily access. Locally, several social service organizations are beginning to lead the way by expanding their programs to target pet owners. These include Urban Resource Institute for implementing an emergency co-shelter for victims of domestic violence and their pets, and Search and Care, for expanding their friendly visiting program to target homebound seniors with pets. While these are great advances, it is now time for more human service programs to consider incorporating animal welfare into their work.

Jenny Coffey, MSW is a social worker at the Alliance for NYC’s Animals, a non-profit charity that works with more than 150 partner rescue groups and shelters to offer important programs and services that save the lives of New York City’s homeless animals.

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