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Letting Go

Veterinary social worker helps pet owners cope with loss

When a pet dies or the diagnosis is difficult, where can the owner turn?

At the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Clinic, comfort and guidance comes from Lori Harbert ’03, who works in the emerging field of veterinary social work.

Harbert earned her master’s degree in social work from Cal U and is a licensed clinical social worker. Her previous social work experience is in mental health counseling, crisis counseling, and grief and bereavement counseling.

All of those skills apply to her career as a veterinary social worker.

Harbert helps pet owners make decisions regarding treatment, provides support immediately following a pet’s death, and offers guidance in the weeks and months that follow.

“If you’re older, the animal is your family, and that bond is significant for socialization and exercise,” Harbert says.

“If you’ve experienced a trauma or have mental health issues or have been a victim of abuse, the animal is your trusted friend. When you lose that support system, it can cross into the mental health arena.

“And sometimes the animal has simply been a part of your life for a very long time. Its death or a difficult diagnosis can be devastating.”

Part of Harbert’s job is to help owners see the reasons behind their grief and give them strategies for healing.

“People ask, ‘Am I crazy? Why do I feel this way? Why is this grief so intense?” Harbert says. “I connect that for them.”

She provides group and individual support services, referrals and general information on pet loss.

“Letting go can be difficult. I help pet owners see when the time is right.”

She also provides services to staff at the clinic, who must manage their own stresses.

“Our hospital is a tertiary referral clinic, which means it gets the toughest cases, very sick animals,” says Dr. Christine Guenther, director of critical care services and a doctor-owner at PVSEC.

“Stress impacts our staff as well; we get compassion fatigue and decision-making fatigue. Our staff retention rate has improved by 25 percent since Lori came.”

Being able to refer families to Harbert has helped the staff in other ways, as well.

“We have people in exam rooms who can take eight hours to make a decision about what to do with their pet, but I can’t spend time with them because I need to be in the intensive care unit. People have left the clinic in very emotional states, and we did not have a way to deal with that before.

“Someone may come to our clinic and want to talk about a pet that was euthanized two months ago, and I had nowhere to point them.”  Now she does.

“From the second I met Lori, she was far and away a perfect fit,” Guenther says.

By Wendy Mackall, assistant communications director at Cal U

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