OHS Hires First Veterinary Social Worker

Kelly Bremken, MSSW, VSW, joins OHS with a focus on caring for the people who care for pets.

Kelly earned her MSSW from the University of Tennessee.

A First for OHS

It’s been almost 20 years since the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Social Work established the country’s first veterinary social work program. Since that time, the specialty has grown in prominence as the role of pets has become more significant. They are beloved family members and play an important part in our emotional and physical health.

Veterinary social work focuses on four main areas: grief and pet loss, animal-assisted interactions, the link between human and animal violence, and compassion fatigue and conflict management.

Animal shelter staff have often had to fill this role as caring for pets often means caring for people too. It’s a heavy burden. When Kelly Bremken worked at OHS as foster care coordinator almost 10 years ago, she saw this first-hand.

“People who work in animal welfare are inherently compassionate, but the work can be emotionally draining. It certainly takes a toll,” says Kelly.

Several years after leaving OHS, Kelly decided to attend University of Tennessee and earn her master’s degree in Veterinary Social Work. In 2020, she returned to OHS for her internship and was a welcome support to staff during the stress of the pandemic.

“It was incredibly rewarding returning to OHS, helping staff navigate the pandemic’s changing landscape and supporting pet-owners in our community,” says Kelly.

Now, Kelly Bremken, MSSW, VSW, has returned to OHS as a full-time staff member. This is a first for OHS and important step toward creating a More Humane Society.

Gimili and his family relied on Kelly’s expertise to help them begin a new chapter.

An Emerging Field

“Veterinary social work is the future,” says Dr. Stephen Kochis, OHS Chief Medical Officer. “Having someone like Kelly to help our clients with complex issues reduces the amount of social service work that our operations team has to take on. This is particularly important as we prepare to expand our services for the community in 2022.”

Kelly’s expertise has been invaluable in several cases.

She worked with a family who had suffered a tragic loss, leaving them struggling to care for their deaf dog, Gimili. Kelly connected the family with resources and ultimately helped them bring the dog to OHS to find a new home. She has also traveled to Eastern Oregon and Yamhill County to help overwhelmed pet owners who were also facing issues like eviction and health problems.

“The people we are working with care about their animals, but they are struggling,” says Kelly. “The pause on spay/neuter services early in the pandemic has caused some pets owners to become overwhelmed.”

In her role, Kelly will also be making connections with other social services agencies so she can connect pet owners with resources. She recently spoke at the Oregon Animal Control Council conference and is scheduled to speak at a national conference hosted by the Humane Society of the United States in 2022.

“There is a growing awareness that Veterinary Social Workers play an important role in animal welfare,” adds Kelly. “And that is really gratifying.”