Compassion Fatigue for those that work with animals

As a therapist that has worked in the field for many years, as you might imagine, I have worked with a lot of soon- to- be college graduates, that are contemplating their futures, and what exactly they are going to do with their careers.
Frequently, I encounter those that are pursuing careers in the helping professions (whether this be medical, or mental health, or, in animal care (veterinarians, etc.).

As it is, with many of these college graduates, they are young, and fresh and eager to make a difference. I remember this time in my life fondly. I remember thinking, ‘I cannot wait to get out there and help and save the world!’ No one ever told me in college or graduate school about something known as compassion fatigue. At that time in my life, and I see this often in young minds, I thought I was invincible, and truly could-save the world. As I rapidly learned, as the years went by, no one person can save the world. And it takes a great deal of time and dedication to your cause to make changes, inch by inch; baby steps. It can also be exhausting work, with high demands and in many cases-minimal resources to support you. Burn out is real, and compassion fatigue is something that the vast majority of us in helping professions and/or efforts will encounter, at least at some point in our careers.

What is Compassion Fatigue?
Dr. Charles Figley defines it as, ‘ A state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

I could write forever about burnout and compassion fatigue within my field, but, upon suggestion to me, with this bi-weekly blog (thank you Nancy!) I was asked to discuss compassion fatigue pertaining to those that rescue or caretake for animals. I think that there are those who would not understand how this could occur for those responsible for the welfare of pets. How hard is that right? Working with cute, cuddly animals all day! Rescuing animals from horrible circumstances has to feel amazing right? Has to feel as if you are making a tremendous difference, and are saving the world! (of animals).
As an animal lover myself, and one who has struggled with pet loss in the past, this concept was intriguing to me. I am quite familiar with compassion fatigue in the medical and mental health fields as I mentioned above, but not so much in the scope of veterinary care and pet rescue efforts.

In my research, I was stunned, to find that 1 in 6 veterinarians nationwide have contemplated suicide, or even made the attempt (Source:, 2017). I thought back to clients that I have worked with, and those that I have known in my life that were pursuing veterinary careers. How could this be? Had people I have known in my past in the field contemplated-dare I say, even -attempted suicide at one point?

Research suggests, that there are very good reasons for the above statistic. Remember, that animals cannot speak. Humans, even if they are very heated and emotional, can in fact, convey their feelings. Animals? Have no voice. Those in the field have to be their ‘voice’. Daily, whether you are a veterinarian, veterinarian tech, animal rescue worker, volunteer, what have you- you are their voice. You are the one that has to make the concerted judgement for them- on what is in their best interest-and often, with human defensiveness, and protest to deal with on top of it.

I cannot imagine some of the horrific things that particularly those in rescue efforts encounter regularly. Post traumatic stress disorder anyone? We talk about this regularly with those in the military that return from war efforts, or those that have survived mother nature’s capabilities (hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.), and the premise is the same. Rescue workers walk into some of the most awful circumstances imaginable. Starving animals, animals that have been abused, mistreated, and with emotional scars. And still, these folks have a job to do. A passion, a calling. They have to do their job. But the images do not leave. The trauma of what is seen on a regular basis often goes home with these folks. Imagine what it is like to see these things constantly, then, have to bury it to get thru the day, and then you go home, and you are left with your own thoughts?

Recently, I was watching footage from the events of 9/11. I studied some of the firefighters. They reminded me, not only of that terrible day, but of everything discussed here. Those guys had no time to cry, no time to weap, no time to even question what had just happened to our country. They just went on, doing their jobs as they routinely did. And I thought to myself, ‘I wonder what happened when they eventually made it home?’

Never, is it in question about the love that folks that work in veterinary care, or animal rescue efforts have for pets, but often overlooked, is the topic of taking care of themselves, to help lessen the burden of compassion fatigue and burn out.

My suggestions are as follows:

-talk about it! There is no reason to stay silent on this issue. It does not make you weak, and it does not mean that you do not love what you do. It means that you are human. And that it is painful work.
-Along those lines, consider starting a support group of sorts where folks can talk about those feelings, and the difficult things that you see and encounter. If you do not talk about it, it gets buried into your unconscious, and makes it very difficult to sleep and function normally. A group can also be extremely beneficial for discussing and sharing ideas about how to engage in self- care and coping more positively.
-Talk to a therapist such as myself that is familiar with PTSD and compassion fatigue and the effects it has on your body and brain.
-Set firm boundaries. For example: one day a week, you make it clear to everyone that you do not check your email (unless it is an absolute emergency, and if it is, define what an absolute emergency means). You will get back to them if they call the next day. Or, another great idea, is to take a few days off every 8 weeks or so. It gives you something to look forward to. Designate tasks during those few days off to someone else, and vice versa.
Know that, by setting these boundaries, you are not only taking care of yourself, and your needs, but in the end-it will make you clearer, and likely better able to do your job, which in turn, circles back to remind you, of why you do what you do ?

1 Comment

  • Nancy Hutchinson

    September 13, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    Tricia this is the most beautiful and informative article I have ever read about compassion fatigue. Being in the animal rescue world for the past 25 yrs has taken an incredible toll on me emotionally. I continue, however, because I feel that the small role I play does indeed make a difference. I have set significant boundaries over the years, but there are says that the tears overflow like a leaky faucet.

    I tell people that although nobody can ever eradicate all the suffering that animals endure, a small effort can make a difference.

    Its important to be emotionally strong, in order to make the best decisions for the animals. Not everyone can handle the signifcant never ending stress, but with some support from family/friends it is managable…. or at least bearable…

    Thank you for taking the time to share with us your knowledge on this subject. I know that this article will make a significant impact on so many people who suffer from this condition.

    Nancy, Michigan Cat Rescue