COMPASSION FATIGUE In Animal Welfare & Veterinary Medicine

Compassion Fatigue is huge in the veterinary and animal welfare communities.

Signs can be depression, anger, anxiety, sadness, and more. But there are things you can do to deal with the stresses of an open heart.

I worked at an animal shelter for 5 years. It was the hardest job I ever had. Every day–another heartbreaking story.

A man turned in his sister’s dogs, saying she went into a home. She called a few days later after she learned her dogs were taken to the shelter. She was lucky, her dogs were still there. A man and woman pulled up to the shelter with a small trailer and said they had 33 cats to drop off. By 11pm, animal control had pulled out about 130 cats from that trailer. The woman had slept inside on the urine-soaked mattress. A breeder had her 20 dogs confiscated because they were in such poor condition—ill, heartworm infested, flea infested and completely unsocialized.  Animals were turned in because they were old and the family wanted a puppy or kitten, or the family was moving, and so on.

The stories, of course, go on and on. The point is that these stories are continuous and people who work there deal with the stories and the animals every single day. This wears on staff at shelters, sanctuaries, and veterinary clinics. They are passionate about their work, but there’s just so much help they can offer. And the heartbreak that they experience becomes what is known as Compassion Fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is a huge problem in the veterinary community. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the first study to ever examine veterinarian mortality rates in America. The results were grim: the suicide rate among veterinarians is between 2 to 3.5 times higher than the national average.

The animal welfare community (sanctuaries, rescue groups, shelters) represent another area of concern. The stress of animal work can affect morale and how they view their job.

Psychotherapist J. Eric Gentry tells the Sacramento Bee:

“Animal care professionals are some of the most pain-saturated people I have ever worked with. The very thing that makes them great at their work, their empathy and dedication and love for animals, makes them vulnerable.”

Signs of compassion fatigue can include:

  • Depression
  • Sudden outbursts of anger
  • Feeling cynical or numb to what’s happening around you
  • Feeling isolated from family and friends
  • Exhaustion
  • Difficulty sleeping just to name a few.

There are things that can help though. Dr. James Fogarty, an expert in critical incident stress management and trauma debriefing, states you must do 4 things:

  1. Talk about your experiences in enough detail to connect emotionally with them again.
  2. Acknowledge and safely express your feelings to someone you trust.  Find a colleague you trust and use the 5-Minute Sharing to debrief (five-minute vent to take the lid off, cool it down—read Petfinder “what to do about compassion fatigue).
  3. Brainstorm and find solutions that let you take action
  4. Take care of yourself. Breathe

Learning mindfulness is proving extremely useful for people who suffer from compassion fatigue. Mindfulness increases empathy and serenity among animal care givers. Mindfulness emphasizes staying in the present moment, being non-judgmental, and striving toward an attitude of acceptance. Meditation is the method of creating this.

Research abounds on the benefits of mindfulness with:

  • Improvement in depression, anxiety and coping skills
  • Significant decrease in stress.
  • Improved self-compassion, serenity and empathy


I highly recommend JOURNALING POWER: How to Create the Happy, Healthy Life You Want to Live  by Mari McCarthy. Mari proves that building a regular journaling practice leads to tangible rewards in all aspects of your life. Her books offer you prompts to help you discover yourself. Release stress, emotional build-up and baggage that holds you back. Overcome challenges, changes and hardships. Heal wounds, relationships and illnesses. And get insight into what you want and who you are.

Spending time in nature: 

Forest bathing is spending time in the forest exploring. Nope, you don’t jump in the stream.  It refers to bathing your senses in all there is to explore in the forest–what you see, hear, smell, touch, taste. The trees emit a substance (essential oil) called phytoncide that are produced  by trees to protect them from insects and germs. These oils are also hugely helpful to our bodies and even help increase our ‘killer cells’ that fight off cancer. There’s a lot of mindfulness in forest bathing too. Read my post “Heal in the Splendor of Nature.”

Come join me to learn how to rediscover the joy and passion you once had!

Compassion Fatigue Workshop. I offer a 2-hour workshop that gives you the tools you need for dealing with this syndrome.  You’ll learn and practice mindfulness techniques and writing therapy. in your office or via Zoom.  Contact me to learn more or to create a longer program.

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