Why are Animal Caretakers Suffering as Much as the Animals?

How do you feel when you visit an animal shelter? I know it’s always hard for me to leave those little innocent faces behind metal bars knowing that they might never make it out. So what is it like for those who call animal shelters their workplace? Spoiler alert: it’s not fun or easy.

Animal Caretakers Under Pressure

Most of us get so caught up in the serious plight of animals stuck in shelters that we’re forgetting the human crisis caught in the middle. I’d like to think that most of the people who work with shelter animals do it because of their big hearts and love of animals.

I don’t think it’s a career you choose for money; according to PayScale, the average salary for those in the animal shelter industry ranges from $76,319 (veterinarians) to $22,320 (vet techs). And it’s not a glamorous industry that’s easy to do or full of flexible hours; with 7.6 million dogs and cats entering American animal shelters every year, according to the ASPCA, this is not the line of work where it’s easy to clock out at 5 pm. On top of all this, many animal shelter workers carry the burden of being “heartless” for putting animals down.

Pressure Leads to Burnout

Not surprisingly, all of these pressures can and do push animal shelter workers to their limits. As reported in The Sacramento Bee, to varying degrees, animal shelter workers will suffer from compassion fatigue.

What’s compassion fatigue? In Defense of Animals describes compassion fatigue as: “Vicarious Traumatization and Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder, Compassion Fatigue is the negative, deleterious effect of working with those affected by trauma and suffering.” A recognized stress disorder common in caretakers in the medical field, we’re coming to terms that animal caretakers are also susceptible. Think of compassion fatigue similar to really fast burnout.

Animal shelter workers are responsible for lives every day. Those difficult decisions that no one wants to make clash with their innate empathy, compassion and love for animals, and can lead to:

  • Sleepless nights
  • Nightmares
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Emotional “numbing”
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Depression

“Veterinarians are Four Times as Likely to Commit Suicide”

Compassion fatigue isn’t something that we should expect animal caregivers just to get over, much less get over it alone. This is a serious threat to mental health, and ultimately to animals. Certified Compassion Fatigue Educator, Jessica Dolce, highlights the consequences of unmanaged compassion fatigue. As Dolce explains: “A study in the UK revealed that British veterinarians are four times as likely to commit suicide than the average person and twice as likely as their human healthcare counterparts to do so.” Veterinarians are particularly vulnerable because many are perfectionists operating in a broken and under-resourced system.

Tips for Managing Compassion Fatigue

Animal caregivers: if you need professional help, then get it as early as you need it. It’s all about putting the airplane oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others, including the animals. While suicide is an extreme example, The Sacramento Bee explains that many do not retire from working with animals and the turnover rates are high — how is that helping the animals?

While there’s no replacement for professional help, here are a few tips that might help animal caregivers manage compassion fatigue, from The Sacramento Bee:

  • Keep your muscles relaxed
  • Do deep breathing exercises
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle, including diet and exercise
  • Maintain relationships outside of the job, e.g. romantic, friendships, pets etc
  • Talk about your feelings
  • Don’t do things you aren’t comfortable doing, e.g. putting down an animal that you have a strong connection to
  • Keep moving forward

More Compassion Fatigue Resources

While stray dogs and cats are forgotten, I think their caregivers are even more forgotten. For more resources on how to manage compassion fatigue, please check out: In Defense of Animals and Jessica Dolce’s work. Do it for yourselves, and the animals who depend on you.

Photo Credit: Eirik Newth

131 comments

Louise A
Lara A2 months ago

tyfs

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Louise A
Lara A2 months ago

tyfs

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Kelly S
Past Member about a year ago

so sad!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Magdalena C.
Past Member 3 years ago

Thank you!

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven4 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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JACQUI GLYDE
Jacqueline GLYDE4 years ago

It's hard enough for me as a foster carer for cats & kittens when the time comes to take them back to the shelter as I do get so attached.

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froudji thommes
froudji thommes4 years ago

Being compassionate and caring can hurt... Thanks to the vets and vet techs for doing these absolutely necessary jobs.

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SANJA v.
SANJA l4 years ago

They are heros!

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Lisa Zarafonetis
Lisa Zarafonetis4 years ago

I know its got to be HORRIBLY difficult to work day in & day out in that environment & seeing the cruelty/neglect constantly! I know how hard it is for me to see so much of it in my crossposting & FB wall! It all just breaks my heart!!!

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