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What is Compassion Fatigue in the Animal Rescue Community

on April 25, 2022
What is Compassion Fatigue in the Animal Rescue Community

Compassion fatigue is "emotional exhaustion, caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals or people." It is found among the animal rescue community's underserved, underappreciated, and uncomplaining caregivers.

Animal Rescue Heroes Get Tired Too

Scott Poore could easily be mistaken for Superman. As founder, animal rescue worker extraordinaire, Scott wears many hats: fundraiser, animal rescuer guru, shelter dogs and cats advocate, animal transporter, foster dog dad, social media influencer, t-shirt seller, storyteller, animal lover, you name it. No job is too big or too small for Scott to take on.

Scott loves what he does. It's his passion and calling. He left his corporate job to do animal rescue, and he is good at it.

Scott spends every day of the week helping long-term shelter pets find homes. In addition, he volunteers whenever he can at animal shelters, pet adoption events, and any cause that touches his heart. And on top of that, he sells pet-themed apparel and goods to make his animal rescue work possible.

All of this might sound fun and easy. Scott spends every day around dogs and cats and showers them with love and affection. Who doesn't want to love on some pets every day?

But sit back and imagine for a minute what a day in the life of Scott, or your favorite animal rescue hero, is genuinely like.

Every day they see and hear story after story of animal suffering. They see and hear of horrible neglect, abuse, and abandonment. They see animals in pain because they are lonely and have no place to call home. They see animal shelters struggling to provide primary resources for their animals because they are at capacity. They see animals sad and scared at the back of their kennel getting passed by day after day with no one looking at them to adopt. And in shelters that euthanize, they see the same animals they were caring for being killed because of behavior issues, illness, or just lack of room (overpopulation).

According to the ASPCA, about 6.5 million companion animals enter animal shelters every year in the United States. But unfortunately, only about 50% get adopted. And while more and more places are calling for no-kill policies, no-kill shelters still might euthanize. According to NPR, 90% of animals brought in are adopted or rehomed. The remaining 10% are elderly or sick pets that can be put down. So every year, approximately 1.5 million are euthanized.

Animal rescue workers can experience a wide range of emotions on any given day. Seeing an animal find a loving forever home can bring joy one moment; seeing an abandoned, abused, and scared animal can bring heartbreak the next.

There is tremendous reward for workers and volunteers in animal rescue. But on the flip side, those same workers and volunteers are regularly exposed to animal suffering and death, putting them at risk for depression, anxiety, and even suicide.

The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet. DR. NAOMI RACHEL REMEN

Understanding What Compassion Fatigue Looks Like in Animal Rescue

Those who work with companion animals know they are the luckiest people. They spend their days with dogs and cats, volunteering or working at shelters, running rescue groups, or even working in veterinary practices. They save lives. But they also hear about the pain and suffering an animal has endured.

It's difficult for an animal rescuer not to feel pain knowing the tragedy an animal has endured. It's something they carry with them. They make it their goal to ensure that dog or cat will never feel pain again. But it's a goal that one can't guarantee.

Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard of animal rescue work. It's the emotional distress and burnout that come from trying to save every dog and cat you encounter.

Animal rescue work requires one to respond compassionately and effectively to the constant demand of those suffering and in need.

Compassion fatigue is emotional exhaustion caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals or people. TULANE

Compassion fatigue affects one's ability to experience empathy toward others.

Shelter workers carry a heavy burden compared to other helping professionals. They deal with the pain and suffering of shelter animals who cannot articulate their needs and experiences. One day they are caring for an animal, and the next, they may have to end that animal's life. They hear horrifying stories of animal abuse or witness the consequences of what that animal suffered when they are rehabilitating the animal.

According to a recent study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, animal rescue workers have a suicide rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers — the highest suicide rate among American workers and a rate shared only by firefighters and police officers.

Compassion fatigue symptoms are elevated displays of chronic stress resulting from the caregiving shelter workers provide every day.

According to the Traumatology Institute, compassion fatigue is similar to PTSD, known as "secondary-traumatic stress disorder" (STSD). Like PTSD, compassion fatigue can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide.

When someone is helping others make it through traumatic experiences, they help can develop their own reaction to that trauma. As a result, compassion fatigue can suddenly become symptomatic, triggered by seemingly unrelated events or things that wouldn't usually elicit a strong emotional response.

Compassion Fatigue or Secondary-Traumatic Stress Disorder signs can include:

  • Feeling irritable, anxious, or angry
  • Insomnia
  • Emotional numbness
  • Mental, physical, and/or emotional exhaustion
  • Impaired decision making
  • Isolation
  • Dissatisfaction in work/career
  • Avoiding reminders related to the event
  • Dreading working for or taking care of another and then feeling guilty as a result
  • Increase in compulsive behaviors that cause more problems
  • Poor work-life balance


Coping and Preventing Compassion Fatigue

Animal rescue work can be all-consuming physically, mentally, and emotionally. It's why self-care is so crucial for one's mental well-being.

Real self-care isn't about massages and green juices. It's about choosing to create a life that you don't feel the need to regularly check out of.

Real self-care is doing things you don't initially want to do but choosing to do what's uncomfortable. It's about recognizing signs of burnout, depression, chronic stress, or compassion fatigue and then using self-care practices to manage and deescalate those feelings.

True self-care practices regularly implemented should consist of:

  • A balanced, nutritious diet
  • An exercise plan (recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity a week)
  • A routine schedule of restful sleep
  • A balance between work and leisure
  • Self-awareness and reflection of emotional needs
  • Setting emotional boundaries
  • Using positive coping strategies in times of stress. Like, meditation, yoga, taking a walk, talking with a friend, relaxing in a hot bath, etc.

Your level of stress and how you feel about your animal rescue work can change from day to day. By regularly making notes on how you feel, you can track your stress and compassion fatigue levels over time.  

You could try rating how you feel on a scale of 1-10. 

The scale is up to you, but 1 could mean no symptoms at all, 5 could be a few symptoms that come and go, and 10 could be that your symptoms are so severe and unrelenting that your health is at serious risk.  

By keeping an eye on your compassion fatigue levels and top symptoms over time, you can notice and take action BEFORE you reach a severe stage, like 8 and up.  

Your Work Matters, But Your Mental Health is More Important

Your work matters. Every day you help save animals' lives. You might not be able to save them all, but don't underestimate the importance of those you save. That one act of kindness makes a difference to the animal and the humans who will love them.

Your mental health is important. The experiences you see and hear daily can be heartbreaking, but learning to not ignore, normalize, or expect feelings of burnout and compassion fatigue to go away is crucial to your well-being.

In the meantime, please remember that the work you do is critical and that the homeless pets need you. However, the only way you can best care for the animals is to first take care of yourself.

Resources Available To You:

Euthanasia-related strain and coping strategies

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255); En español 1-888-628-9454

Use Lifeline Chat on the web.
The Lifeline is a free, confidential crisis service that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Lifeline connects people to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline national network. These centers provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
For general information on mental health and to locate treatment services in your area, call SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). SAMHSA also has a Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator on its website that can be searched by location.


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