The Unseen Destruction of Compassion Fatigue by Mara Hartsell

What is “compassion fatigue?” Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’ve likely witnessed or experienced it first-hand.

Compassion fatigue may best be defined as the emotional withdrawal one experiences after working in the animal care field, whether one is a veterinarian, an animal control officer, or a rescue volunteer. It develops whenever a person internalizes trauma, and it is significantly different from regular burn-out.

Burn-out is far simpler in nature, mostly caused by external stressors like a demanding supervisor at work or a schedule that extends far beyond regular office hours. You may find yourself grouchy or lacking energy on particularly bad days. It takes you a few weeks to recuperate, but once those clearly identifiable external stressors are removed from your life, you will feel refreshed physically and mentally. Compassion fatigue, however, is more insidious and wide-spanning, and people who are suffering from it cannot admit that this is what they’re actually dealing with.

Most individuals who enter animal care fields do it because they are intrinsically motivated to help them, and this may be something they feel is part of their core identity. But when the realities of their job entail continuous instances of suffering and euthanasia, it becomes difficult for the mind and body to absorb this a new, painful experience each time.

Caregivers start out as being extremely empathetic; we feel what others feel—we vicariously experience their trauma. Eventually, our systems go into overdrive as we re-live the fear, the suffering, and the lost dreams of the creatures we are guardians of. If we lack self-care, such experiences become overwhelming, and we unwittingly start adopting dysfunctional coping mechanisms such as withdrawal, isolation, and apathy.

Compassion fatigue is the shelter director who finds herself angry at a dog who relieves himself in his kennel overnight and ignores emails from willing rescues who wish to pull him from her facility. It is the veterinarian who sees an abandoned cat limping outside of his office on the street every morning and does nothing to help him, or even makes jokes about his broken leg. It is the rescue volunteer who turns away a family who brings in a stray puppy they found in a parking lot and cannot keep, rejecting them even though her group has empty kennels in the back and plenty of resources to offer.

This kind of state is harmful not just to the individuals in the midst of it, but also to the animals who come under their care, and to the community that depends on these special people.

Those presented with evidence of their symptoms frequently react with denial or hostility. Caregivers suffering from compassion fatigue find it hard to admit that they are performing poorly, that they are not actually fulfilling such a large part of their self-proclaimed identity. They may actually feel they are working harder than others, but in reality they are accomplishing less.

This is why awareness of compassion fatigue is important. We must begin recognizing signs not just in others, but also in ourselves.

Do you find yourself tired in a way that sleep cannot fix, and seem to have a hard time accomplishing what you once considered to be easy tasks? Are you frustrated or irritated easily? Are you feeling numb in situations that would have normally inspired or saddened you? Are you becoming over-involved in cases and acting unnecessarily territorial? How are your relationships functioning, at both home and at work?

Self-honesty and balance are integral to an animal care worker’s success. This can mean mini-escapes that help relieve the intensity of your work, indulging activities just for joy and pleasure purposes, challenging negativity by performing exercises that find meaning in small victories, and other things—whatever revitalizes your soul.

We animal care workers have a special mission, and it’s a big one. If we don’t start looking out for ourselves and one another, then we will damage the possibility of saving lives.

For more information on compassion fatigue, see



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