A day in the life of an animal care worker includes many emotions, including joy and satisfaction that results from helping save or rescue an animal in need, or sadness and burden the of witnessing animal suffering, neglect, and (often) euthanasia. If the distressing emotions are not effectively managed, animal care workers are at risk for burnout and compassion fatigue. Veterinarians and animal rescue workers are continually dealing with end of life care for creatures they care for and love. They are stressed, burnt out, and suffering from compassion fatigue. There are many examples of these experiences in research and online, one of which I want to share below, to showcase the devastating effects of not managing the emotional toll of this work.
Jian Zhicheng was a veterinarian and animal shelter director in Taiwan. Over a two-year timeframe, she had to euthanize over 700 animals in her shelter because of limited space. Many of these animals were perfectly healthy. Unfortunately, Zhicheng wasn’t able to effectively manage the distress of these choices and took her own life. Although this might not have been the sole reason for her suicide, it was a contributing factor.
The inability to effectively manage distressing emotions is a real issue among the extraordinary humans who dedicate their lives to saving animals. If you are an animal care worker (shelter or rescue employee or volunteer, a veterinarian, veterinary technician, or assistant), you may feel “called” to do what you do. That can make taking a break or stepping away from your work difficult. As someone who’s been involved in animal rescue for almost two decades, I know I feel called to save animals and dedicate my time and heart to helping get them off the street, rehabilitate them, and help them find permanent homes. We spend hours and hours trying to save one dog or cat – many of whom end up needing to be euthanatized anyway. This work is both heartwarming (there are thousands of success stories) and heartbreaking. It is the heartbreak that is not talked about enough and creates situations like with Jian Zhicheng.
Compassion fatigue is a form of post-traumatic stress that results from feeling deep empathy toward one who is suffering and being unable to alleviate their suffering. It is typically accompanied by an emotional bond between a caregiver and a patient. Animal care workers deal with this regularly. They continually care for suffering animals, consistently work to alleviate their pain and save them, and are often heartbroken when they are unable to do so. The feelings of distress and helplessness can cause compassion fatigue – that feeling of exhaustion from trying so hard to help the one you care so much about – only to come up short. Compassion fatigue is more than just exhaustion. It is also the loss of capacity to be compassionate because of the associated exhaustion and negative emotions. The symptoms of compassion fatigue are similar to other stress-related disorders, so it’s important to distinguish them as being associated with having a bond with the suffering animal (or human). If you are an animal care worker and care for these beloved creatures, please keep reading! You must understand what compassion fatigue is so you can alleviate symptoms before they adversely impact your life.
Here are five experiences that may indicate you’re on the path of developing compassion fatigue:
- Physical, emotional, or spiritual exhaustion from working with animals.
- Regular exposure to situations that involve the suffering of animals in your care.
- The inability to alleviate the animals’ suffering through direct care or other indirect actions.
- Development of a bond with the animal(s) in your care.
- Decreased ability to experience satisfaction or joy professionally or personally.
Here are five symptoms of compassion fatigue:
- Sleep disturbances, including dreams of the trauma associated with the animals in your care.
- Intrusive thoughts about the suffering experienced by the animals in your care.
- Feelings of agitation or irritability.
- Active efforts to avoid situations that contain or remind you of the trauma and suffering of the animals in your care.
- Feelings of anger and sadness.
Although some of these experiences and symptoms may feel common to you, it is important not to ignore them, normalize them, or expect them to go away. If you’ve had any of the above experiences and are feeling any of the above symptoms, please pay attention. It might be helpful for you to talk to someone about how you feel so you can begin to help alleviate these symptoms. As I continue my research for my dissertation for my Ph.D. in Psychology on this topic (compassion fatigue in animal care workers), I will share more information about what I uncover in my research. My hope is to help animal care workers further understand compassion fatigue, and to help to relieve and manage the symptoms so they do not negatively impact your well-being.
In the meantime, please remember that the work you do is critical and that the animals need you. The only way you can best care for the animals is to first take care of yourself.
For more information on Jian Zhicheng’s story, please visit: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-36573395