Why Animal Care Workers are at High Risk for Compassion Fatigue

If you’re an animal care worker, then it’s no surprise to you that your work can be filled with a range of emotions. These include the joy and satisfaction of saving or rehabilitating an animal to the sadness, guilt, and frustration of having to witness so much animal suffering and neglect. These emotions can be experienced in one day, or often during the same hour. This constant rollercoaster of emotions and the inability to manage the negative ones can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue (if you’re interested in learning more about compassion fatigue in animal caregivers, please check out my previous articles on this topic). Several unique factors of animal care work put these individuals at high risk of experiencing compassion fatigue. These factors are essential for animal care workers to understand, because if your work involves these things, you are at risk of developing compassion fatigue.

The Human-Animal Bond

We all know that there are many benefits to the human-animal bond. Research shows the positive impacts include reducing physical stress levels, improved cardiovascular functioning, greater mental and emotional relaxation, reduction in fear, anxiety, and improvement in moods and social interaction. Other positive benefits of the human-animal bond include the encouragement of compassionate feelings and a decrease in aggression. However, there are also negative aspects of this bond for animal care workers. It has been described as an animal relationship stressor in animal rescue employees because of the strain it causes when employees witness an animal’s suffering with whom they have a bond. The stronger the human-animal bond between the animal care worker and the animal, the more difficult it is to witness the animal’s suffering. Many animal care workers are not trained in managing the emotions they feel when witnessing the suffering or euthanasia of an animal they have grown close to, increasing their risk of experiencing compassion fatigue.

Moral Conflict

Moral conflict is experienced in animal caregivers when they are required to perform work or have knowledge that their work involves activities that conflict with their moral views, or when the work they are required to do conflicts with what they feel is right. Moral conflict occurs in animal care workers because there are often competing human and animal interests. The animal interest may not be aligned with what the human wants or vice versa. For example, needing to euthanize an animal due to lack of shelter space may be required or in the best interest of the animal shelter but not the animal. Moral conflict also can occur when it difficult to decide between two courses of action. For example, if a veterinary professional believes an animal needs to be euthanized due to a diminished quality of life, and a pet owner desires the animal is kept alive at all costs. If not appropriately managed, the internal struggle, which can occur regularly, can increase the risk of developing compassion fatigue.

Euthanasia Exposure

The ASPCA reports that of the approximately 6 million animals relinquished to shelters in 2018, approximately 1.5 million of them were euthanized. Euthanasia in animal shelters is due either to overcrowding and a need to open up space after an animal’s time in the shelter has expired, or because of health or behavioral issues that make an animal unfit for adoption. Animal shelters are often required to euthanize animals because they do not have enough funding to support the needs and number of animals entering the shelters or due to overcrowding in the shelters. Animal shelter workers often recognize that euthanasia does not cure the problem of animal overpopulation and overcrowded shelters; it is merely a short-term solution. This creates additional stress on them.

Researchers have described euthanasia as one of the most stressful tasks of animal shelter workers. However, it is a reality of working in animal rescue. The distressing emotions, exposure to animal suffering, constant stress, and grappling with conflicting emotions can create emotional drain and feelings of being overwhelmed for the workers. These factors are all aspects that may increase the risk of animal care workers developing compassion fatigue and are all factors that have been linked with compassion fatigue symptoms, burnout, and occupational stress in animal care workers.

Feeling Called to Your Work

A calling is something that individuals feel a strong inner pull toward and often drives them to take a particular course of action. Animal rescue workers often describe their work as a calling because they feel intrinsically motivated to pursue it as their life’s work. Many are driven by personal experience to enter the animal welfare industry, and their commitment towards this calling tends to increase as they gain experience with the animals. Animal care workers and animal activists feel the need to protect animals, who they see as innocent, and feel a great responsibility to do so, often to the detriment of their well-being. Their deep sense of responsibility can drive them to work tirelessly in their pursuit to save innocent animals.

Animal rescue workers often will sacrifice their well-being for the benefit of an animal. They forego time away from their work, breaks, and personal care because they feel deeply moved to keep saving the animals, fearing that if they do not do it, no one else will. Balancing a calling with personal well-being is a challenge for those in the animal care community. The inability to achieve this balance may contribute to the animal care workers’ progression toward CF.

Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief is the silent or secret grief that occurs when grief cannot be openly expressed and is not accepted as a legitimate loss by society. The inability to grieve is experienced in three different ways. First, it is experienced empathetically, which is the inability for others to understand why the griever feels a loss. Second, it is experienced politically, which is the systematic failure of an organization to support a griever in their loss. Third, it is experienced ethically, which is when grievers are disrespected for their grieving. Animal caregivers experience all three types of disenfranchised grief, which leaves them without support for their feelings and an inability to process their loss. The inability to grieve openly for animal loss and the perceived lack of societal support can create feelings of isolation and interfere with the necessary healthy processing of emotions. This can also increase the risk of developing compassion fatigue.

Although the experience only one of these above factors of animal care work may not impact the development of compassion fatigue, experiencing more than one creates increased risk. These are regular and consistent occurrences for animal care workers, and they are unique to those in the animal care industry. Many individuals experience all of these factors regularly. If not appropriately trained on how to best manage the emotional toll of animal care work, compassion fatigue can result. It is important to understand these factors and the associated risks and have the necessary tools and training to manage the related stress. When we understand the risk and can offset the negative impacts, we are more able to continue with the lifesaving and important work caring for animals in need.

Some of the information for this article was obtained from the following:

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) (2018). Pet statistics. Retrieved from https://www.aspca.org/animal-homelessness/shelter-intake-and-surrender/pet-statistics

Dunn, J., Best, C., Pearl, D. L., & Jones-Bitton, A. (2019). Mental health of employees at a Canadian animal welfare organization. Society & Animals, 1–37. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685306-00001709

Figley, C. R. & Roop, R. G. (2006). Compassion fatigue in the animal care community. Washington, DC: Humane Society Press.

Fournier, A. K. & Mustful, B. (2019). Compassion fatigue: Presenting issues and practical applications for animal care professionals. In L. Kogan & C. Blazina (Eds.), Clinician’s guide to treating companion animal issues (pp. 511-534). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Gorski, P., Lopresti-Goodman, S., & Rising, D. (2019). “Nobody’s paying me to cry”: The causes of activist burnout in United States animal rights activists. Social Movement Studies, 18(3), 364.

Kleinfeldt, A. (2017.). Ethical dilemmas encountered by small animal veterinarians: Characterisation, responses, consequences and beliefs regarding euthanasia. Michigan State University: Animal Legal & Law Center. Retrieved from https://www.animallaw.info/article/detailed-discussion-animal-euthanasia

Marton, B., Kilbane, T., & Nelson-Becker, H. (2019). Exploring the loss and disenfranchised grief of animal care workers. Death Studies, 0(0), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2018.1519610

Montoya, A. I. A., Hazel, S., Matthew, S. M., & McArthur, M. L. (2019). Moral distress in veterinarians. The Veterinary Record; London, 185(20), 631. http://dx.doi.org.ezp.waldenulibrary.org/10.1136/vr.105289

Moses, L., Molowney, M. J., & Boyd, J. W. (2018). Ethical conflict and moral distress in veterinary practice: A survey of North American veterinarians. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 32(6), 2115-2122. doi: 10.1111/jvim.15315

Nguyen-Finn, K. L. (2018). Cost of caring: The effects of euthanasia on animal shelter workers [Ph.D., The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley].  Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/pqdtglobal/docview/2177379395/abstract/6E63B8E847C2471APQ/1

Pallotta, N. (2019). Shield your eyes: The sociocultural context of secondary trauma in the animal protection movement. Conference Papers — American Sociological Association, 1–26.

Rohlf, V. I. (2018). Interventions for occupational stress and compassion fatigue in animal care professionals—A systematic review. Traumatology, 24(3), 186–192. https://doi.org/10.1037/trm0000144

Schabram, K., & Maitlis, S. (2017). Negotiating the challenges of a calling: Emotion and enacted sensemaking in animal shelter work. Academy of Management Journal, 60(2), 584–609. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2013.0665

Scotney, R. L., McLaughlin, D., & Keates, H. L. (2015). A systematic review of the effects of euthanasia and occupational stress in personnel working with animals in animal shelters, veterinary clinics, and biomedical research facilities. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association247(10), 1121–1130. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.247.10.1121


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