The Occupational Hazard Of Working With Animals.

Society is disrespectful toward not only the animals, but shelter workers as well. Most often, animal caregivers leave shelter work, beaten down and disillusioned. The ones who stay, grow the proverbial “thick skin” in order to deal with the negativity they face, day in and day out.

Anna Cooke, Editor, The New Barker Dog magazine.

Compassion fatigue is also known as “secondary-traumatic stress disorder (STSD).” The symptoms of STSD are similar to those of PTSD. As with PTSD, compassion fatigue can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide. “Animal care professionals are some of the most pain-saturated people I have ever worked with,” said Psychotherapist J. Eric Gentry. “The very thing that makes them great at their work, their empathy and dedication and love for animals, makes them vulnerable.”

Siberian Husky Rescue of Florida. 2010 Get Rescued In Gulfport. The New Barker.

Most animal caregivers go into the work, either professionally or as a volunteer, carrying a true love for animals in their hearts. They certainly don’t choose the work because of the extraordinary benefits or high salaries. Patricia Smith, founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project believes that those who work in animal welfare face different challenges than those in other areas of care (i.e. – nurses, social workers, EMTs).

“I found in my work as training and development manager at a shelter that people enter this field very idealistic, really hoping to make a difference in the way animals are cared for and treated,” said Smith. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for that bubble to burst.”

In other helping professions such as health care, teaching or firefighting, the workers are respected and even idealized. This is not the case with shelter workers. Most people believe shelter workers are part of the problem especially at shelters where the dogs and cats are euthanized.

“Society is disrespectful toward not only the animals, but shelter workers as well,” said Smith. “Most often, animal caregivers leave shelter work, beaten down and disillusioned. The ones who stay grow the proverbial “thick skin” in order to deal with the negativity they face, day in and day out.”

When the majority of workers/volunteers in an organization suffer the symptoms of compassion fatigue, the organization itself takes on the symptoms of organizational compassion fatigue. The result is high Worker’s Comp claims, absenteeism, inability of staff and management to collaborate, inability of staff to follow rules and regulations and lack of flexibility and adaptability among workers. Rescue groups experience a high turnover rate with volunteers.

Eventually, this all affects the bottom line and lack of funds creates another layer of challenges: paying decent wages and benefits, lack of quality care the animals receive, inability to retain talented workers. The list is endless.

“Turning around a shelter environment that is plagued with compassion-fatigued workers is the job of management,” said Smith.

As a caregiver, whether as a professional or as a volunteer, self-care is the only answer to healthy caregiving, especially in animal welfare. It takes hard work to become “self directed” Smith explained. “Self direction means that we have personal boundaries, we are able to say “no” without feeling guilty. We know our limitations and we honor them. We practice self-care daily. We need to heal our deep hurts and not allow ourselves to be re-traumitzied by the work we choose to do,” she added.

Compassion Fatigue is not the same as burnout, but they can co-exist. Burnout can happen to anyone in any profession. It’s a cumulative process marked by emotional exhaustion and withdrawal associated with increased workload and institutional stress. It is not trauma-related. Compassion Fatigue is specific to those who are working with a traumatized or suffering population.

“Stress is too much: too much work, too much pressure, too many deadlines. Burnout is not enough: not enough time, not enough resources, not enough energy.  When you add compassion fatigue to that mixture, you have a crippled individual in body, mind and spirit.” –Patricia Smith, founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project.

“I truly believe the number one thing we can do to reduce stress and avoid burnout is to be self aware. What causes our stress? What are the triggers? How do we manage our stress? Self awareness begins with education. Not only learning about stress, burnout and compassion fatigue, but learning about ourselves,” said Smith. “Create a Personal Mission statement (what is my promise to myself?) and follow up with a Self-Care plan (start with one goal and make yourself accountable). We can begin the path to healing that will make it possible to continue to make a difference in the lives of animals.”


This Thursday, October 27, the Tampa location of The Pet Loss Center is hosting a Compassion Fatigue Seminar. It is free and open to all who are in animal care: veterinarians, vet techs, shelter employees and volunteers, rescue organization volunteers. The doors will open a 6p with refreshments served. The seminar is from 6:30p – 7:30p followed by networking. Pets are welcome.The Pet Loss Center will donate $5 for every attendee that comes to the Open House+Seminar on behalf of a local shelter or rescue organization. The rescue whose organization has the most attendees represented during the Open House will receive a $500 donation from The Pet Loss Center.

The Pet Loss Center, Tampa: 6091 Johns Road, Suite 5 33634. 813.999.4040.