Long But So Worth It

IMG_0881e1Notes from a Dog Walker has a great article on compassion fatigue from a very personal place, as a shelter worker.

Upon leaving the shelter, after being completely burned out, Jessica says, “I felt guilty that I was leaving my fellow co-workers behind in the trenches to do the work I couldn’t do anymore. I felt sick at the thought of abandoning the dogs that were still waiting for homes. But I knew I had to go.”

She said a year later she was still feeling some of the emotions.

She’s lucky. Or maybe smart. As a veterinary receptionist I find that I still can’t deal with certain things. James Herriot? No way. I’ll burst into tears looking at the cover. And all those great books everyone is writing, you know Homer the Blind Cat? Dewey? Can’t do it. I know they have happy endings but I can’t even deal with the possibilities because I’ve seen too many not happy endings. I’m still mad at a friend who recommended a great book on pet oncology because it was really uplifting and I would love it. Although I said no she kept pressing it on me. I finally gave in. Tears started on page one and I sobbed for days after in the privacy of my own home. I’d say for no reason but the real reason was all the stuff that this book brought up. My vet may not have been an oncologist but we saw many pets like the ones he wrote about. We saw the love and the connection and the caring and the hopes and fears on the faces of our clients. And trust me, when you stand a little outside, a little objective, there is nothing worse than an owner who isn’t ready to see what is actually going on.

Jessica also points out a very important difference in compassion fatigue in other care giving situations and those of shelter workers, “Side note: there is one critical difference between all the other helping professions and shelter workers. We’re the only ones that sometimes have to kill those we are assigned to care for. “

And that’s got to make it even harder. I think only hospice care nurses come close to that issue and even they aren’t actually assisting the passing. At least they have the comfort of knowing that they were caring for someone who was actively involved in the process of dying and not having to destroy an unwanted pet.

And I’m not even sure how to address *that*, so for the moment we’ll move on. Jessica doesn’t either. It’s a big one, we know. I think we all know that deep down.

But let’s move on to another important point, the idea that whole organizations can have compassion fatigue and that makes it harder to work there. “If we want shelter workers to do their best work, organizations and their management have to be aware of these issues and work to help staff and volunteers to identify healthy coping strategies and encourage them to build resiliency. We have to make this non-negotiable and as important as any other part of their training, since neglecting self-care has negative consequences for our work. It has to be a part of the culture of our profession: prioritizing self-care, so we can care for others.”

Consider going over to Jessica’s blog and reading the full post. It’s definitely worth a look.



  1. Such an important topic for people in all caregiving professions. Thanks for the writeup, and for pointing us to the blog post.

  2. There’s no way our the mom could ever work at a shelter. She bursts into tears just driving by our local shelter, and will not go into PetSmart when it’s adoption day, because her heart breaks for every cat left behind.

  3. When I read this: when you stand a little outside, a little objective, there is nothing worse than an owner who isn’t ready to see what is actually going on….I saw myself. I know that is what the Specialist Abby was seeing was thinking about me. When you’re cat is sick you don’t want to believe it, can’t believe it because believing it means you have to accept you’re going to lose them, and probably quicker rather than later. It’s not something any owner can help, it just is what the mind does to protect the body from all the emotions that are being experienced.

    I could never work in a clinic or in a shelter. It is hard to read things as it is.
    But, I can understand, and those who go into this field must know that this is going to happen to them. I also can see why they have to stand outside of themselves and appear unsympathetic because if they let every case into their hearts it would be too overwhelming.

    What is the link to Jessica’s website?

  4. This issue is very important to understand.
    Caring people cannot work in an environment where
    living things(cats,dogs,people) are seen as “disposable”
    and not be affected. It is important to have an outlet or
    a means to deal with the emotional stress.
    Thanks for posting this 🙂

  5. This subject is beyond a mere comment and so multi-layered and overwhelming. I find that even outside of the shelter environment that compassion fatigue can occur. We are so connected to one another now via blogs, facebook, twitter, etc. and as such our lives have become so public. So many cats have passed to the Bridge recently and it causes a burden of sadness hearing this news over and over. Yes, we could step away from the social media, but I also feel that having the support of one another is also important to the healing and fatigue process.

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