What are Your Triggers?

cstock7smReading about compassion fatigue, there’s not much about animal rescue workers. That’s why I was so excited that someone would offer a course.  Reading about it, I was extrapolating the various types of compassion fatigue that are studied to apply to shelter workers. I think the fatigue that rescue workers feel most closely parallels that of social workers working with abused children.

There are a number of reasons for this. Clearly, for many animal lovers, pets are surrogate children. They may not yet have children, they may not be able to have their own children or their children may have left home.

Social workers who were most prone to compassion fatigue had some sort of early childhood trauma that could be triggered and re-traumatized by the events of their work. Animal rescue workers are working with abandoned animals. As babies, humans cannot be abandoned and survive. They need others for every need they have, to get food, to stay clean, to remain hydrated, to stay safe. There is a primal part of our brain that is hardwired to fear abandonment.  Each time we see an abandoned animal, those primal fears are re-triggered within us. What if we were helpless and lost without a home?

In this economy the plight of homeless animals can also trigger our own fears of homelessness even as adults. Each time that is triggered, that’s a minor trauma.

Of course, many shelter workers see and hear far worse and those things have their own triggers. Animal abuse or neglect may bring up issues of childhood abuse or neglect. It may also bring up issues around working with abused or neglected children in other professions, especially if the worker is a volunteer.

Acknowledging one’s own triggers can begin the process of healing. The Yogic healers often talk about recognition without judgement or trying to change. It means that the beginning of change is noticing and letting whatever is noticed be.

The next step is finding support. Volunteers who have worked together or alongside each other can be an invaluable way to process what  has happened each shift. Talking and support is a huge key to whether or not someone suffers enduring compassion fatigue or moves on to continue working.

Finally, the number of hours worked made a huge difference. People who live and breathe the shelter life are at most risk. Finding time outside the shelters, limiting yourself to a certain number of hours (and not more than 40, which is a full-time job) can be very important. For those who work at shelters and  feel a need to devote more hours, is it possible to mindfully be aware of which tasks impact you emotionally the most and limit those tasks each day? Even just creating a variety of tasks each week can be helpful in keeping one from concentrating on part of the work.

For those who think they only volunteer a little, remember foster care is a 24/7 job. Taking in a lot of fosters plus working at a shelter all year can all add up in terms of triggering compassion fatigue.

No one person can do it all. Sadly this is also an aspect that those who suffer from compassion fatigue are all too aware. The job is just too big. What you can do seems so important. However, it is also important to take good self-care. What you are doing is far too important not to.


  • Know your triggers.
  • Find Support
  • Limit your tasks or at least create a balance of things that you like versus harder tasks.


  1. Thank-you for an important and timely subject. This is doubly true as caregivers/volunteers age, their own parents fall ill and die, compounding stress factors. I do a daily check-in before meditating and journal.

  2. Vespa and Vincent says

    Thank you this important summary. I will definitely share widely.

  3. This is a very important topic. My human is too self-centered and self-protective to be at risk for this, but she knows lots of other humans for whom this could be an issue.

  4. Ayla here: I just wanted to say that when I had my 3rd spay and was seeping fluids through the stiches, TBT brought mre to the animal ER place. The vet guy there was oddly detached. I was scared an so was TBT.

    But when TBT talked to our regular vet the next day, he said to think about the guy seeing nothing but terrible things all night every night.

    We changed our thoughts an TBT went an thanked the “detached” guy the next day to let him know his care had been appreciated.

  5. This is such an important topic, and serves as an important reminder. It’s nearly impossible to see that your life is out of balance while you’re in the middle of the whirlwind. That goes for all kinds of caregiving, really.

  6. Burnout can apply to a multitude of situations, but I found it interesting where you said some animal rescuers do so because of abandonment issues in their background. Very interesting. I can see the parallel. Thank you for addressing this topic … and Ping says Hello to Miss Gemini

  7. That was a great post. If our Dad gets a little burnt out we give him some catnip and rub his tummy.

  8. Oh, for a second I thought that cat was the missing Arti Mouse.

  9. Good post. That kind of work is very stressful
    as most people want to try to fix everything at once
    and this just cannot happen. It is easy to get frustrated and sad.
    There is very good advice in this article 🙂
    Purrs Tillie and Georgia,
    Treasure,Tiger, JJ and Julie

  10. Very good advice, no one person can do it all. Cooperation and teamwork and support for one another helps avoid some of the triggers.

  11. Volunteers are the most awesome pet people of all.

%d bloggers like this:

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.