Compassion fatigue is a common term used in the healthcare industry. It refers to an extreme form of burnout from hours spent caring for those who are sick or dying. Likewise, compassion fatigue can occur among animal professionals, from veterinarians to pet hospice workers. Some levels of compassion fatigue may even affect pet owners.

There is a growing need for understanding in the veterinary world about compassion fatigue. Your friends at Union Lake Veterinary Hospital explain the reasons behind compassion fatigue in veterinary professionals and pet caretakers and what you can do to avoid it.

What Causes Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue develops when a person is a witness to traumatic or upsetting events. This fatigue develops over time, often when the caretaker or veterinary professional has been caring for an individual pet or pets for some time. When a pet is in pain, ill, or at the end of life, emotions can take hold. It is emotionally draining for a veterinarian to humanely euthanize pets day after day, especially pets they have cared for over the years. It can also be true when a strong relationship exists between an ill or failing pet and the pet’s owner. It can also affect shelter and rescue workers who regularly see abused pets or work in a kill shelter.

Compassion fatigue occurs cumulatively when a person is exposed to ongoing distressing events. This results in decreased mental defenses and physical problems related to lack of self-care. This lack of resiliency can lead to depression, among other mental health challenges.

Compassion fatigue can happen to anyone, but those with a higher acuity of empathy and a compromised ability to manage emotional health are more at risk.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is different from general burnout. The feelings that have built up cannot be changed simply by changing the workplace or situation. Compassion fatigue eventually exhibits physical issues. Some of the common signs of compassion fatigue include:

  • Indifference towards people and circumstances
  • Losing weight or loss of appetite
  • Feelings of low self-worth
  • Lethargy
  • Changes in sleep
  • Lack of pleasure or joy
  • Lack of self-care
  • Nightmares
  • Substance abuse

Preventing Compassion Fatigue

Long hours, emotionally-charged situations, and little time for self-care are red flags for compassion fatigue. Not incorporating enjoyable activities and time with loved ones can set us up for burnout, if not full-blown compassion fatigue. Giving yourself time for sleep, nutritious meals, and quality time with friends is critical to managing the demands of working in the veterinary or animal care profession. You have to have a healthy balance in your life.

To avoid compassion fatigue:

  • Stay aware of your triggers and circumstances that lead to emotional distress.
  • Make a plan on how to better cope with these stressful scenarios, such as doing something enjoyable or having dinner with a friend after work.
  • Balance your schedule with time for meals, rest, and social time, along with your regular workday.
  • Reach out to others, whether it’s a support group or friends and colleagues. Talking about your experiences and feelings helps to alleviate some of the stress.
  • Consider seeking professional help, such as a trained therapist.

While the stressors of life cannot be avoided, there are many ways to care for yourself during times of distress. Practicing good daily habits goes a long way in maintaining balance in your life. If you have questions about compassion fatigue or any pet-related topic, please call us.