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How to Manage the Emotional Toll of Animal Advocacy by Dr Tani Khara

How to Manage the Emotional Toll of Animal Advocacy

Picture of Dr Tani Khara

Dr Tani Khara

Dr Tani Khara is the research director and a mental health coach at Sentient Professional Wellbeing located in Sydney. She also supports individuals looking to overcome personal and professional challenges.

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Feeling overwhelmed by being an #animaladvocate 😢 You’re not alone! #Psychologist Dr. Tani Khara shares tips for managing #compassion fatigue. #Selfcare is key to sustaining our advocacy for #animals 🐾💚 🐕
#AnimalAdvocacy #MentalHealth @animalfreesci https://animalfreescienceadvocacy.org.au/how-to-manage-the-emotional-toll-of-animal-advocacy/

Self-care is the ability to remain empathetic to others, without suffering from compassion fatigue

Near the heart of the city, amidst the hustle and bustle, there exists a small sanctuary – a modest animal shelter where I spend several weekends. Here, the barks and purrs convey stories of hope, rescue and safety. Amidst all of this, there is also a silent struggle: Compassion fatigue which often forms part of the emotional toll of animal advocacy. 

 
Puppy in an animal shelter by Sparverruispect for Getty Images
Puppy in an animal shelter by Sparverruispect for Getty Images

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is the ‘cost of caregiving’ for others in need and distress. 

Studies describe compassion fatigue as comprising secondary traumatic stress (STS) (Adams et al., 2006; Newell & MacNeil, n.d.) and cumulative burnout (Barnard et al., 2006; Branch & Klinkenberg, 2015; Bush, 2009; Zhang et al., 2018)

 STS – also known as vicarious trauma (Meadors et al., 2010) – is a stress reaction which occurs when a person is indirectly exposed to traumatic events through hearing about or witnessing others’ experiences (Baird & Kracen, 2006). 

 Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion brought on by ongoing stress and overwork (Mastenbroek et al., 2014). This can often result in one’s decreased personal and professional ability to function effectively (Kogan et al., 2020).

 CF can thus be described as a state of mental and physical exhaustion, characterised by a significant diminished ability to nurture (Brscic et al., 2021). Individuals working in the fields of animal care and advocacy tend to be at risk for CF (Monaghan et al., 2020). 

Woman with a puppy. Group4Studio for Getty Images
Woman with a puppy. Group4Studio for Getty Images

Why are individuals working in animal care and advocacy more likely to suffer from compassion fatigue?

Many individuals are drawn to this profession as ‘a calling’ i.e., a pull toward work deemed ethically and personally meaningful, rather than work simply being a means to an end (Paul et al., 2023). That said, many workers in this domain commonly also face the ‘caring-killing paradox’ (Jacobs & Reese, 2021) where they provide ongoing care to animals and form attachments, but can also be asked to euthanise the very animals they care for. This can be an incredibly challenging and painful experience.

In addition, carers often work with sick, injured and dying animals, while simultaneously needing to work with distressed and frustrated pet owners. In Australia, while people are accustomed to healthcare costs being covered by Medicare, this does not extend to animal care. Consequently, pet owners can be shocked and upset when faced with high veterinary bills. Workers in this space – carers, advocates and volunteers – also juggle limited resources i.e., money and time while often having to support many animals in need. They also report occasional to frequent feelings of isolation and lack of support in their workplaces.

Recognising the signs

Compassion fatigue can creep up gradually and often silently (Jacobs & Reese, 2021). I personally noticed this after months of volunteering, and also noted several fellow advocates having similar such experiences. Some discussed feeling overwhelmed and ruminating over cases that could not be rescued, supported or helped. 

Others mentioned experiencing irritability, sadness and a sense of hopelessness that persisted longer than usual. A few others highlighted experiencing vivid flashbacks of suffering and/or disturbing dreams at night. Many also spoke about their enthusiasm for their work gradually dwindling. 

A study that I am conducting among Australian animal care workers and advocates on mental well-being revealed similar such sentiments pertaining to compassion fatigue:

Sad man talking on the phone. RDNE Stock Pexels
Sad man talking on the phone. RDNE Stock Pexels

“I joined the profession because I love animals…but the constant cycle of suffering and euthanasia is overwhelming. It’s hard to keep caring so deeply.” (Vet surgeon)

“I used to go home and think about how I could help the animals more. Now, I just want to forget everything the moment I clock out. It’s like I have nothing left to give.” (Shelter worker)

"I joined the profession because I love animals…but the constant cycle of suffering and euthanasia is overwhelming. It's hard to keep caring so deeply.” (Vet surgeon)
“I used to go home and think about how I could help the animals more. Now, I just want to forget everything the moment I clock out. It's like I have nothing left to give.” (Shelter worker)
Man writing in a journal. Wanerokaneski for Getty Images
Man writing in a journal. Wanerokaneski for Getty Images

Detachment

The other strategy is detachment i.e., physically and mentally disconnecting oneself from the animals (e.g., avoiding thinking about or treating them as pets) and having clear boundaries between work and personal life (e.g., not bringing work home, limiting time spent talking and thinking about work outside of the work setting) (Fournier & Mustful, 2019)

Some action-oriented examples for detachment can involve things like journaling and then putting the journal away, thus maintaining a mental barrier between work and personal life. A cleansing ritual is another strategy for detachment which might involve washing hands, lighting a candle, or going for a walk – all of which can help workers cope with difficult cases (Fournier & Mustful, 2019).

Building a supportive community at the workplace

There is incredible strength in community, particularly among people who empathise with frustration, sadness and a sense of overwhelm. To this point, prior research indicates many animal care workers can value support from their co-workers even more highly from friends and family because they feel that friends/ family who are not working in this sector may often fail to understand the unique challenges of animal care work (Marton et al., 2020). It is why team cohesion, knowledge-sharing and positive interactions with peers tend to be reported as aspects of the work that are enjoyed most by workers in this sector.

More self-care techniques

  • Value self and commit to self-care; monitor self-care plan.
  • Refocus on the rewards of the job. 
  • Be aware of the dangers of the job. 
  • Maintain physical health (for example sleep, diet and exercise). 
  • Nurture relationships; create support systems within and outside of work. 
  • Maintain healthy boundaries. 
  • Monitor and change maladaptive thoughts (for example unrealistic expectations). 
  • Practice healthy escapes (for example:breaks during the day, vacation, recreation) and avoid unhealth escapes (for example: substance abuse, isolation). 
  • Improve work environment (for example control, workload, sense of community). 
  • Undergo personal therapy. 
  • Engage in spiritual practices, reclaim the mission and meaning of your work. 
  • Engage in professional development activities (for example attend conferences, consult colleagues). 

  

The animal advocate is not alone

It is important to recognise the journey of the advocate is filled with highs and lows – from happiness of watching a once abused animal slowly rebuild its trust towards humans to the heartbreak of losing another from neglect or cruelty.

The work an advocate undertakes is invaluable, but so is their own well-being. 

Thus, understanding and managing compassion fatigue is about ensuring the advocate can continue to be effective for those who need them most. 

This involves a conscious effort to recognise the signs of compassion fatigue, implement strategies for self-care and seek support when needed. In this regard, by taking care of oneself, the advocate can ensure that their ability to care for others does not come at their own expense.

“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet” 

Dr. Naomi Rachel Remen.

References

Adams, R. E., Boscarino, J. A., & Figley, C. R. (2006). Compassion fatigue and psychological distress among social workers: A validation study. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 76(1), 103–108. https://doi.org/10.1037/0002-9432.76.1.103

Baird, K., & Kracen, A. C. (2006). Vicarious traumatization and secondary traumatic stress: A research synthesis. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 19(2), 181–188. https://doi.org/10.1080/09515070600811899

Barnard, D., Street, A., & Love, A. W. (2006). Relationships between stressors, work supports, and burnout among cancer nurses. Cancer Nursing, 29(4), 338–345. https://doi.org/10.1097/00002820-200607000-00013

Branch, C., & Klinkenberg, D. (2015). Compassion fatigue among pediatric healthcare providers fatigue. MCN The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing, 40(3), 160–166. https://doi.org/10.1097/NMC.0000000000000133

Brscic, M., Contiero, B., Schianchi, A., & Marogna, C. (2021). Challenging suicide, burnout, and depression among veterinary practitioners and students: text mining and topics modelling analysis of the scientific literature. BMC Veterinary Research, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-021-03000-x

Bush, N. J. (2009). Compassion fatigue: Are you at risk? Oncology Nursing Forum, 36(1), 24–28. https://doi.org/10.1188/09.ONF.24-28

Dweck, Carol. S. (2008). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books.

Fournier, Angela. K., & Mustful, B. (2019). Compassion Fatigue: Presenting Issues and Practical Applications for Animal-Caring Professionals. In L. Kogan & C. Blazina (Eds.), Clinician’s Guide to Treating Companion Animal Issues (pp. 511–534). Academic Press.

Jacobs, J., & Reese, L. A. (2021). Compassion Fatigue Among Animal Shelter Volunteers: Examining Personal and Organizational Risk Factors. Anthrozoos, 34(6), 803–821. https://doi.org/10.1080/08927936.2021.1926719

Kogan, L. R., Wallace, J. E., Schoenfeld-Tacher, R., Hellyer, P. W., & Richards, M. (2020). Veterinary Technicians and Occupational Burnout. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 7, 328. https://doi.org/10.3389/FVETS.2020.00328

Marton, B., Kilbane, T., & Nelson-Becker, H. (2020). Exploring the loss and disenfranchised grief of animal care workers. Death Studies, 44(1), 31–41. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2018.1519610

Mastenbroek, N. J. J. M., Jaarsma, A. D. C., Demerouti, E., Muijtjens, A. M. M., Scherpbier, A. J. J. A., & Van Beukelen, P. (2014). Burnout and engagement, and its predictors in young veterinary professionals: The influence of gender. Veterinary Record, 174(6), 144. https://doi.org/10.1136/VR.101762

Meadors, P., Lamson, A., Swanson, M., White, M., & Sira, N. (2010). Secondary Traumatization in Pediatric Healthcare Providers: Compassion Fatigue, Burnout, and Secondary Traumatic Stress. Http://Dx.Doi.Org/10.2190/OM.60.2.a, 60(2), 103–128. https://doi.org/10.2190/OM.60.2.A

Monaghan, H., Rohlf, V., Scotney, R., & Bennett, P. (2020). Compassion Fatigue in People Who Care for Animals: An Investigation of Risk and Protective Factors. Traumatology. https://doi.org/10.1037/trm0000246

Newell, J. M., & MacNeil, G. A. (n.d.). Professional Burnout, Vicarious Trauma, Secondary Traumatic Stress, and Compassion Fatigue.

Norcross, J. C., & Guy, J. D. (2007). Leaving it at the office: A guide to psychotherapist self-care. Guilford Press.

Paul, N. K., Cosh, S. M., & Lykins, A. D. (2023). Anthrozoös “A Love-Hate Relationship with What I Do”: Protecting the Mental Health of Animal Care Workers. https://doi.org/10.1080/08927936.2023.2166712

Schabram, K., & Maitlis, S. (2016). Negotiating the Challenges of a Calling: Emotion and Enacted Sensemaking in Animal Shelter Work. Https://Doi.Org/10.5465/Amj.2013.0665, 60(2), 584–609. https://doi.org/10.5465/AMJ.2013.0665

Zhang, Y. Y., Han, W. L., Qin, W., Yin, H. X., Zhang, C. F., Kong, C., & Wang, Y. L. (2018). Extent of compassion satisfaction, compassion fatigue and burnout in nursing: A meta-analysis. Journal of Nursing Management, 26(7), 810–819. https://doi.org/10.1111/JONM.12589

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