Companions on your journey.

Compassion Fatigue

For Veterinary Professionals

Shira Rothberg, LSW

It has been said that animals are some of the most vulnerable creatures humans can care for. A dog or cat is not just an animal, but rather a companion. Pet parents often love their pets as much as human family members. When a pet parent arrives at your hospital in crisis because their beloved pet requires emergency care, it can be traumatic for the pet and the pet parents/family members, but the situation can also be also traumatic for you.

Why is it so easy to be impacted by a crisis that isn’t yours? As a veterinary health care provider, you embody the compassion and empathy required by your profession. Your job takes a special breed of people to care for animals, and some times, you’re the one who can give that animal a “voice.” That can be a very heavy burden, one which at times might make you feel as though you are to blame if your patient does not make it.

Take a moment to think about that one case that has always stuck with you – one where you continue to ask yourself “what if?” or “what more could I have done?” Think back to that discussion with the pet parents where they agonized over whether to risk the surgery or euthanize their beloved pet. Did you want to cry with them? Do you question if you said the right thing? Did you feel guilty? Sad? Upset? Angry? Do you feel as though your friends or family couldn’t understand why you remained upset about this patient for so long?

What you’re experiencing is Compassion Fatigue; it is something that is more common than you might think among veterinary professionals. Compassion Fatigue is caused by stress among those who care for people and animals in crisis. It can affect you through physical, mental and/or emotional exhaustion. Compassion Fatigue normally builds gradually over time and is one of the leading causes of burnout among veterinary professionals.

The top five symptoms of Compassion Fatigue are:

1. Difficulty sleeping/feeling physically exhausted
2. Increased irritability/cynicism
3. Feeling emotionally exhausted
4. Feeling like your work doesn’t matter what you do doesn’t make a difference
5. Excessive sadness/crying

Sometimes it is difficult to recognize whether you are experiencing stress in your profession and life. The Professional Quality of Life Scale (PROQOL) is a test that can help you identify Compassion Satisfaction, Burnout, and Secondary Traumatic Stress.

The very best way to reduce Compassion Fatigue is through self-care. Self-care is doing anything that makes you happy and allows you to take care of yourself. Here are some common ways to reduce Compassion Fatigue:

  • Have fun
  • Spend time outside
  • Relaxation techniques; meditation
  • Exercise
  • Socializing with friends/family
  • Practice your favorite hobby on a regular basis
  • Find a hobby
  • Ask for help; talk to others who might understand your line of work; attend support groups; speak with a professional

Even after an exceptionally hard day when you helped your patients and clients — even if there was not a positive outcome — take time out for self-care. Just because your clients may leave in tears does not mean that you must internalize the same sadness. You can take a few minutes to feel sad and then allow yourself to leave it behind when you go home. This type of self-care is not being insensitive or heartless; it is necessary in order to combat Compassion Fatigue and Burnout.

Copyright 2014