What is Compassion Fatigue and How Does it Affect You?
with Ruby Leslie of WelfareForAnimals, Training Advocate

As an animal professional, I know and talk to many other professionals and pet guardians who suffer from what is often referred to as “the cost of caring” (Animal Sheltering). For this workshop, I am discussing compassion fatigue, what it is, symptoms and its toll on animal health professionals and pet guardians. 

Compassion Fatigue is defined by Merriam Webster as “the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time”.  

In the human world we often think of compassion fatigue as applying to our caregivers such as doctors, nurses or at home carers like your mom caring for a sick child or sick partner. In the animal world, the equivalent are veterinarians, vet techs (or vet nurses), animal professionals such as trainers, behaviourists and groomers and even you as the pet guardian. If you have a dog (or a cat) with medical disease such as cancer, hip dysplasia, severe allergies, a viral infection or behavioural issues like separation anxiety or reactivity (fear or frustration), every day your world revolves your pet and how to help them. In this article I am going to address how working or helping animals takes a toll on mental health in the form of compassion fatigue. Compassion for animals is easy, but compassion for humans is at times lacking.

It is perfectly normal to be affected by your work if you are an animal professional or a pet guardian who is a caregiver. We need to break the stigma of mental health and compassion fatigue to help those who often give too much of themselves to help others.

Top symptoms to look out for:

·      Depression

·      Fatigue or lethargy where you’ve lost your drive

·      Apathy

·      Feel disconnected

·      Constant colds or flus that never stop

·      Unhealthy or negative coping skills such as misuse or abuse of alcohol, smoking or drugs

·      Anger or highly irritable

Ways to help compassion fatigue

·      Seek professional help from a mental health professional

·      Take a course to learn solutions such as the online class “Compassion Fatigue Strategies” https://sheltermedicine.vetmed.ufl.edu/education/continuing-education/compassion-fatigue-strategies/

·      Authentic self-care and self-awareness- find out what works for you!

·      Change how you interact with others

·      Building a culture of compassion for yourself and others

·      Boundaries 

·      Saying NO

·      Stop micromanaging and ask others for help

·      Not be on the constant burnout cycle by taking on all the responsibility

·      Turn off your phone

·      Start non-work related hobbies

·      Go for quiet walks without your dog- on your own

·      Don’t check your email for a few hours

I have included many of these resources below on compassion fatigue. If at any time you are considering self-harm or suicide please call your local Suicide Hotline or seek out a certified mental health professional/counsellor. There is no shame in physical or mental health issues.

Veterinarians/Vet Techs

Vets and vet techs have it much harder than is often perceived. Not only are they usually dealing with their own monetary concerns for large vet school debts that they’re trying to pay off, but they’re also dealing with the added pressure of your monetary problems. Many vet clinics try to make veterinary care more affordable by creating monthly payment plans for basic care, or there are low-income spay and neuter clinics or mobile vet clinics but for many pet owners this is still not an option.

They care about us and the animals in their care, and not being able to save an animal is difficult for them to process and may make them feel like a “failure”.  Every day they are confronted with both human and animal suffering and death. Vets and vet techs give their emotions daily to empathize and be compassionate in our times of need. On one occasion, my very kind vet sent me the kindest message about how my cat that he had just euthanized due to disease had a better life due to my care. Even though the vet did not cry with me (due to their training it is rare to see them show emotion), he cared.

 Add onto that, are the often unreasonable expectations placed on them from the public for them to help with everything, which is also experienced by other animal professionals. Most try to find ways to help pets with all sorts of issues and to give their services at cost or volunteer to help rescues, shelters or low-income community members. In some cases, this often is seen as not doing enough or if they can’t help or save an animal or when they create limits they are publicly criticized and harassed on social media by angry pet owners, community members, rescuers and even by other veterinarians. All of these factors take an enormous toll on their mental health. 

All of these stressors understandably affect a vet’s ability to cope and they can result in compassion fatigue and in some sad cases, suicide. According to a 2018 Centre for Disease Control study that covered a 36 year period, there is a consistently  high suicide rate among veterinarians. “Male veterinarians are 2.1% more likely to die by suicide than the overall population, and females 3.5% times the national average” (Animal Sheltering). “Specifically, these data suggest that nearly one in 10 U.S. veterinarians might experience serious psychological distress, and more than one in six might have contemplated suicide since graduation “ (American Veterinary Medical Association)

One of the highest profile veterinary suicides was by one of my icons, Dr. Sophia Yin, a world leading veterinary behaviourist who transformed the world with her low stress handling methods. Her suicide shocked the veterinary world and drove home the enormity of stress, compassion fatigue and mental health toll faced by those who work in the veterinary profession.

Animal Welfare/Shelter Workers

Working at a shelter is incredibly rewarding but is also exceptionally traumatizing. Shelter welfare exacts an immense emotional toll from seeing trauma on a daily basis, which can lead to desensitization of trauma and to compassion fatigue. For every success story there are equal number of unsuccessful stories, such as; where foster or adoptive parents struggle, rescued pets need to be euthanized for behavioural or medical reasons, some shelters who are not no-kill shelters and have high euthanasia rates, or the pet is surrendered back to the shelter. Working in animal welfare/shelter welfare/rescue is not a regular job, it is the job that never feels done.

When I did shelter welfare in China from 2011-2016 (today, I consult shelters and do volunteer enrichment and behaviour work with rescue dogs), I went through compassion fatigue. As the founder of my organisation (now transformed into a business) I had no boundaries, I never said NO and I felt responsible for all the shelters, workers and animals I was helping. I was on a constant cycle of burnout, felt depressed, alone and disconnected from others around me. Many shelters and individuals quickly put their animal welfare/rescue problems on me, expected me to solve them and when I couldn’t, I was guilt tripped and blamed. Too many times, I felt an extreme sense of guilt and failure if I could not succeed or if I took a break and wasn’t working. Thankfully I attended a conference and learned about compassion fatigue and slowly created boundaries. 

What I went through is all too common. “recent study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals that animal rescue workers have a suicide rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers” (The Bark). Shelter workers are on constant demand to help those who are suffering or in need and are critically judged when they create boundaries and say they can’t help, for example when they set limits at their shelter as to how many animals they can take in (this is called capacity for care). 

Often it is the behind scenes situations that place enormous pressure on shelter professionals such as finding foster or adoptive parents, creative marketing, lack of food for animals or funding for new and improved kennels. Public demands and pressure for success stories often lead to criticism, without understanding these factors.

Many of my friends who work at shelters take shelter dogs who are struggling in the shelter environment into their homes when they don’t have foster parents to help or those animals that have behavioural or medical issues. So, truly it feels like the work you do is never done.


To be a certified and qualified behaviourist/trainer or groomer in the unregulated pet industry is hard. Anyone can state they are a trainer, behaviourist or a groomer and then start to practice, even without qualifications. It’s not easy for guardians to know who to trust or for animal professionals to help when there are such public misconceptions about dogs. 

Online bullying and public criticism are all too common for animal professionals. Other trainers, groomers and I have received bullying on social media, by email or in-person from shock jocks, punishment based trainers, individuals who think they’re experts and even other positive reinforcement trainers who view us as their competition. Such antagonistic behaviour from others can be highly upsetting and leave a person traumatized.

As a Fear Free Certified Groomer and Low Stress Handling Certified Professional, I often help other holistic/fear free groomers who groom working with the dog’s emotional states so not to create lifelong negative associations to grooming or handling. This can mean multiple short sessions to trim a dog’s nails if a dog is scared of their paws being touched, but this is often not seen as “getting the job done” as we live in an instant world where everything has to be done NOW.

In school it takes years to learn how to add and subtract and some of us still struggle with it, so why do we expect our dogs to learn instantly? 

A common refrain trainers hear is “my dog needs to be fixed”. There is no magic wand, as the goal of many positive reinforcement force free trainers is teach you how to train your dog. Dogs are easy to teach but changing human behaviour is HARD! If the pet guardian refuses to listen and instead watches a YouTube video, buys aversive equipment despite warnings of behavioural fallout/pain/fear or listens to their friend or family who has “had dogs for years”, this can create a very stressful situation for trainers/behaviourists, who can lose their compassion and become trigger stacked.  

To train people and their dogs, I often have an emotional connection with guardians and their dog, and especially for dogs with behavioural issues. Behavioural cases are rewarding but are a lot of work, often requiring hours of research and on-going support/counseling for the client, which can be underestimated and client, who may heavily rely on the trainer, leaving the trainer drained and highly fatigued. Always helping the tough cases and their emotional toll can lead trainers to burning out and even leaving the profession. Most people don’t understand the emotional investment and years of qualifications reputable and certified positive reinforcement trainers put into their work. 

As an animal professional, work-life balance is often unbalanced which leads to continual fatigue. For example, my phone is always dinging at all hours of the day, whether from social media, messages or emails. Or I have friends, family members, other trainers, shelters and pet guardians asking me for free advice. Many times, I have been out having a drink with friends and someone says “OMG, you’re a dog trainer, so my dog….”. I’ve had friends who think this is no problem and underappreciate the mental health problems it causes, as it means I am always turned “on”, a feeling of always being on autopilot, that my day is never done, creating exhaustion and irritability. 

Pet Guardians

Having a dog with behavioural or medical issues is hard. Your days revolve around trying to find ways to help your dog. It’s common to feel embarrassed if your dog has a behaviour issue such as reactivity (fear and frustration) and will lunge, bark and growl at other dogs. This makes going for walks challenging as you’re always on the lookout for other dogs on a walk and you can’t enjoy a walk as you’re always on edge. Other pet guardians don’t understand, often judge you, and in some cases harass/shout at you. It’s incredibly hard to have a reactive dog, especially if someone has their dog off leash and that dog is charging at you and your dog, and they’re shouting at you. Such upsetting moments are all too common and make walks which should be enjoyable, instead fearful for you and your dog.

Guardians whose dogs have separation anxiety (SA), often feel anxious and upset as they can’t leave their dog alone for even one minute. SA takes a huge toll on guardians as to do simple life moments such as going to the grocery store requires a coordinated effort. In the SA groups I am in, I see many dog guardians write posts, crying as they can’t even put their garbage outside without their dog howling, digging or harming themselves. They feel hopeless. When caring 24/7 for an animal (or human) it can be easy for you to feel that all your compassion and empathy are gone and are instead interchanged with anxiety and depression.

Being a caregiver to a dog with behavioural or medical issues, often means putting the needs of your animal in front of your needs. It’s so easy to try to help others and to forget to help yourself first My cat has IBS and back leg fractures from previous abuse and after my extensive surgery for endometriosis bending down was agonizing, yet I was still trying to find a way to pick him up to help him into the litter box. Another dog student’s dog has severe skin infections and the dog has to be constantly cleaned if he gets wet, which caused the guardian fatigue to where she was so tired, she couldn’t be bothered, causing more medical issues for the dog and caring from her.

I always remind myself, you can’t pour from an empty jug and sometimes we all need to rest.

Remember, your time is valuable, you are valuable and deserve to take care of yourself.


Dissertation on Compassion Fatigue from International School of Canine Psychology


For more on compassion fatigue and veterinarians go to https://www.animalsheltering.org/magazine/articles/weight-caring

For those who work in the animal profession, this page has links on compassion fatigue and resources to help you. https://www.animalsheltering.org/topics/compassion-fatigue

To learn more about the symptoms of compassion fatigue push on this link here https://www.canadianveterinarians.net/recognizing-the-signs-of-burnout-and-compassion-fatigue

American Journal or Preventative Medicine study on suicide rates  https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(14)00722-3/fulltext

American Veterinary Medical Association. study on veterinary suicide https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2015-04-01/study-1-6-veterinarians-have-considered-suicide

Online Courses

ASPCApro Online Course: Caring this Much is Exhausting! The Emotional Challenges of Working in an Animal Shelter or Rescue Environment (Use enrollment key "aspcapro" if registering for the first time) 

Animalsheltering.org: Caring for animals means caring for yourself

AWAA: Going Through Hell? Keep Going! Series

If you’re a veterinarian, animal professional or pet owner and want to know ways of how to cope with compassion fatigue, this unique online class “Compassion Fatigue Strategies” by Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program can help https://sheltermedicine.vetmed.ufl.edu/education/continuing-education/compassion-fatigue-strategies/

Ruby Leslie of WelfareForAnimals

Training Advocate
Dogly loves Ruby because she brings her rescue experiences to our dogs - to increase our bond, decrease behavior issues.

Ruby guides you

New Dogs - Manners - Enrichment - Reactivity - Barking - Walking

Ruby is certified

Low Stress Handling - Fear Free Veterinary Professional - Fear Free Shelters - Shelter Welfare - Enrichment - & Canine Behaviour