Compassion fatigue

Veterinary professionals are required to open their hearts and minds to animals and their owners, but this process of empathy makes them vulnerable to being profoundly affected and even possibly damaged by their work.
“Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped, to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”
Dr. Charles Figley – psychologist and university professor
“Over time, your ability to feel and care for others becomes eroded through overuse of your skills of compassion.”
Dr. Frank M. Ochberg – psychiatrist and pioneer in trauma science

Although research has shown that veterinary professionals have a high level of risk of compassion fatigue (Roop and Figley, 2006), it is possible to reduce the chance of suffering from compassion fatigue and to recover from it.


 Why are veterinary professionals at risk?

  • Direct exposure to trauma every day – death, animal cruelty and pet owners in mourning or financial difficulty
  • Frequently having to deal with ethical dilemmas – moral stress, or moral injury, is a primary contributor to compassion fatigue
  • Psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Carl Jung identified the motivational drive for a caregiver; the caregiver’s greatest fear is selfishness and their greatest weakness is that they allow themselves to be martyred and exploited. Whilst the desire to be in the caregiver role is not exclusive to vets, for many it can form part of the motivation to go into the profession.
  • The heavy schedule at vet school and the long working hours in practice may give the message that personal needs are unimportant, or indeed irrelevant, and not having time to yourself to recuperate from work is part of the job, as is putting the needs of animals before your own, even if you are exhausted.
  • A veterinary career tends to be about individual talent and responsibility but there is very good evidence that many people benefit psychologically from sharing difficult experiences with other people they trust.
  • Working parents have to care for animals at work and then go home with enough empathy in their tank to fulfil their childrens’ and partner’s needs.
  • It can be difficult to schedule good self-care practices (like a yoga class) into your life if your working hours are lengthy, but remember that if you take care of yourself it will help you take better care of the animals you treat.