Did you know that those who work with shelter and sanctuary animals are highly vulnerable to compassion fatigue? Not surprisingly, helping (and opening your heart to) abused, unloved and neglected animals on a regular basis is extremely stressful and traumatic. Those involved in euthanasia of such animals also experience grief. Compassion fatigue, therefore, is unfortunately an occupational hazard for those working with traumatized animals.

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (CFAP) and the American Institute of Stress, the symptoms of compassion fatigue vary but can include any of the following:

  • Excessive sadness or bottling up of emotions
  • Isolating oneself
  • Losing your sense of humor
  • Neglecting your appearance
  • Abusing substances to cope
  • Feeling mentally and physically tired
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Reduced sense of meaning or purpose in one’s work

If you think you may be suffering from compassion fatigue (but aren’t sure), you can start by taking this self-test.

Healing from compassion fatigue doesn’t happen overnight, but there are pro-active steps you can take. CFAP stresses the importance of Self Care during this difficult time and offers the following tips: being kind to yourself, clarifying your personal boundaries, vocalizing your needs and more. The entire list can be found here.

Another option is meditation. In my work with animals, I’ve found that meditating and practicing Reiki can help us to stay centered, strong and balanced amidst all the chaos we observe, sense and feel. If you lack the energy to sustain a long, drawn-out meditation, these mini meditations are a good starting point.

Connecting with the following two Reiki precepts in particular is another way to help guide you down the path to wellness:

1. Be grateful. This precept is really about remembering the positive. Sometimes in difficult situations, we forget that every cloud has a silver lining. Figure out what your silver linings are for the animals that you work with. Perhaps a fearful animal you have worked with is showing progress. Maybe an animal who was abandoned finally found a forever family. Even in the case of an animal who died: Were they given kindness in the last moments of their life? Or perhaps their life has illuminated cruelty in a way that will teach and inspire people to help? If we take some time and look deeper into situations, we can always find things to be grateful for. In fact, some of life’s most difficult teachers are also the most profound.

 2. Be honest. Reach out to fellow rescuers who know what you are going through or to your Reiki friends who share an empathic view of the world. My nonprofit, the Shelter Animal Reiki Association, is a group of more than 400 people around the world who spend time with rescued animals and use the practices of Reiki for support. If you can find people who not only understand, but also offer you a positive and encouraging word, all the better!

The Reiki precept “be honest” also means understanding your boundaries. What part of your rescue work is the most gratifying? Which parts are the most overwhelming? Spending time becoming more aware of how your time with rescued animals affects your inner state will help you to move toward balance.

CFAP offers a host of resources to help animal caregivers suffering from compassion fatigue. The Wrong Side of the Rainbow also offers information on Self Care as well as links to pet loss forums and a counseling service in Canada. Talking to a therapist can help, too; a simple Google search will lead you to a variety of animal care compassion fatigue specialists, such as Anne Lindsay of TACTdogs.com.

Remember, there is always hope. You are not alone. You are as strong as the earth and as expansive as the sky. All will be well. Take some time to meditate and practice Reiki, and watch both you and the animals you care for shift back into wellness.

Have you or someone you love experienced compassion fatigue? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this important issue.

8 thoughts on “Symptoms of compassion fatigue (and how to cope)”

  1. Thank you, Kathleen, for writing about compassion fatigue, and how to help prevent and recover. I volunteer alongside veterinary technicians, veterinarians and animal care staff that pour their hearts into their work. It is so important to offer Reiki to the humans, as well as the animals, and I find they welcome the support. Even a kind word, or glance, can help the people to re-set, and restore balance. I love being present with such a dedicated staff, and it’s an honour to bring Reiki healing with me, while I volunteer for them and for the animals in their care. Thank you for SARA!

    1. Hi Johnna, Thanks for sharing your journey. It’s wonderful that you are so mindful in your work with the vets, vet techs and caregivers. You are right, just a big of kindness and compassion goes such a long way 🙂 Keep up the great work!

  2. Great article. I’m working to spread the word about compassion fatigue in the animal care world and have shared your article on my Facebook page. Wrong Side of the Rainbow is a page for anyone who works with, lives with or just loves animals and feels the ups and downs of sharing their lives with animals. I hope more people become aware that CF is serious and we need to remember to take care of ourselves or we can’t continue caring for others.



    1. Glad you enjoyed the article, and thanks for sharing on your Facebook page! Wonderful to see the work you are doing to support animal caregivers through grief and compassion fatigue:) Keep up the great work 🙂

  3. HI Kathleen,

    You’ve formulated this so eloquently. Thank you. When I experience either in my volunteer work or though the media some of the many problems our animal friends have to endure, I always remember that “hurt people hurt people” – but even more often, “hurt people hurt animals” because they cannot fight back nearly as well. So I do my very best to process and release negative emotions and judgement, I send love to the animals but also the people involved, as love is the only long term solution. But it can definitely be difficult and overwhelming at times. Some of the resources you have listed here can be very helpful.
    Wonderful and important article. Thank you again.

    Blessings, Lori

    1. Thanks Lori, I’m glad the article is helpful. I love what you say about LOVE being the only solution, I sooooo agree! 🙂 Thanks for all the work you do for the animals who need it the most!

    1. Kathleen Prasad

      Thanks Frans, Yes I agree, and I think many people don’t share, they silently suffer. This is one of the things we hope to prevent with our work with Reiki in shelters – to be able to offer support and compassion to the caregivers as well as the shelter animals is so important!

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