Identifying psychological distress in animal welfare

Recently, the first mental health survey for veterinarians found that one in six have contemplated ending their lives. Another study conducted by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that animal welfare workers have a suicide rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers, among the highest in the study, compared to a national average of 1.5 American workers per 1 million.

Our job, our passion, is emotional. We speak for those with no voice, we tell their stories. We are in animal welfare because we love it and want to make a difference. But our work is hard and every day we see animals and humans at their best and their worst.

That cat that came in sick and injured? He was adopted six months later. It’s emotional.

Spending the last moments with a dog that has never had a home. It’s emotional.

Listening to a person tell you to keep their dog because they don’t want to pay the impounding fees. It’s emotional.

Witnessing a lost pet reunited with its owner. It’s emotional.

At some point in our career, many of us have suffered or will suffer from psychological distress, also known as compassion fatigue or secondary-traumatic stress disorder (STSD). This diagnosed condition is defined as “emotional exhaustion, caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals or people.” STSD is similar to PTSD and can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide.

Oftentimes, compassion fatigue is overlooked due to both a lack of understanding and funding in the community — but it’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed. As leaders in animal welfare organizations, we must look out for our employees by knowing the following signs:


  • Excessive blaming
  • Bottled up emotions
  • Isolation from others
  • Receives unusual amount of complaints from others
  • Poor self-care (i.e., hygiene, appearance)
  • Reoccurrence of nightmares and flashbacks to traumatic event
  • Chronic physical ailments
  • Apathy, sad, no longer finds activities pleasurable
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mentally and physically tired
  • Preoccupied
  • In denial about problems


  • High absenteeism
  • Constant changes in co-workers relationships
  • Inability for teams to work well together
  • Desire among staff members to break company rules
  • Outbreaks of aggressive behaviors among staff
  • Inability of staff to complete assignments and tasks
  • Inability of staff to respect and meet deadlines
  • Lack of flexibility among staff members
  • Negativism towards management
  • Strong reluctance toward change
  • Inability of staff to believe improvement is possible
  • Lack of a vision for the future

Increasing awareness is the first step in a process of understanding and commitment to care. We must help our employees and volunteers get the help they need. If you feel that you or your staff are experiencing STSD, please seek help from a medical professional.

Here are some resources to learn more about compassion fatigue:

Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project

Dr. Kristin Neff’s Self Compassion

Compassion Fatigue in the Animal-Care Community by Charles R. Figley, Ph.D. and Robert G. Rooper, Ph.D.

Sarah Hock, MNpS, is Executive Director of the Humane Society of Central Arizona.

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