Understanding Veterinarian Compassion Fatigue

0 Comments Posted by Alyssa Noonan in General, Veterinary Medicine on Friday, March 27th, 2015.

By Sandra Grossman, Ph.D. and Ellie Freedman, MFT

Many people choose the veterinary profession because of their love of animals and desire to help them. There’s nothing quite like being able to help a sick pet feel better and watching the joy it brings to them and their family. It’s why veterinarians do what they do; however, the nature of the industry often causes something called “veterinarian compassion fatigue”.

The more difficult part of the job is when there’s nothing more a veterinarian can do for sick pets than help end their suffering. Doing so means working with grieving clients – some of whom may, in their grief, prove difficult. It’s another of the field’s extraordinary demands – which may have never been addressed in veterinary school – and encountering challenges like these can be significant sources of stress for veterinarians, no matter their level of experience. It’s vital to be mindful of the toll the stressors involved with your work can take on you, as it’s very easy to lose your passion for your work and begin to suffer from an increasingly recognized condition: compassion fatigue.

In their book Compassion Fatigue in the Animal-Care Community, Charles R. Figley, Ph.D and Robert G. Roop, Ph.D define compassion fatigue as the inner exhaustion caused by the stress of caring for and helping others who are traumatized and suffering.”

If left untreated, compassion fatigue can affect our perception of ourselves, our work performance and our personal and professional relationships. It can also have a debilitating effect on an entire workplace.

There is good news, however; by understanding veterinarian compassion fatigue, its causes and symptoms, steps can be taken to prevent and treat it.


Veterinarian Compassion FatigueCauses

Compassion fatigue can be linked to daily external (workplace-related) and internal stressors.

Internal stressors are essentially the personality traits that make you who you are. Generalizing can be problematic, but veterinarians are empathetic and committed to making a difference in animals’ lives.

Awareness is an important first step. Take a moment and reflect on how your level of the following traits may make you more vulnerable to the effects of compassion fatigue:

  • Overachieving and over-pleasing
  • Perfectionism
  • Sensitivity to trauma

The work environment in which you spend many hours also comes with its own set of stressors. The fact that you deal with traumatized pets and their families on a daily basis causes stress. Consider your workplace culture. What is it like in terms of:

  • Staffing
  • Support and Training
  • Work Ethics (Workaholism vs Self Care/Criteria for Reward and Achievement)

If your workplace is poorly staffed and chaotic, offering little support or training, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed and resentful. Again, becoming aware of these factors and how they affect you and your work is an important step.



Just as awareness of compassion fatigue’s causes is important, paying attention to how you’re feeling at work and at home is a key element in preventing compassion fatigue and burnout.

Contemplate the following symptoms. How many have you have been feeling? Have you noticed any increase?

  • Physical Symptoms such as Extreme Fatigue/ Recurrent Illnesses/Weight Gain or Loss/Sleep Disorders
  • Psychological Symptoms such as increased negativity or irritability/numbness or apathy/Increased Anger
  • Social Symptoms such as Isolation/ Disengagement/Complaining
  • Spiritual Symptoms such as a Loss of Faith/Loss of Purpose or Meaning

Now think about your workplace. How many of these symptoms of compassion fatigue can you identify?

  • Negative attitude or low morale
  • Lack of Communication or Miscommunication
  • Increase in Interpersonal Conflicts
  • Poor level of service provided to Clients

Workplace settings in which these symptoms are prevalent are more likely to have employees struggling with symptoms of compassion fatigue.


Measuring Compassion Fatigue

While building awareness of causes and symptoms is a vital first step, it’s often a good idea to consult with a certified educator/consultant to help your organization develop a plan to avoid and eliminate the effects of compassion fatigue.

There are also tools available to measure where you fall on the compassion fatigue spectrum. One of the most widely respected of these is the Professional Quality of Life (ProQOL.org) Self Test.

Don’t get too tied in to the results after such a test. While this test can help you determine where you fall on the compassion fatigue spectrum it’s important to remember there are steps that can be taken to combat and heal the effects of veterinarian compassion fatigue.




Ellie FreedmanEllie Freedman is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with 30 years of clinical experience. She has a private therapy practice in Newport Beach, CA, where, over the years, she has re-focused her work to deal with clients who have lost beloved pets. She facilitates the Newport Beach Pet Loss Support Group. Sandra GrossmanSandra Grossman spent 20 years working in the business sector before re-directing the focus of her work to helping those who had lost a beloved pet. Sandra is the West Coast Vice President of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement and co-hosts a weekly chat with Ellie. She facilitates Pet Loss Support groups in Glendale, Los Angeles, and the South Bay.

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