“You can’t save them all.”
That is one of the mantras that categorizes the despair when things get overwhelming in the animal care community. This is where compassion fatigue can seep in and take hold, with symptoms that can cover a wide spectrum, and can often be categorized as either physical, emotional, or behavioral in nature.
Compassion fatigue has been defined as “the emotional burden that health care providers may experience as a result of overexposure to traumatic events that patients are experiencing”. An earlier term used to describe this phenomenon was “secondary victimization”.1
People who work in the animal care giver world have an over-abundancy of compassion and end up getting frustrated and disheartened that they can't fix everything. An example would be that client that has to euthanize or surrender their pet because they don't have the funds to pay for the surgery or medical treatment.
Veterinarians and veterinary technicians, along with other animal health care professionals, may experience compassion fatigue because of continued exposure to the traumatic events their patients and families experience. Also called secondary traumatic stress (STS) or vicarious traumatization, the result can be a falling off in professional capabilities, emotional exhaustion, distress and burnout.1 This phenomenon is also experienced by non-professional care-givers and volunteers.
As caregivers in shelters and rescues, you may experience the following symptoms occasionally, but if they’re chronic, intense, and interfere with normal daily functioning, they may indicate you have compassion fatigue.
Psychological and Physical Problems
Feelings of apathy top the list of symptoms of compassion fatigue. But they are not the only symptoms, as this insidious disorder can cause problems both psychological and physical.
Top 5 common symptoms can include:
- Sadness and apathy
- Bottled-up emotions
- Inability to get pleasure from activities that previously were enjoyable
- Difficulty concentrating
Shelter veterinarians are at high risk for developing depression, and many spay-neuter veterinarians possess demographic risk factors that may place them at greater risk than other veterinarians for experiencing depression, burnout, compassion fatigue, or suicidal ideation.1 Per the Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ 2016 Veterinary Medical Care Guidelines for Spay-Neuter Programs, workplaces should strive to create a safe, supportive environment in which mental health issues are not stigmatized.
“I truly believe many are not suffering from a lack of compassion, but rather the opposite: over-the-top compassion which can take the energy out of someone. What we really need is balance and a way to re-energize after a day/week/month filled with concentrating on the needs of others (patients and their owners),” stated Dr. Kristy Earley-Murray, DVM, who works with Zoetis to bring educational support in the field of veterinary medicine with a special focus on shelter medicine, immunology, dermatology, and senior wellness care.
What Can You Do?
It can be important to connect with colleagues who experience the same types of traumas and moral stresses as you do. There also are personal approaches that can help alleviate compassion fatigue.
- Focus on building your resilience. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cites four areas that are key:
- Adequate sleep
- Good nutrition
- Regular physical activity
- Active relaxation such as yoga or meditation
- Engage in meditation and/or mindfulness-based stress reduction. For example, try this simple breathing exercise to increase physical and mental well-being, demonstrated at the 2016 AVMA Convention by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.2
- Engage with co-workers to celebrate successes as a group.
- Connect with other colleagues, either in person or through online discussions, for shared support that can remind you that you aren’t alone. The AVMA Member Discussion Forum, for example, includes a forum on Work-Life Balance & Wellness.3
- Wash up before you leave work – even just your hands and face. 'Think of it as a symbolic ‘washing away’ of the hardness of the day,' SAMHSA advises.
The American Veterinary Medical Association4 also maintains a useful database of all kinds of wellness resources that is a good place for concerned individuals to start.
Healing takes time, patience, and most importantly, commitment within your rescue or shelter. An awareness of compassion fatigue and its far-reaching effects must be present at the highest level of management and work its way down to encompass all staff, as well as volunteers.
SENIOR SHELTER AND RESCUE PETS
I wrote this article from the perspective of both a veterinarian and former shelter worker. In fact, I would like to dedicate this piece to the countless senior pets that find themselves at shelters across the nation every single day.
One particular dog that stands out in my mind, even after twenty years was a sweet girl named “Star”. Star was a geriatric lab cross-surrendered to the shelter by her owner. Sadly, Star had passed away in her kennel the very night she was relinquished. Perhaps she was ill and her owners could not afford medical care, I hope she passed peacefully…I will never know.
Senior Pets Need Advocates for Their Care
At the end of the day, there are thousands of senior pets like Star that need your help when they are left in your care. They need you to advocate for their wellness and adoptability! Everyone knows puppies are the very first to be selected for adoption. Unfortunately, seniors are often the last. During my years as a shelter employee I’ve heard it all:
- “He/she is too old to train”
- “I don’t want to get attached and have him/her die”
- “I want a healthy dog/cat”
- “I have children” and the list goes on
Because of all of the misconceptions and pre-conceived notions, it’s challenging to place this group of special needs companions, especially when the decks are stacked against them to begin with.
How Can You Help Out This Sweet Group of Adoptable Pets?
I believe it starts the moment they arrive in the shelter. Be sure to give senior pets a very thorough physical examination:
- Does he/she have cloudy eyes?
- Can he/she hear?
- What do his/her teeth look like?
- Are are there any lumps or bumps that should be noted?
- Does this pet appear extra stressed/fearful?
By paying close attention on arrival you will be able to tailor your support for this pet while they are under your care.
As you may imagine, senior pets often suffer from common ailments such as hearing and vision loss, osteoarthritis, dental disease, metabolic disease such as diabetes, cognitive changes and cancer to name a few.
The good news is by being aware of some of these things up front you can be on the lookout for things like increased thirst, increased urination, difficulty chewing, and decreased response to sound or visual stimulation.
When specific concerns are identified, such as osteoarthritis, these pets should receive extra care such as padded bedding, rugs on kennel floors to aid in traction and increase mobility, physical therapy and perhaps medical treatment with NSAIDS or neutraceuticals.
Eating and Drinking Habits
Taking note of eating and drinking habits is critical in uncovering potential medical conditions. If a pet is diabetic or has dental disease, these conditions should be identified and managed before placement. The last thing anyone wants is a senior pet to be returned due to an unknown medical disorder. If ailments are identified in advance the potential adopter can be educated on their new pet’s condition and instructed how to manage it.
Exposure to Infection
It’s also essential to consider exposure to infection in this group of residents. Often time respiratory disease is circulating in many shelters and difficult to control once it takes hold. Elderly pets may have co-morbidities and additional stressors going on and thus potential to become more severely affected if they are exposed to one or several pathogens. Perhaps, kennel staff may take special care to: lower stress, completely dry the kennel after cleaning, and even considering placement into foster care to help mitigate the risk of infection.
Old Dogs and Cats Can Learn New Tricks
Lastly, it is my personal and perhaps biased belief that old dogs/cats can indeed learn new tricks! Potential adopters may just need a gentle ‘nudge’ and reminder. Puppies/kittens often times require lot of time and energy (if not more) to train than mature adults. Often destructive chewing is a reason for return of young adults post adoption, likely this will not be a problem with a sweet old soul!
Wellness education begins on or before adoption day. Tools and resources to help families care for their pets well into old age are critical. When unfortunate circumstances arise (as they often do) and a senior pet is surrendered, it is very helpful if that pet has been cared for appropriately up to the point of surrender. Education on diet, oral health, behavior, and preventative care is essential! Please join me in advocating for all of the senior pets that need our support and help with placement into their forever homes.
It was a borrowed party bus full of animals.
A vehicle normally reserved for revelry was packed with shelter and rescue animals that were helpless to escape the flood waters in Louisiana this past August. Michelle Ingram, Director of Zeus’ Rescues and owner of Zeus’ Place boarding and grooming in New Orleans, sprang into action when many of the rescue centers in the area were going underwater. The lives of hundreds of animals were in danger.
“Twenty-four injured animals were transported and brought back to local veterinarians’ offices to be treated. The flood waters came so fast that some shelters were unable to do anything else in such a short amount of time. Rescue centers were opening the kennel doors and letting dogs and cats swim for their lives,” said Kellie Grengs, grant director and volunteer for Zeus’ Rescues. The boarding and grooming services help to fund the rescue side of the organization, covering the medical expenses and care for abandoned pets looking for forever homes from all across Louisiana.
After eight days of rescue trips, local volunteers were able to convene and help, so Michelle then headed back home to New Orleans. Zeus’ Place took in more than 250 animals from the Baton Rouge area, many of them needing medical care.
Hurricane Katrina changed the way animals are treated during emergencies thanks to the passage of the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards in 2006. It was an amendment to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to ensure that state and local emergency preparedness operational plans address the needs of individuals with household pets and service animals following a major disaster or emergency.1 Congress compelled first responders to save pets just as they save people.
For example, Zeus’ Place has a policy for all animals boarding at their facility during hurricane season. They evacuate all pets regardless of the category of the hurricane, even if the hurricane may pass quickly, since they could be without power and potable water for a long period of time.2
Veterinary Protocol In Emergency Situations
I spoke with Brian A. DiGangi, DVM, MS, DABVP, Clinical Associate Professor of Shelter Medicine with the University of Florida, Veterinary Community Outreach Program about emergency response protocol:
Q. What determines a situation where you would evacuate animals?
A. Any time that people are being evacuated from an area impacted by a disaster, consideration should be given to evacuating the animals as well. In fact, the law requires communities to have a plan for the care of pets whose owners have been forced to leave their own homes. Shelters should also have an evacuation plan in place for both natural and man-made disasters.
Fires and floods are some of the more common reasons why a shelter might need to relocate its animals, but any time there is the threat of physical damage to animal housing areas or the possibility of an extended period without electricity, it should be considered.
Q. What is your protocol for helping shelter and rescues?
A. The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine is a lead member of the Florida State Agriculture Response Team. As such, our Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service (VETS) is occasionally called to assist in response to a natural or man-made disaster that impacts animals. In addition, the VETS team is ready to deploy whenever an emergency has been officially declared by the state or federal government.
The AVMA’s Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMAT) serve as first responders to ensure high-quality care of animals during disasters and other emergencies. When requested by a state, VMATs provide operational emergency response programs to state animal health authorities and preparedness programs to state animal health authorities, veterinary medical associations, and other relevant organizations.
For over 20 years, dedicated volunteers who work with the VMAT program help ensure that all animals - pets, livestock, zoo animals and wildlife - receive the care they need during times of crisis.3 These trained disaster teams are well-equipped to handle almost any animal-related emergency that can arise.
But we must not forget the other selfless acts to save animals from harm’s way that are seldom heard of, but quietly out there, like the work of Michelle Ingram---along with shelter and rescue volunteers, pet foster families, and pet parents all across the country.
SHELTERS AND RESCUE WORKING TOGETHER
On a quiet, unassuming suburban street, the house looked like any other in Howell, New Jersey. A routine call to animal control about a dog on the loose in the neighborhood uncovered more than anyone expected: an out-ofcontrol animal hoarding situation that was the worst the county had ever seen.1
It was the power of many animal rescue organizations and shelters working together that helped change the fate of the dogs living in squalid, unsanitary conditions. The Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center, the Associated Humane Society Shelter in Tinton Falls, Animal Alliance of New Jersey, Father John’s Animal House, Second Chance Pet Adoption League, Cold Nose Warm Heart NJ, and Ramapo-Bergen Animal Refuge all took in the dogs to try and help.
“We expected around 80 dogs. We ended up extracting 280 dogs out of the house,” said Heather Cammisa, President and CEO of St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, New Jersey, who is an advisory member of the Animal Welfare Federation of New Jersey and member of the Humane Society of the United States’ Companion Animal Advisory Council. “Ross Licitra, Chief of the Monmouth County SPCA called us in to help with the removal and eventual rehoming of the dogs, along with other partner shelter and rescue organizations.”
Many breeds of small dogs were found and removed over a period of twelve hours. Dogs were even found living in the walls of the home, on bookshelves, and anywhere they could find a space to stand.
“A majority of the dogs had intestinal parasites, fleas, skin issues, and some were pregnant. The dogs hadn’t been socialized with outside people. They were very social with other dogs (obviously) but some needed a lot of socialization with people, while others adapted right away,” said Ms. Cammisa.
Hoarding was once considered an anomaly, but there has been a greater prevalence and surge in cases over the past year. As with other acts of animal cruelty, it may be impossible to know for sure what motivates the abuse inflicted by hoarders. We do know:
- Most common animal victims of hoarders are cats, followed by dogs
- Recidivism rates for hoarders are almost 100%
- 72% of hoarders are women2
According to the Animal Legal Defense fund (ALDF), it is likely that up to a quarter million animals–250,000 per year–are victims of hoarders. Records kept by ALDF indicate that in the last four years, the number of reported hoarding cases has more than doubled. In terms of the number of animals affected and the degree and duration of their suffering, hoarding is the number one animal cruelty crisis facing companion animals in communities throughout the country.3
“Situations like [the case in] Howell are tragic. But it raised awareness and it touched people’s hearts. We had a broad outpouring of support from all over the country and the animal welfare system came together – it worked,” said Ms. Cammisa.
Human outreach is also a critical component needed to address the complex, somewhat silent psychological issue of animal hoarding in communities. It requires help from social services, civic organizations, law enforcement, and mental health professionals. Most importantly, it requires all of us to look around in our neighborhoods and families—and to ask questions or speak up when something doesn’t look or feel right.
The relationships and networking within the animal welfare system formed a strong safety net for the animals. All of the dogs from the Howell case sheltered by St. Hubert’s, except for a litter of puppies, have been adopted— and found their forever homes.