Compassion fatigue is real! Unique issues for volunteers in a shelter setting.  

By Lisa W., Marin Humane Veterinary Clinic volunteer and Master’s in Counseling candidate.

We all love the animals. But if you’re like me, you may also enjoy volunteering at Marin Humane because it offers an escape from the world: You can tune out of all the craziness in life, log off social media for awhile, and be needed. It’s a great feeling.

But what happens when being at the shelter stops being fun? This shift in experience can sneak up on you. It can be hard to notice, and easy to deny. We get so much gratification from volunteering. How can it be anything but good?

Even though Marin Humane is a wonderful place to volunteer, the work is still stressful. Sometimes an animal comes in who’s been abused. Sometimes our interactions with the public can be challenging. And as with any organization, there can be disagreement and conflict among ourselves.

And of course, there are the tragic cases, where despite all our efforts, the animal cannot be saved.

It affects us all.

It can cumulatively result in a syndrome called compassion fatigue – and volunteers are just as subject to this as staff are!

Plus, the shelter environment is unique. If an animal has to be euthanized, you may be angry and sad. We’re supposed to be saving animals, right? How can this happen? You may understand intellectually that everyone at Marin Humane puts the welfare of each animal at the forefront of every decision, and yet it may still cause you to second-guess what happened, and to blame staff for the injustice. It may be difficult to process those emotions.

Being exposed to a death can reactivate all the pain of our past losses. It can feel very, very personal: the loss of our own pet, or a loved one. Many of us carry these wounds through a lifetime. The euthanasia of a shelter animal can hurl us back into those awful emotions again.

Our culture is not good at dealing with death, and death of a pet can be so traumatic. We call it “disenfranchised grief” when there is little support in society for someone who is grieving such a loss. People in your life may question why you’re so affected. Or, they may try to be helpful, and inadvertently say very unhelpful things – like, “It was only a dog.” Or, “But it wasn’t even your dog. You only met her at the shelter a few weeks ago. Why are you so upset?”

In addition, being exposed to someone else’s trauma can actually make you feel the same effects, as if you experienced the trauma yourself. If you are caring for an animal that had been horribly neglected or abused, you will take on some of that emotional pain, too.

All of these things can result in compassion fatigue. 

Symptoms of compassion fatigue

  1. Feeling exhausted. When you start to feel physically worn down all the time, this can actually be a sign that you’re emotionally worn out.
  2. Lost enthusiasm for the work. It’s natural that the amount of excitement you bring to your volunteer assignment will ebb and flow. However if you’re regularly finding that you aren’t looking forward to your shift, then that could be an indication that there’s more going on.
  3. Irritability. If everyone is getting on your nerves all the time, that’s a definite clue that you could have pent-up frustrations.
  4. Cynicism and negativity. If you find yourself feeling very negative about others, that might be because you’re carrying too much of an emotional load.

The challenge is that often, we cannot see these symptoms in ourselves!  They can sneak up on us and we don’t even notice that we’re suffering from the weight of accumulated suffering. When you are the most vulnerable, you may not even know it.

What can you do about it?

  1. Self care! We are caretakers, and the most important person to care for is YOU! Make self care part of your routine and it can inoculate you against stress. Self care for you might be exercise, a walk in nature, getting enough sleep, eating well, yoga and meditation, or just reading a book. Speaking with a therapist can also be so helpful to process emotions. It’s easy to brush off our own needs when we’re so busy, but not taking care of yourself diminishes what we can offer. Self care is so important!!
  2. Support each other. Marin Humane is a wonderful community because the people here make it so. If you see someone having a tough day, check in with them, ask if they want to talk.
  3. Recognize your triggers. Know what makes you upset, and be intentional about processing through that. Feeling irritable? It could be telling you something!
  4. Be open. If someone asks if you’re doing okay, it may be because you’re showing some signs outwardly that you are under some stress. Be open to a small intervention like this! Go for a walk, or share with them how you’re feeling (venting can be healing, just watch out for gossip, which can be counterproductive for us all).  Sharing difficulties can make them manageable, and asking for help is a sign of strength.
  5. Take a break. Maybe you need to take a week or two off from volunteering, or perhaps there’s a different role in the shelter you could help out in for a time. It’s remarkable what a change of scenery can do to recharge the batteries!

Volunteering is so gratifying, especially at a great place like Marin Humane, but it’s still work – and the stress is real! Being aware of the symptoms of compassion fatigue, and remembering the importance of self care, can help us all protect our most precious resource – our mental health – and be even more effective in helping these animals we love.