Coping Methods for Veterinarians With Compassion Fatigue

Coping Methods for Veterinarians With Compassion Fatigue

Do you find the most difficult part of working, as a veterinarian is when a patient does not respond to a prescribed treatment and passes away? I know this is very difficult for me and it holds true for both the two-legged and four-legged variety of patients.

There are grief counselors available to help deal with the families pain of grief and loss; however, who is there to aid with compassion fatigue mental and emotional wellbeing in veterinary professions?

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Like most medical professionals, we often suffer from compassion fatigue; the emotional draining that comes from close proximity to grief, illness, and death. Focusing on others pain and listening to their stories of trauma and grief rarely leaves any time to think about how on this is affecting our own emotional health and well-being.

How many times have you had to cope with an ill or dying animal, and struggled to communicate this to your friends and family? Forcing yourself to bottle these feelings up is not healthy emotionally or psychologically.  Yet as veterinary professionals, we do this everyday. Have you ever said, “I should have done more” or felt like no one really cares how you feel? After a difficult day at work, do you ever just wish that everyone would leave you alone? These are all feelings experienced when a person is experience compassion fatigue, also known as vicarious traumatization or secondary traumatization.

Signs and Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

A veterinary compassion fatigue self-test is available to help you determine whether you are suffering from compassion fatigue. If this all sounds familiar, compare your feelings to this list of compassion fatigue symptoms:

  • Extreme guilt
  • Keeping emotions bottled up inside
  • Isolating oneself from others
  • Masking one’s feelings with substance abuse
  • Engaging in compulsive behavior—such as overeating, overspending, gambling or sexual addictions
  • Frequent occurrences of nightmares or having flashbacks of the traumatic event
  • Chronic physical disorders—such as gastrointestinal issues or frequent colds
  • Feelings of sadness and apathy – not longer able to take pleasure in activities that were once enjoyable
  • Experiences difficulty with concentrating
  • Feelings of mental or physical tiredness
  • Appearing preoccupied
  • Denies there is a problem


What is Empathy Fatigue?

We are trained to be experts in treating injured and ill animals, and are often the only professional in the room when pet owners lose a pet. This role requires us to have a deep level of compassionate listening. This allows us to become involved in the client’s sense of pain and to react empathetically. After a while the ability to be resilient starts to deteriorate, affecting our ability to be empathetic. You may begin to experience signs of empathy fatigue—which involves your own psychological, emotional, mental, physical, occupational, and spiritual fatigue.

Are you feeling any of the above signs and symptoms of compassion or empathy fatigue? If you are experiencing any of these feelings, it does not mean that as a counselor or veterinary professional you do not care anymore or have lost an interest in your profession. All it means is that it is time to take a step back; take a break to allow yourself the chance to deal with your own emotional health.

As a veterinarian professional, you are facing death situations at a rate that is five times that of the average human care provider. Working in an animal clinic or shelter will expose you to animal death at an even higher rate. This is not good for a person’s emotional or psychiatric health. Here are some ways to help yourself manage your empathy fatigue:

Be kind to yourself

  • Give yourself a moment away from the task or job at hand
  • Get a glass of water
  • Take a stretch break
  • Turn on some enjoyable music
  • Have a healthy snack break–you should always take your breaks; if you don’t you are working for free because you are entitled to your break time.

Make a life for yourself when you are away from work

  • Do you have any hobbies? If not, then develop something you have always had an interest in but never pursued, such as photography or oil painting. Anything that takes your mind off of work will be healthy in the long run.
  • Exercise! Sign up for a gym membership. If this is out of the question, then taking an evening walk around the neighborhood or a local park will get the endorphins going and help you relax and forget about the stress of the days work.

Get plenty of rest at night

  • In order to be healthy, you need at least seven hours of consistent sleep each night, possibly more depending on genetics, current health, and whether you are sleep-deprived to begin with.
  • A good way to determine how much sleep you need at night is to start going to sleep and allow yourself to awake without an alarm clock
  • Form yourself a sleep schedule; just as you have a schedule for work– you need a schedule to allow yourself to rest

Drink plenty of water

  • Make sure you consume anywhere from nine to thirteen cups of water each day
  • Eat a healthy diet; fast food is okay for occasional treats, but you should opt for healthy foods most of the time


As you have read in the above paragraphs, combating compassion and empathy fatigue is something that all veterinary professionals must do in order to keep yourself healthy emotionally and psychologically. By taking the time to make a few lifestyle changes we can ensure that we are there when are patients and their family needs us. After all, as a healthcare provider, shouldn’t this be our number one priority?