My Struggle with Compassion Fatigue in Animal Rescue

How I learned to cope with the downsides of rescue.
By: Katelyn Aase
The author with a rescue dog

Years ago, I worked at a healthcare consulting company. We had several doctors who would present on coping with a condition known as compassion fatigue to the other doctors within the partnership. Intuitively, I understood what they were talking about, but I couldn’t fully grasp how it feels or what it takes to get to that point until I started working in animal rescue.

About four years ago, I got involved in animal rescue in Chicago. I came into the volunteering world with a ton of passion to help, and as such, I quickly got involved in as many ways as I could find. I started fostering dogs, volunteered at the shelter, worked events and began getting involved in helping families work through the adoption process. In the beginning, I was so eager to help every single animal, no matter their background or story. I was hopeful for the future and full of ideas.

The deeper I got involved, the more I started noticing smalls blips of hopelessness on my emotional radar. Truth be told, rescue work is hard. I specifically remember going to animal control one of my first times to evaluate and pull animals with the rescue. It felt amazing to pick out the five or six dogs that we were saving and organize their transfer to our rescue and foster homes.

While we were checking these dogs out, I watched five or six more dogs get surrendered by their owners. By the time we left, the net number of dogs in the high-kill shelter was exactly the same as when we started. This disheartening realization took away from the emotional high of saving the dogs we did that day.

As time went on, I also felt waves of cynicism creeping into my mental process. When dogs were presented with behaviors that I knew were hard to place into forever or foster homes, I started wanting to turn them away. If a dog was leash reactive or had separation anxiety, I lost optimism that we’d be able to find them a home. I started to feel numb to some of the surrender situations that we would be presented with because I felt like I’d heard it a million times.

Rescue dog

When I noticed this shift in my mentality, I got pretty freaked out. What was wrong with me? Am I a bad person? Should I no longer volunteer? A light bulb clicked, and I remembered all that I had heard about compassion fatigue. I began researching the signs and symptoms of the condition and ways to cope with it. The answer to my questions were that nothing was inherently wrong with me, I am not a bad person, and these feelings don’t necessarily mean that I shouldn’t volunteer.

Compassion fatigue is not something that gets cured, it ebbs and flows (at least for me). It’s important to understand your experience with it and what helps pull you through the tough times. Here’s how I cope with it:

Acknowledge what’s happening: A huge step in managing compassion fatigue is acknowledging that you are dealing with it in the first place. You are not a bad person if you are experiencing symptoms of compassion fatigue, and chances are, you are not alone. Moreover, you may help someone else by talking about what you are experiencing.

Celebrate small wins: One way that I find joy in rescue work is by celebrating the small victories. That may be finding a foster home for a dog, watching a litter of kittens survive their first couple of weeks, helping a senior pup find a forever home, etc. One of my specialties is fostering feral dogs, and it’s exciting to celebrate small wins with them.

I had a foster pup named Gatsby, and I’ll never forget the first day that he wagged his tail or the first day that he got up to greet me when I got home. Another one of my feral foster pups, Tegan, made huge strides after a few weeks and willingly cuddled with my dad while he was visiting. To have her show that amount of trust, especially towards a man she did not know very well, was such an improvement and a very special moment. If I only focus on the big picture, it’s easy to forget about the small (and meaningful) things.

Get involved with progressive programming: Involving myself in programs that are tackling the rescue process in a new way also helps me feel better. For example, I volunteer with a diversion and support program that works to prevent animals from having to enter the animal control system in the first place. This was a completely new way of approaching the issues that we face in Chicago, and it has had a lot of success. Volunteering with this program is a tangible way to help the problem, and I can immediately see the positive impact of our efforts.

Author with foster dog

Practice self-care: Perhaps the most important thing about coping with compassion fatigue is remembering that you can’t take care of others without taking care of yourself first. Whatever helps fill your emotional battery, you need to take time for it. For me, sometimes that means cupcakes for dinner after a long day of volunteering at the diversion program!

Set boundaries: If you’re experiencing compassion fatigue, take some time to reflect on what areas of where you’re working or volunteering drain you the most. Are there other areas of the organization that don’t trigger the feelings of futility? If you can identify areas that are less difficult for you, stick to those. I know that I am burning out or need to set more boundaries if I no longer have the energy for fostering. Fostering is what fills my cup the most and makes the tough times worth it, so I have learned to be protective of my boundaries to make sure that I have the energy to do what I love the most.

Ultimately, I find that the highs in animal rescue outweigh the lows. There’s nothing quite like seeing a broken dog come out of his or her shell, learn to trust and love, and to finally find their forever home. It is heartbreaking to see a dog on their worst and most vulnerable day when they wind up at the shelter, but the important thing to remember is that isn’t always where the story ends. Being a volunteer allows me to see their story through, to root for them and be their champion until they get the happy ending that they deserve.

If you find yourself experiencing signs of compassion fatigue, do not beat yourself up about it, be open about what you’re experiencing and never forget to take care of yourself so that you can continue to be a champion for the animals that need you.