Everyone probably knows that caring for animals isn’t straight forward or easy but there’s a lot more to it than just feeding, cleaning and providing veterinary care. The reason animal carers/keepers/trainers don’t tell you about this is because a lot of people don’t know it’s a thing… compassion fatigue. Whether you’re a vet, animal trainer, zoo keeper, rehabilitation carer or even a pet owner, you are most likely going to experience compassion fatigue at some point in your career/life.
What is compassion fatigue? It’s fatigue, emotional distress, or apathy resulting from the constant demands of caring for others. It is also known as secondary traumatic stress disorder.
So why am I talking about compassion fatigue? I want to make people more aware of it, to identify with it and realise that it’s okay to feel this way, but also to make sure they start looking after themselves. I suffer from compassion fatigue and looking back now I think I have for a long time, but I didn’t know what it was or how to change things, now that I understand what it is I’m starting to look after me. It’s hard (really hard sometimes) caring for animals, they can get sick, they can get stressed, and unfortunately they aren’t around forever (it’s the hard truth but it’s the honest truth), but more often than not we just end up caring for their welfare more than we do our own. We want them to have the best lives possible and that sometimes means taking on too much over time to get things done or to help people out. When you’ve built up such a relationship and connection with an animal you care for, losing them is painful. Those of you who work in the animal care field or have a pet will know this already, but those of you who don’t but would like to, please prepare yourself for some hard times ahead. I don’t want to scare you away from doing your dream job but I wish someone had forewarned me about how hard it can be.
I’ve been a zoo keeper/animal trainer for coming up 7 years now, it’s had amazing highs but it’s definitely had it’s lows and I wish I had been more mentally prepared for how hard it can be. As well as being a zoo keeper I rescue parrots. I currently have a very sick eclectus parrot called Billy and the last 2 years of vet visits, his behavioural ups and downs, and nearly losing him a couple of times has been close to unbearable. The combination of work stress and him being ill has already made me quit one job and nearly made me give up my zoo career altogether. I have days where I just don’t want to get out of bed for work (even though I have my dream job), I have days where I don’t want to talk to anyone and just shut myself away, I occasionally have nights where I cry myself to sleep, or struggle to sleep with all the thoughts that keep my mind busy. Sometimes I sleep for 12 hours and wake up feeling like I’ve only slept for 20 minutes. I’ve become lazy and don’t enjoy doing the things I once did. I have also lost a lot of confidence in myself and sometimes end up having anxiety attacks. I get easily frustrated and it’s put a huge toll on my relationships with friends and family. I’m constantly drained and tired, it can be a real emotional roller coaster, but I recognise what it is now and I’m starting to change the things I do and focus on me a bit more.
If any of this sounds like what you’re going through then there is a chance you are suffering with compassion fatigue and you need to start looking after you before you burn out. Don’t be scared to admit how you’re feeling and ask for help if you need it!
I don’t have all the answers about how to deal with compassion fatigue but changing something in your life to reduce stress will definitely make a difference. I made one simple decision recently to move closer to work, so I don’t have an hour commute and I have more time in the evenings to have a life, and I already feel like the weight has lifted slightly (I haven’t even moved yet). Some other things I can highly recommend are yoga and mindfulness. Yoga is great for stretching out all your muscles at the end of a hard, physically draining day (especially if you have a bad back) but the meditation side is also great for clearing your mind and letting go of all your stress to help wind down before bed. Mindfulness is great for being present in the moment and not stressing about the past or the future, it can be quite a hard practice though, I still haven’t mastered it.
Animal care is super rewarding but it’s hard not to get emotionally involved and attached to the animals you care for. If you want to pursue a career with animals I definitely recommend it, it’s amazing creating such bonds and trust with incredibly intelligent species but please be mindful and look after yourself!
If you need to take a break from your career, or give something up for a while that’s fine, it doesn’t make you a failure, it’s just that you care too much sometimes. You’re allowed take some time for you and get your mental health and well being back on track! I can guarantee you most experts/professionals have experienced this once or twice in their careers.
It’s okay to not be okay
Just don’t forget you’re amazing at what you do and you should feel proud of the difference you are making!
To learn more about compassion fatigue, what it is and get some tips on how to focus on your own well being then follow the links below…
Or to join many others and get the support you need join our Facebook group Compassion Fatigue Support Group for Animal Carers