Shelter Workers, PTSD, and Compassion Fatigue

by Elisa Black-Taylor
(USA)

Good morning readers…..When I began doing research on those involved in animal euthanasia, whether at the hands of a shelter worker, to those of us simply reading the descriptions of what took place, something went off in my head. I know it’s horrible for those of us who read about animal deaths, but what about those who make the decision to euthanize shelter pets and those who have to follow through on those orders.

Today I’d like to talk about shelter workers and the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and the compassion fatigue they experience.

How are they affected by all of the euthanasia? Every day without fail. Add dog and cat abuse to the euthanasia issue and I truly don’t see how the shelter workers mentally handle it all.

I’d also like to explain some of the day to day problems faced by the shelter workers, all who love cats and dogs and get caught up in the emotional aspects of finding an animal a home or being faced with watching it die.

Animals turned into shelters aren’t always the most adoptable of pets. And they don’t always have a nice trip to arrive at the shelter. Some have suffered abuse. Many kittens or puppies are placed in a box and left by the front door, regardless of the outside temperature. Dogs and cats both are turned in with behavior issues that must be addressed before putting the pets up for adoption. Many are turned in with no issues at all. They’re simply unwanted.

Shelter workers face a phone that is always ringing, educating the public about the benefit of spay/neuter programs, encouraging volunteers to help with the day to day cleaning and caring for the animals. And all the while trying not to fall in love with a cat or dog they may later be forced to euthanize due to a lack or space or a behavioral problem that can’t be corrected. Many of these shelter workers already have as many rescues at home as they can handle.

These are issues almost every shelter is faced with on a daily basis.

Don’t EVER think the shelter workers don’t love and care for these animals because most do. Yes, there are still shelters out there out there that aren’t “no kill” But don’t blame the number of animals dying by lethal injection on the people who do their best to save them.

This is a community problem. Of people who won’t spay/neuter their pets. One litter is too many for a dog or cat to have before “fixing” the problem. So don’t go blaming the shelter employees for putting your “mama cat” to sleep when you deliver her and her 5 kittens to the neighborhood shelter because you don’t have the time to find them a home.

Psychology Today issue November/December 1998 stated that shelter workers who have to euthanize animals as a regular part of their jobs suffer a wide range of distressing reactions, including grief, anger, nightmares and depression. This leads to sleepless nights and crying spells. Many shelters employees are known to have breakdowns in the euthanasia room because they feel so helpless to stop to circle of death faced on a daily basis. See for example: The Other Victims: Slaughterhouse Workers and Others Who Kill Animals (opens in a new window).

Shelter workers responsible for carrying out the euthanasia or in giving the euthanasia orders are likely to suffer from traumatic stress and compassion fatigue. While post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is experienced mainly to those the event is happening to (the animals), compassion fatigue is the correct term for the abundance of emotions experienced by shelter workers who care what happens to each and every pet. In the medical world this type of stress is called secondary traumatic stress.

I’m not sure I agree in the difference of these two terms, but for the sake of clarity I wanted to mention the differences.

Animal shelter workers with secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue exhibit the same set of symptoms. These include recurrent nightmares, recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the trauma, flashback episodes, intense psychological distress at exposure to cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event, restricted range of feelings (i.e. blocking feelings), difficulty falling or staying asleep, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, hyper vigilance and exaggerated startle response. Impact on Shelter and Animal Control Staff of euthanizing animals (opens in a new window).

I invite all of those involved in shelter work euthanasia, either director or workers, to comment at the end of this article. How do you deal with the compassion fatigue? Please let us know. Because it’s difficult enough for the readers here to read about what you go through on a daily basis.

Let us also group the crossposters and rescue organizations and transporters in a subgroup possibly experiencing these disorders. While not making the actual decisions, there are definitely involved.

This will include the crossposters who use their websites to race the clock and try to find a home for the animals on death row. How are they affected, even though they aren’t the ones calling the shots or administering the injection, when an animal runs out of time and is euthanized.

Then there are the rescuers, ready and willing to take an animal is they or a transporter are willing to help deliver the pet to safety. I’ve been their posts after an animal has reached the end of the line and no rescue has come. How are these groups affected by needless death. Please feel free to comment on this article.

And last, I like to hear from the average reader who is overwhelmed with reading of the the bad things that happen to animals. Not just in the shelters, but in the world in general. How do each of you cope. The easiest way to cope would be to stop reading. Unfortunately, that won’t make the bad go away.

Once people like us stop caring, game over. The animals who need us won’t stand a chance.

As a writer, I’m glad to share my method of dealing with all that I read. Between my P.E.T.A. Alerts, ASPCA, Pet Abuse.com, and my many friends reporting the abuse taking place around the world, I get overwhelmed. When things get too stressful, I’ll search out a good story and write of it. It helps me to go back and give my attention to the bad. For one thing I don’t want the readers to see my name and always think of a depressing story. Thank would be too depressing. I like to write the funny. The good. Even though they are few and far between.

I still can’t look at horrific photos and stay away from some issues (such as crush videos). I’m sorry, but I’m human like the rest of you and there are some things I can’t look at.

I hope you’re enjoyed this article. I did it because I’ve seen too much of the euthanasia blame put on shelter workers and wondered how euthanasia affects them mentally. I hope they’ll share their thoughts with us.

I’ve also learned PTSD and compassion fatigue are two different diagnoses with many of the same symptons.

I think most of us who loved animals and are concerned about their welfare suffer from compassion fatigue. Now we know the term to research pertaining to out own lives.

Elisa

From Shelter Workers, PTSD, and Compassion Fatigue to Articles of Elisa Black-Taylor

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Shelter Workers, PTSD, and Compassion Fatigue

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Mar 20, 2012
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Good Info NEW
by: GimmeShelters.org

I enjoyed (well best I could) your article. It gives true insight to what goes on in a shelter. People need to hear and maybe they’ll choose to adopt more often than not out of their tax supported facility.

I will keep you bookmarked.

Jen


Mar 20, 2012
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Good Info NEW
by: GimmeShelters.org

I enjoyed (well best I could) your article. It gives true insight to what goes on in a shelter. People need to hear and maybe they’ll choose to adopt more often than not out of their tax supported facility.

I will keep you bookmarked.

Jen


Feb 14, 2011
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PTSD Shelter animals- euthanasia
by: Anonymous

Thank you for your article regarding PTSD in animal shelter workers. I’m from Australia and 10 months ago I was assaulted whilst on duty and have been suffering from PTSD since. Some of the symptoms I have were from prior to the assualt and only recently it is understood the PTSD started when I was working for the same employer however in animal control and had to participate in euthanasia duties. This was not in our position descriptions and our job is considered high stress level as it is. I have never minded assisting with euthanasia for old and/or very ill animals as like to comfort them, but when animals are healthy and well behaved I found it very difficult and so did my fellow workers.


Oct 16, 2010
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Senior moment
by: Ruth

Sorry I should have said ’empathise’ lol
Must have had a senior moment !


Oct 16, 2010
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To Kathy
by: Ruth

Kathy I can emphasise with you. Some of the excuses people made to have their pets euthanised were pathetic.
One day a man came in with a beautiful healthy young dog, we always had to ask permission to try to find a home rather than kill the animal.
I couldn’t believe it when he refused saying his wife had died so why should the dog stay alive.
I told him to think again and that the dog would bring him comfort but he wouldn’t listen.
He stood and watched while we did the job too !
Another time a healthy poodle puppy I knew someone would definately take, had to die because the ‘owner’ said so.
You can’t forget it can you, even years later I have nightmares sometimes about the awful things I saw.
I’m just glad our vets would never declaw cats.
I can imagine how you feel about that !

Kattaddorra signature Ruth


Oct 15, 2010
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I agree
by: kathy

I totally agree with all your observations. Its too bad they dont apply to all animal shelter workerl. Like the ones at that research center. I still feel bad for all the cats that were declawed at the vets office I worked at. Also there was one dog that came in to be euthuensized. I knew this dog and his owner from the grooming shop I had worked at previously. The man had no reason to have this little wirehaired terrier put to sleep. He claimed he was just tired of him. Cold, Heartless, he just brought the dog in and left with out even a second thought or look back. Ill never forget that as long as I live. Or all the poor cats with those bloody bandages on their paws.


Oct 15, 2010
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Elisa
by: Edward

Im with you there man,our Ruth is one in a million and a million of us love her as well.
Ed


Oct 12, 2010
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To Elisa
by: Ruth

THANK YOU !
Your lovely words have touched me deeply !
You have made the sun shine for me on a gloomy day and I love you too and all the others who battle daily in various ways against the odds to improve or save the lives of animals.

Kattaddorra signature Ruth


Oct 11, 2010
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Ruth
by: Elisa Black-Taylor

You’re the best. We love you. We and the cats couldn’t live without you. You do what must be done. Did I mention we love you. You’re the greatest. Enough said!!


Oct 11, 2010
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Toll on Shelter Works
by: Gail (Boston, MA USA)

Another great article Elisa! The toll on shelter workers, especially those in high-kill shelters, is enormous and yet the volunteers bravely go day after day to try and save these wonderful creatures.

To the ACO contributor, is there any way to possibly change your high-kill shelter to a no-kill any time soon? The shelter that I volunteer at is 100% volunteer/100% NO KILL but that took a lot of work and dedication from local citizens long before I joined. If you scroll to the bottom of our website, you will see how the shelter is designated. Perhaps your local folks could do something similar?
)

As for leaving animals, nearly every week we come in for the morning shift and find that someone has left a cat in a carrier, or a dog tied up to the post at the front door of the shelter. This is horrible, especially since we are more than willing to take in the animal during normal hours, which are clearly posted on the front door! This will be my 1st winter at the shelter and I am hoping that people will be a bit more compassionate than we have seen, but I guess that’s dreaming. So sad.


Oct 11, 2010
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Heroes in my book
by: Clive

Excellent article. We don’t stop to think how this affects animal-lovers who give their all at animal shelters. I was recently involved when I complained about the treatment a chained dog in a neighboring yard got for the last two years of his life. Watching him as he slowly died inside, (and subsequently was euthenized), was emotionally traumatic for me. How much more so must it be for the heroes who do this work day after day? Veterinary Surgeons are now in a high-risk group for suicide because of these stresses.

Obviously we have too many unwanted animals. How to stop it? Spay and neuter, yes, but eliminate back-yard breeders too. Spread the word…”DON”T BUY….ADOPT”, Drive the trashy back-yard breeders out of business. Insist that box-stores which sell pups only find homes for shelter animals; or, if they refuse, boycott them. Very few of the shelter animals are not adoptable …. most are just dying to give unconditional love in forever homes.


Oct 10, 2010
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A hard path to follow
by: Ruth

Having worked for vets and volunteered in Rescue Shelters all of my adult life I can well understand the stress and heartache of watching healthy animals die because no one wants them.
I’m fortunate in that they’ve all been no kill Shelters here but vet nursing it was an almost daily occurence helping in the killing of unwanted cats and dogs and litters of unwanted kittens and puppies.
It was impossible to find homes for them all although I did my best to save as many as I could.
Looking back now it was the wrong career for me because I felt too much, but once there I stayed hoping to do some good and although I could keep my emotions hidden while working I would collapse into tears at home. I worked with vets and other nurses and staff who could ‘switch off’ to the heartbreak and I suppose to stay sane that’s what you have to do.
Now I’m past much helping animals physically but fighting animal abuse on-line is very draining and there are times I feel I can’t do it any more.
But I can’t give it up, if we all give up there will be no one !
But it’s a very hard path to follow.

Kattaddorra signature Ruth


Oct 09, 2010
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Cat Euthanasia and the human emotional factor.
by: Rudolph.A.Furtado

An excellent article on the trauma of workers and staff working in “Pet Euthanasia hospitals”. Ultimately, its we pet owners who are responsible for the prevention and prolifigation of feral, stray and unwanted pets ultimately resulting in Euthanasia of these helpless animals. Following a strict format of responsible breeding as well as pet ownership will drastically reduce the amount of unwanted pets being euthanised at pet shelters.People working at animal hospitals euthanising cats definitely have feeling towards these animals and hence would suffer some psychological repercussions through their actions, which is a part of their normal job. My request as a responsible pet owner is , “PLEASE BREED YOUR PETS RESPONSIBLY TO PREVENT EXCESS ABANDONED UNWANTED PETS”.”.


Oct 09, 2010
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Animal control staff
by: Anonymous

I rescue, foster, transport homeless dogs. I volunteer with 3 rescues and foster and help raise donations also. I am also a volunteer at my local HIGH KILL shelter. I have been volunteering there for the past 2 yrs and it has been so educational. I have learned 1. ACO’s do not go looking for animals to kill. 2. Staff do love animals or they could not work there. 3 It is not their fault that the public does not care about animals enough to alter them and provide vet cate. PTSD is real. I have seen it. For rescue people like me it is an on going rush to save. A life that allows you very little normal privaledges but with every good adoption a renewed determination to go on.


Oct 09, 2010
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Tough stuff …tough love
by: Susie Bearder

A very interesting and telling it how it is article.



Comments

Shelter Workers, PTSD, and Compassion Fatigue — 4 Comments

  1. I just wanted to thank you for your article. I work at an animal shelter and as part of my daily duties I must euthanize those that are marked to go for the day. I’ve had many sleepless nights over this and have gone home in tears on several occasions. I’ve broken down many times while performing this task an have even gone home and put a gun to my head contemplating ending everything. I was unable to go through with due to the fact that I feel it’s my duty to care for these loving animals no matter the cost to my own mental health. As far as how I deal with it well you really can’t without some form of medication. at least I can’t. But no one really knows what we go through. I’ve been called a murderer by people of the public and after so many times hearing that you start to believe it. I don’t know what the future will hold for me or the state of my mental health, all I know is I can’t stop doing my job because fit the pets I do save, it means the world.

    • Thanks, Eric, for sharing. Although, your comment is haunting and distressing. I wish you the best. I not sure you should stay working there. Your own health is the first priority.

  2. I am the founder/director of a non-profit organization and suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. It took a long time to realize that I can’t save them all and struggle daily when I have to turn away so many animals. I have witnessed the worst of the worst and tell myself that I must walk away from this or it’s going to kill me. I know that sounds drastic, but there really are times that I am afraid that the day to day stress may just do me in. But I go on and continue to save as many as we reasonably can and know that we have made a difference for so many animals. But in addition to pulling the dogs from shelters, finding foster homes for them to go safely into, getting any vetting and medical needs addressed, we must then deal with potential adopters and literally work 7 days a week. We process applications and do our due diligence by checking vet references, doing home checks, etc., and pray that we have made the best decision and placed the dogs in the right homes. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and sometimes we have to turn people down. I have been called names, cussed at, and verbally abused more times that I can count. But yet I go on. I just hope one day I can get back to a “normal” life and that someone will fill my shoes and help the animals. Better yet, it would be nice if we in rescue were not needed and everyone got their pets spayed and neutered. But yes, burned out, ptsd, feeling defeated at times and wanting to give up are very real.

    • Louise, thank you for your very honest and informative comment. It is people like you, people with a genuinely good heart who wish to help who mop up the damage done by the irresponsible people, the careless people, the people who don’t care about animal welfare and worse. It is the good people, the decent people who have to mop up the mess and care for animals who have been neglected and abused by the bad people.

      Then the good people become stressed because they try and do the impossible almost. It is impossible to rectify all the wrongs done by the bad people with respect animal welfare. You are right. You have to limit what you can do for the sake of your own health. It is hard for you because your heart tells you to help and there is no limit to that desire but then the brain has to step in and say enough is enough, there must be a limit. Well done. Look after yourself and take care.

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