Animal rescue workers have the highest suicide rate among American workers

I apologise if this is slightly depressing. I don’t want to add to the problem. I am keen to produce happy, upbeat stories about the domestic cat and wild cat species. However, I have to be realistic and present what I see before me in terms of news and informative articles. A recent story published this month (June 2022) encouraged me to reprise this page and update it. I can only believe that things have not improved and have possibly deteriorated since I wrote the article on Sept 21, 2017, getting on for 5 years ago.

Animal rescue worker. She looks typical: independent-minded. Photo: The picture is for illustrative purposes only and not linked to the article in any way except that all shelter workers deserve praise and a pat on the back.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

At 5.3 cases per 1 million, people involved in animal rescue have the highest suicide rate amongst all American workers. It is the same rate as police officers and firefighters (American Journal of Preventive Medicine1). The average suicide rate for American workers is 1.5 per 1 million.

For animal rescue workers it’s about compassion fatigue. Dealing with an endless supply of tragic animal welfare stories and situations. The ever-present pressure of having to euthanize healthy animals must take its toll. One animal rescue worker, Glenda Easterling, says that her husband tells her that she can’t save them all. Every day she tells herself that she can only save the ones that she can. It’s her way of limiting the emotional pressures.

The executive director of the Montgomery Humane Society, Stephen Tears, says, “We battle it all the time”. He is referring to compassion fatigue which is emotional exhaustion caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals or people.

The Montgomery Humane Society specifically deal with compassion fatigue by appointing consultants to help them through it. Compassion fatigue is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is also known as “secondary-traumatic stress disorder” (STSD).

It can lead to depression and possible suicidal thoughts. Easterling refers to a dog that had to be euthanized. She was obviously attached to this dog because she says that she was a sweetie. The dog was at her shelter for a long time and contracted distemper and had to be euthanized.

Both Easterling and another animal rescue worker, Heather Hogan, agree that you have to focus on the positives and find a balance to your life. I suppose what they mean is there is a lot of difficulties in working in an animal shelter and you have to balance that with some positives and a more normal life outside of work.

I would like to make a point myself. The sort of people who work in animal rescue are going to be sensitive, decent and kind people. They are going to be the kind of people who care by which I mean genuinely care about the welfare of animals. They are ‘called’ to the work. It is a vocation. Therefore, animal rescue workers can be particularly vulnerable to the potential unhappiness that the work can create. I also believe that life in general is tougher for people who care about animal welfare even if they are not working in animal rescue.

Tears says that workers in the animal rescue sector are not working for money. They are working to help save lives and it is therefore incredibly draining on emotions.

Another person in the animal rescue sector, Tonya Pitts, the animal care manager at the Montgomery Humane Society, echoes what her colleagues have stated. She says that you have to stay focused and you can only do your best. My interpretation is that she is saying is that you can’t allow yourself to be put under too much pressure to try and do the impossible because if you do you will simply hurt yourself psychologically.

Symptoms of a person suffering from passion fatigue include, isolation from others, poor self-care in respect of appearance and hygiene, difficulty concentrating, being preoccupied, being in denial about problems, excessive blaming and bottling up emotions.

Here’s some numbers:

  • The statistics indicate that females suffer more than males. For example, 6.8% of males and 10.9% of females in the animal rescue sector suffer from serious psychological distress. This is in comparison to 3.5% and 4.4% of American male and female adults generally. Note: 86% of people in animal welfare-related professions are women with an average age of 35. On average they work 5.5 years in the profession (
  • Within the veterinary profession, 24.5% of men and 36.7% of women have experienced periods of depression since leaving veterinary school. This is about 1.5 times the average rate amongst US adults.
  • Amongst veterinarians, considering suicide is three times the US national mean.
  • Attempted suicide amongst those working in the veterinary sector are at 1.1% for men and 1.4% for women.

The statistics are the result of an anonymous online survey from the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, Oberon University and the CDC. Source: The Montgomery Advertiser.

Burn out amongst animal rescue workers is discussed in an article I have just written:

Animal shelter workers who believe they are gifted and skilled burn out faster

Source: Montgomery Advertiser.

1. I have visited this organisation’s website and failed to find the study on that site probably due to a poor search engine.

Update 11th June 2022: In a very similar profession, veterinarians, it is stated that Australian veterinarians are undergoing a “mental health crisis” according to the Australian Associated Press report of Saturday, 11 June 2022. Research apparently revealed that almost 70% of veterinarians in Australia have lost a colleague or peer to suicide and about 60% have sought professional help for their mental health.

The former national president of the Australian Veterinary Association, Dr. Warwick Vale, revealed that she had herself struggled with mental illness and had close colleagues who had taken their lives. The figures mentioned come as no surprise to her.

Another research study revealed that about 67% of vets have experienced a mental health condition at some point in Australia. The problem is worsening. They put it down to increased client demands, increased costs of running a business, dealing with people who can’t afford to pay their bills and a change in attitudes by the public to veterinary care.

It appears that the job of a veterinarian in Australia is not a good one as they are not even well compensated for the hassle have to put up with as sometimes 12-hour days without lunch breaks result in earnings of AU$50,000 annually. The pay is poor for the amount of work and mental stress endured.

Below are some more articles on the topic of ‘suicide’.

Please search using the search box at the top of the site. You are bound to find what you are looking for.

Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

49 thoughts on “Animal rescue workers have the highest suicide rate among American workers”

  1. The trouble is, animal rescuers focus on the sad cases and forget the positive ones. Focus on the positive ones and know that the animals are so much better off than they would have been had you not been there to help with a lot. When the sad ones happen remember the positive ones and how many you’ve helped. And if any of you feel suicidal, remember what a sad place the world would be without you. I feel so much admiration for people who work in welfare. You must tell someone if you feel suicidal. Phone the samaritans if you don’t feel you can tell someone close.

  2. I worked for a vet clinic as an assistant for 2 and a half year.
    The heartless owners that came in would blow my mind. I remember a very very tragic incident it was the Memorial Day weekend 2010, a very angry man came in with a very small poodle. The poodle was infested with fleas and was injured because her owner was not kind to this sweetheart at all. Her teeth were very poorly cared for she was skinny and not to mention old. She was so sweet and she was brought in because she “fell” down a good amount of stairs.
    Doc and I examined her and he had several broken ribs and internal bleeding. We think he had beat her the threw her down the stairs.
    Well he brought her in and he gave him the results of the xrays and he told up just put her down he didn’t care. I held this baby and cried and told her I loved her as there wasn’t anything we could do. She was suffering. I consoled her and held her. And cried because of the pain this animal and endured at the hands of this man. Doc had euthanized her as I held her and loved on her until she took her last breath.
    I remember doc asked the man if he wanted her cremated or wanted to bury her himself and he told us it’s just a dog throw it away.
    I asked doc if I could have a box for her and if I could leave to give her a proper burial. I did and it stuck with me all these years at how hurt angry and then depressed I became that this sweetheart had been beaten and abused for who knows how long and there was nothing I wanted more than to give that SOB a taste of his own treatment.
    It broke my heart at the things I would see with animals coming into the clinic and I wished I could have saved every single one of the unwanted and uncared for babies.
    I realized though that it’s impossible to do that but I looked forward to the successes I did have at the clinic.
    I’m greatly appreciative of the rescue work others are still doing to save just one soul from the cruel hands of this world. GOD BLESS YOU AND BLESS THE ANIMALS

  3. Working in animal rescue is like trying to empty the ocean, with a TEASPOON.
    But I will keep fighting the fight and giving the voiceless a voice!

  4. I love animals more than I LIKE most people. I suffered the loss of two of my cats within 9 months…one virtually overnight, and one after fighting kidney disease valiantly for two years, giving sub Q fluids at home. The former was 12 years old, the latter over 19. I can say that these deaths ripped my heart out more than any human death I ever experienced. Only a true animal lover will understand that. (Of course, my childhood was filled with abuse, that didn’t help, and I grew up with my first cat Dinky) Animals love unconditionally. If they are abused, 99% of them will look at another human with hope, and give the human race a second chance. Most human beings wont give another human being even a first chance. I started out with 5 cats here…now I’m down to 3. Being 69, I won’t add to the group, they are 17, 12 and 10 now…when Mother Nature takes them, I will approach our local shelter and see about taking one of the “Last Hope” cats that have been overlooked, or are sick, and they want a home where they can be loved for the rest of their days. And for all the animal abusers out there, especially at this time of Halloween, Karma (and God) will make sure you get the punishment you so surely deserve for abusing His creatures. For those of you that care so endlessly for the innocent…stay strong. Concentrate on the successes. They may be fewer than the losses…try really hard to concentrate on the ones that make it. You CAN’T save them all…remember the story of all the starfish on the beach…The grandfather said to the grandson…you can’t possibly save all of them son. The boy picked one up and threw it back into the sea and said “Made a difference to that one grandpa”. with love to all of you that try….<3

    1. Thank you Donna for your wise words. I too have suffered just like you on the loss of my cats. On each occasion the pain was more than when my parents died or my sister died. One particular cat died in 1994. I loved this cat particularly fiercely. I think of her quite often even today 24 years later. I never truly got over the loss. I don’t expect to.

      1. Cats & dogs have short lifespans & if treated right they are very loving creatures. We put a lot of our emotions on these pets and when they die we are devastated! Learning to let go of them is tough but you can do that by knowing they helped you and now are at peace. If you can adopt another one. Keeps the cycle going. There is always another one who needs care & is willing to be your friend for life.

  5. Wrote about this in 2002 in my book Bridging the Bond (Purdue UP). Shelter workers enter the work with a lot of their own trauma and then take on more pain in their work. Glad to see the topic is still being discussed, but my book is pretty old now! Seems like more would have been done. Thanks for the article post, and keep talking about it.

    1. Thanks a lot Tami for commenting. I will certainly look up your book and probably buy it because it is a subject which interests me and many other people. I’m interested in the point that you make that shelter workers enter their work with a lot of their own trauma. It seems that you are saying that they bring their own problems to work (as many people do) and work at the shelter can exacerbate those problems rather than help to ameliorate them.

  6. I have worked in animal rescue for many years. As a result of seeing the cruelty that exists in the world, I started a Nonprofit animal sanctuary, became an animal activist, and host annual habitat clean up projects. Although at times its depressing and heartbreaking, I get the privilege to look into the eyes of several animals who would not have survived without the help they needed. I may not change the life of every animal but I have changed the lives of many. I have found that if I harness the sadness and anger, it becomes the strength I need to speak out more, do more, and become more active. There are many days that take a toll on you, and no matter how much you do it seems that its not enough. To all those that rescue, Thank you and hang in there. You’re not alone.

    1. Darlene Marie Stone

      I have witnessed more euthanasias than I would ever want to admit, working in animal emergency in Nashville TN. I’ve had to stand in for owners when they couldn’t be there for their pet. (Always whispering to them that they did a good job while here, were loved dearly, and not be afraid to let go). I have seen abuse cases first hand. I have also seen animals that needed humane euthanasia, but their owners could not let go. This is not an easy job by any means. I am 56 and I never want this industry to numb my emotions to a point where I do not have tears to cry for an animal that is leaving this world. I think that would be my breaking point.

      1. Thank you very much, Darlene, for commenting. I found your comment interesting. If you would like to expand on it, it would please me. For example, how many cat owners do not attend the euthanasia of their cat? Also, how many times you meet a situation where a cat needs to be euthanised but the cat’s owner cannot let go and waits to long? And also what kind of percentage of cases are concerned with abuse. I would love to hear your views on these topics.

    2. Thank you Rena for what you do rescuing animals. Like you I got involved with animal rescue after seeing so many animals suffer from human’s cruelty.

  7. I applaude all of you who had the decency and the sensitivy to speak out your opinions on behalf of the animals. I can certainly agree about the feeling of depression, despair and hurt from regularly working with animals who suffer. Whoever work to help the animals in any way possible are a hero to me. As for myself , being a very sensitive, idealistic and compassionate person towards everyone (especially the animals as they have no voice and are vulnerable to humans unconsciousness), the shelters are not a place for me, at least for now, unless I would accept that I can’t save all of them and be able to go home leaving the hurt behind so I can keep sane. However, right now I do my part to help them out. Besides participating fr time to time in SPCA fundraising, I became Vegan, so at least I am not participating in the suffering of any animals raised for food. We call all do that as the benefit are huge (for the animals, our health, the environment and our spirituality). And that is empowering because I have some peace of mind that I am consistent with my values by my actions. And I do make a difference among people to whom I talked to about the respect of the animals and starting on the most responsible way we can which is with our daily meals. People are asking me to give a workshop on health issues so I never miss an opportunity to speak on behalf of animals.When people start to adopt a plant based diet, their view change in regards to the animals, and eventually, there will be less animals in shelters due to a greater consciousness from humans. I am continually recommending people a great book, in my opinion, everyone should read; It is called “The World Peace Diet ” by Will Tuttle. Hear him out on You Tube for a summary of his book on video. I can promise that all of you, who care about animals, would be touched and encouraged by his wisdom and compassion. The key is to stay positive, no matter what you- do something, anything ( how small that might seem to be) . I respect all of you who are concerned about animal welfare and lift my hat to those who are able to alleviate the pain of the animals in shelters. Much Love to you all.

      1. Yes of course Michael for you to use my comment into an article. Please let me know when you do. And thank you in advance to correct any typo mistakes I may have made !!! 🙂

    1. Miriam, I so admire you, as I do most of the other people posting here. I was once vegan for a while, and I so wish I could go back to that, but it may be impossible now. ?

      1. Thank you Carol for your kind words. I don’t know your circumstances for not being able to be vegan again but I will pray and send you positive energy for your present condition to change. Blessings to you.

  8. I have been doing extensive TNVR – Trap/Neuter/Vaccinate/Release in the Raleigh, NC area for over 11 years. I can personally attest to the exhaustion and feeling of dread in trying to ward off overpopulation that eventually leads to death.
    I have trapped literally hundreds and pulled more kittens than I can count out of these colonies. My saving grace is that I work with several wonderful organizations in our area to place these kittens and I have access to free spay/neuter/vaccinations as a result of volunteering at a local monthly clinic. I make rounds to feed before, during, and after work and feed over 100 cats a day. All out of pocket, with the exception of very generous donations that occasionally come my way. It is mentally and physically fatiguing and the demand never ends, because the price of walking away is too high. I am angry about the mentality that allows the overpopulation to occur and I am angry that the laws don’t do enough to protect the animals. I am angry that the hundreds of people that see me making my daily rounds offer practically no help – financially or otherwise. My saving grace is the relationships that I have made with like minded people. THAT is what I try to hold onto. Most others do not understand and, even worse, ridicule what I do. It’s pretty disheartening and emotionally draining. However, I do agree with the statement about feeling this was a calling. I have been in the “right” place more times than I can count to save animals in jeopardy and I have the intelligence and stamina to keep pushing through to keep making a difference. HOWEVER – I totally understand and can relate to the depression. It’s a constant battle of exhaustion, heartache, and being constantly broke. A pretty bad combination that gets to me more and more as time goes on. In the meantime I and my like minded allies keep putting up the good fight. It certainly is not easy and I empathize completely with those who have commented that find themselves in similar circumstances.

    1. Many thanks, Cheryl, for your excellent comment. I can feel the struggle you have. You have to help these cats but in this world it can hurt to do that. People who care a going to hurt more. I’d like to convert your comment to an article if I may. Can you upload a photo of yourself or of the colony, something like that?

  9. The part of animal welfare that I find most stressful is the people aspect of animal welfare. I am a people person, I want to help everyone find the solution to their problem. When I have to tell people I can’t take their beloved animal into our rescue because I am full is what I find the hardest to deal with. That person comes to us because they know we care, they know we would not senselessly euthanize their loved pet. When that person comes to tears in our lobby or on the phone because they have no other option but to surrender their pet.

    Another thing I find stressful is people bashing other people. Being a resource to one another, rescuer or not, is most important.

    You can’t imagine how difficult it is to be the person to push the needle into an animal, suffering or not, aggressive or not, unless you have done it. Not all euthanasia is senseless, it is never easy even if it’s the best thing for the animal. But people attacking one another does not help. It is so much better to support and offer assistance in finding another way.

    I know I’m rambling. But. For instance I see people smack their dog for misbehaving pretty often. Some people would scold that owner, many people would yell at that owner. Instead of scolding I show the person a different method. ‘hold this treat in front of his nose and move him into the down position gently’ I would say.

    You can use the same method of ‘training’ the people who aren’t as progressive yet.

    Labeling people as killers is what breaks them down to the point that they can no longer see outside the box.

    Yes, we see a lot of heartbreaking things, but in most cases we have to remember that most abuse and most neglect is unintentional. Most people don’t seek out to hurt an animal.

    I have worked in animal welfare for the most part of 15 years. For those that know me I think I look younger then what I am! Last summer I took a break and drove for Uber, no animal stuff but my pets (for the most part)!


    1. AbbyandSadiesMom/USA

      Valerie, you are spot on in your assessment of people criticizing other people. I’ve been working in our local no-kill shelter going on ten years and some stories would bring you to tears. What keeps me going is knowing that if I were not there, along with my peers, what would happen to these poor lost souls? With our manager’s blessing, volunteers periodically take time off to do something outside of the shelter. It’s all a matter of balance. I’m returning after almost a month off, although it was due to illness that has since been resolved. It’s still the same; time away from the shelter gives one a better perspective. In the case of having to turn someone away when we’re full, we have a two-page list of other area shelters that we hand out. We also have a “private adoption” section on our website where owners needing to relinquish their animal may post. It has nothing to do with the shelter other than giving that person exposure. The adoption itself is private, but we do give people tips to ensure the potential adopter is qualified and giving that animal a loving home.

  10. After 40 years, it’s left me with a genuine hatred and mistrust of the human race. While I acknowledge that most humans are decent and don’t knowingly inflict suffering on animals, the apathy and ignorance of many can be hard to bear.

    1. Linda, I feel exactly the same way so you are not alone with your thoughts. In fact there are many people like us. Thanks for commenting.

    2. There is a visible and distinct attitude when it comes to cats, stray cats and feral cats in public shelters as opposed to getting dogs adopted. Our local shelter will move heaven and earth to rehome a dog that has aggression issues either to humans or livestock but any cat that ‘seems’ feral will get the needle right away. In fact I can’t recall the last time our local shelter had a cat up for adoption.

      1. That was the attitude of the past president of our humane society. I launched a project to build a cat porch, with the approval of the rest of the Board. She harrassed and bullied me, called me at night to accuse me of conspiring against her. The cat porch is lovely and has so improved the quality of the shelter cats’ lives. I don’t regret having endured her abuse, but it took a toll on my health. I left the Board and now do TNR with some financial support from friends. Ferals still don’t have a chance if they end up in the shelter. We drive a 3-hour round trip to a low-cost S/N clinic because the two veterinary clinics here won’t budge on their fees. I could go on . . . . Sigh.

    3. I completely understand what you say, Linda. I think that we have so much tolerance within us and then you can take no more. You get to burnout. This is why older people retreat into their homes and become less adventurous and more like hermits. They become reclusive because they have had enough of the behaviour of humankind.

  11. I no longer participate in animal rescue. Mentally I’m at the point where I’m going to just pick up a 2×4 and assault the abuser.
    I have seen too many things I simply cannot un-see.
    The rescue end is not the issue it’s what happens, or usually doesn’t happen when the abuse in the legal system. Even people with badges and legal authority see that little happens despite their best efforts.

    1. You’re on the right track. There are a number of ways to help.
      Expose and assist in bad shelters, bad rescues and scams.
      Fundraise for good rescues.
      Pressure for better legislation……..
      This is a national crisis. It needs to be dealt with at a national level.

  12. I’ve had bouts of compassion fatigue and yeah, it is too painful sometimes. I get that, but the directors’ name is “Tears”? I hate that.

    1. Albert, in some ways I would love to work in the animal rescue sector but I’m not sure that I could do it because I’m too sensitive really to animal suffering. It hurts me too much. I think it can damage me psychologically. Just looking at some pictures on the Internet of animal suffering can cause problems because sometimes these images remain in my memory and they come forward and present themselves to me out of the blue.

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