Cat euthanasia in shelters a big factor in stress for shelter employees

Animal shelter employee
Animal shelter employee. Photo in public domain.
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“Only compassionate, empathic, loving and caring people suffer from compassion fatigue; the very people who are so vital to the animal-care field” – Charles Figley, 2006 Book: Compassion Fatigue in the Animal Care Community.

“Compassion fatigue in animal-related professions is most often considered to be a direct result of the impact of euthanasia” – Occupational Stress & Compassion Fatigue: The effects on workers in animal-related occupations by Mrs Rebekah Scotney

Compassion fatigue in animal shelters

People working in animal welfare are more likely to suffer from compassion fatigue. Veterinarians are a classic example with higher than average suicide rates. Animal rescue workers are also under increased stress. This is partly because they have personal expectations and goals which are difficult to achieve in animal rescue due to limited resources and the number of unwanted cats. There is pressure to achieve no-kill. Circumstances leads to the killing of healthy cats at shelters. The ‘euthanasia’ (killing in reality) of healthy cats in large numbers is seen by the public as dirty work and causes euthanasia related strain in workers.

For a person who cares and most animal shelter workers care, the euthanasia of animals in their care can be traumatic. There is a conflict between job satisfaction for animal welfare workers at shelters and the stress of the dry work of killing cats. It seems that shelter employees who work in the field beyond 2 years are considered survivors.


Another factor is that people working in animal shelters are predominantly young females (wrong? – tell me). Females are generally considered to be more caring. This may be learned or inherited behavior. But the fact is that if a person is more caring and drawn to work in an animal shelter they are more likely to suffer from compassion fatigue. They will also be stressed by the euthanasia of animals. They probably form relationships with some of the cats in their care. This must make it more likely that they will be stressed when these animals are euthanised. Workers who believe that they are skilled burn out faster.

Added pressure on shelter workers may come from their feeling that the public can see animal ‘shelters’ as not shelters at places where animals are euthanized. There has been a sharp decrease in the euthanasia of shelter animals over the years in the US but the numbers remain high.

Easing the stress

Shelter management also suffer from compassion fatigue. There are exceptions and examples of uncaring individuals at animal shelters. However, I am sure the vast majority care profoundly about animal welfare. What can management due to alleviate ‘euthanasia stress’ of workers? ASPCA provides guidance.

  • Exercise is a great stress reliever. I guess some sort of factored-in break to take exercise outside the work place would be beneficial.
  • Employees should feel free to discuss their feelings with management and management should be sympathetic and open. There should be no stigma associated with an employee coming forward and opening up about their feelings of stress and even suicide.
  • In this vein there could be an in-house counselling service.
  • Work times should be flexible. This gives back a degree of control to employees which helps manage stress.
  • Celebrate the successes and give awards and rewards for great work.

1 thought on “Cat euthanasia in shelters a big factor in stress for shelter employees”

  1. Those are great suggestions to really help those compassionate shelter workers. But they depend on those at the top of the tree promoting an all species ethical stance.

    In the UK, so much killing is hidden in charity based rescue. The RSPCA, The Blue Cross and the PDSA are known for very high kill rates, but are not honest about it. Try deciphering the outcome figures from the RSPCA, their figures are deliberately covert, fluffily worded when hiding the big kill rates. I am not ure they even mention the fact that they kill at all. Corporate management speak has a lot to answer for.

    Cats Protection, with its franchise system of branches depends on the ethics/morals of the branch co-ordinators as to live or die outcomes. Some branches have an auto kill policy for any stray or feral who tests positive for FeLv or FIV, no matter the condition of the cat.

    Some smaller charities are doing very good work, they don’t get much recognition, the corporate charities get the biggest donations, always, leaving smaller ones to do the best they can.

    I have known people volunteering with big and small charities get close to total breakdown due to the killing, the bullying, the immorality of those in charge. The agency of volunteers is very limited to like it or leave here.

    An RSPCA inspector took her own life a few years ago, due to the tick box killing mentality of her employers and the bullying. She saved many beings from being routinely killed.

    In the USA the shelter system seems to be evolving a bit. They are at least honest about
    how many cats are killed. Hardly anyone here even knows what No Kill is.

    This all contributes to the traumatising of volunteers who genuinely love and want to help animals. Many of our little rescues seem to be stuck in terminal negativity and bleakness.

    Hope for all species and volunteers here is lost pretty much.


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