By Drs .Gregory K. Ogilvie and Antony S. Moore

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is the reason many caring, compassionate veterinarians, nurses, receptionists, and other caregivers leave the profession. The desire to leave the veterinary profession can strike at any age but seems to occur most often when a person is at the height of his or her professional career as a caregiver. Awareness and understanding of this condition are essential in its prevention and treatment and in maintaining the health of the team.

When we find ourselves giving without adequately replenishing ourselves, it is only a matter of time before we experience a shortage of compassion and a sense of fatigue. Simply put, compassion fatigue occurs when we have depleted our emotional resources as we care for others.

Compassion fatigue is triggered by one or more emotionally charged events (called critical incidents) at a time when one’s emotional resources are exhausted. Extreme examples are the experiences of those who identified or provided care to people or animals killed or injured in the September 11 World Trade Center disaster or to the search-and-rescue dogs involved in the recovery efforts; more commonplace examples include performing and experiencing euthanasia, helping an owner through the loss of a pet, informing a caregiver that his or her pet has cancer, providing terminal patient care, and discussing the financial affordability of care.

The following feelings or thoughts are sometimes associated with compassion fatigue:

 • Avoidance of thoughts, feelings, activities, or situations that remind one of a frightening experience

• Feeling estranged from other members of the veterinary health care team or feeling that there is no one to talk to

• Difficulty falling or staying asleep, especially when loss of sleep is related to memories or experiences being played over and over in one’s mind

• Outbursts of anger or irritability with little provocation

• Needing to “work through” a traumatic experience associated with a patient or client to get over the event

• Being preoccupied with a previous critical incident or with specific patients or their caregivers

• Loss of concern about the well-being of coworkers, patients, and caregivers

• Feeling trapped, hopeless, edgy, weak, tired, rundown, or depressed

• Desire to avoid certain patients and their caregivers

• Feeling disliked by clients and their families

• Inability to separate work and personal life

• Feeling like one works more for the money than for personal fulfillment

• Feelings of failure

When we employ compassion in caring for our patients, we must do so by expressing empathy, yet the act of empathizing with our clients can lead to compassion fatigue. When any member of the veterinary health care team finds him- or herself giving without allowing him- or herself to be replenished emotionally, it is only a matter of time before there will be a shortage of compassion.

Simply put, compassion fatigue results when there is a depletion of internal emotional resources as we care and provide compassion for others. This depletion is not a reflection of the character, professionalism, or skill level of the team member. Rather, one’s strength and willingness to be emotionally engaged with another being is affected. The success of veterinary care stems from providing this level of compassionate care and supporting the individuals who provide it. By appreciating the reality of compassion fatigue and providing mechanisms to mitigate its effects, a practice can thrive by providing the finest in compassionate care.

Dr.  Gregory K. Ogilvie works to be a worthy disciple of Jesus Christ while being a husband, father, friend, veterinarian, and teacher. Greg is director of the Angel Care Cancer Center at California Veterinary Specialists and is Division Director of Veterinary Oncology at the University of California San Diego Moores Cancer Center.   Dr. Ogilvie lectures to thousands of veterinary students, physicians, graduate veterinarians and scientists each year from around the world. He has also been a guest speaker for CVM events. 

Dr. Antony Moore is the Co-Director at Veterinary Oncology Consultants in Australia

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