Compassion Fatigue

by Renee Marples, RVT

compassion fatigueIf you are in the veterinary industry then you’ve been here.  It’s “that day.”  It’s the horrible, terrible, tear induced, very bad day.  It starts with a hospitalized patient’s health deteriorating overnight, or getting sprayed with anal glands in the first exam (scrub change #1,) then a non-stop bleeding ear laceration.  Jump now to fractious farm cat exams, throw in an emergency blocked cat, two back-to-back euthanasias with long term clients and round out your day with a parvovirus puppy … and there goes scrub change number two!  These days are real, those struggles are REAL and the trouble with it is that it wears down everyone in the hospital involved.

When owners walk into your hospitals they see the stress and possible chaos, but they do not see the personal struggle each employee endures each and every day.  What our clients and sometimes co-workers see is often very different to reality.  They don’t see the heartbreaking conversations with your hospitalized patient and blocked cat owners as they try and decide to continue with medical treatments, or if finances are too hard.  They don’t see the struggle as you watch your favorite clients say goodbye to their fur baby, the private breakdowns in the bathroom between appointments, or the sleepless nights wondering what else you could do help save a pet  – what else you could have done to help save another life.

The reality of veterinary medicine is we entered into this industry because we LOVE PETS!  No one, and I mean no one, tells you the truth when you start school about how much time is spent being a counselor, a friend, a shoulder to cry on or a last hope.  So what does happen to us after a few years?  Where do we go for help?  What do we need to help get through these tough times?  These are the MOST important questions we need to ask ourselves.

We have all heard of compassion fatigue, but what is it really?  The American Institute of Stress defines compassion fatigue as “..the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events. It differs from burn-out, but can co-exist. Compassion fatigue can occur due to exposure on one case or can be due to a “cumulative level of trauma.” Compassion fatigue has a rapid onset and is both mentally and physically exhausting.  

In North America, compassion fatigue is an increasing concern for veterinary professionals.  Increased daily stress, lack of support, legalities, finances and relationships impact us every single day.  The scariest part of this issue is that the suicide risk for veterinary professionals is rising every year.  This situation is real, the feelings are real, the risks are real and it is both frightening and heartbreaking.

So what can we do, not just for ourselves but for those around us?  The first thing we can do is talk!  Don’t bottle up your feelings and try to be tough all day.  Your clients will respect and cherish your commitment to them and your fur baby, they will know you cared about their four legged baby.  Talk to your co-workers about that terrible day – they will understand and more than likely are living that day with you!  Talk to family or friends, talk to others in the industry (they understand they live it too) or a professional who is trained in those situations.  Mental health awareness is key and it does not make anyone weak – I think it makes you the strongest person out there to see the stress and recognize it.

Secondly, find a source of HAPPY for you in your day.  Hug a puppy, go for a walk, read a chapter in a good book, take a five minute break to finally eat your breakfast at 4pm, put on a comedy podcast, indulge in that chocolate cake sitting in the break room and most importantly find a way in your day to breathe and recognize the need for personal time and space.  

Lastly and most importantly of all please know that YOU ARE NOT ALONE.  The daily veterinary struggle is so real – each team member is trying to find their own way through the hard times but as a TEAM we survive each day.  The struggle is real but know you are making a difference in every single life you touch each day.  We truly love you for what you do!



Renee Marples is a Registered Veterinary Technician and Hill’s Territory Manager for Hill’s Pet Nutrition Canada.  Originally from Ontario, Renee graduated from Georgian College back in 2006 and now lives in Alberta with her husband Adam and their fur babies; LuLu a 9yr old terror terrier, and Ty, a 10 yr old DSH forever-kitten.