Animal Compassion is Contagious, But So Is Compassion Fatigue

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Shelly Roche, Founder of TinyKittens in Langely, British Columbia and the adorable Aurora,

It’s been a while since I fell off. Life happens, but you gotta get back up again. This past summer I went to CatCon in Pasadena, California, and met the wonderful Shelly Roche from TinyKittens! I wrote the article below about compassion fatigue in animal rescue. How I was so ignorant of it before is beyond me. It’s really important as animal lovers we do our share to alleviate some of the pressure. A bit of a long read but one I think can be appreciated.

As animal lovers, we are addicted to animal photos and videos that dominate the Internet. If you’re like me, your social media accounts are bloated with subscriptions to a potpourri of animal channels, whether they are celebrity pets; animal rescue organizations showing the incredible life-saving work they do; personal pet pages or heartfelt feel-good videos capturing good Samaritans unexpectedly finding themselves helping out other animals in distress and need.

Behind all these stories that tug at our heartstrings prompting joy, inspiring us to donate to causes, or even taking action to foster or adopt, there is a hidden human price to be paid for providing us this invaluable education and enrichment. It’s called compassion fatigue. People in the caregiving professions are most at risk. Dr. Charles Figley at the Florida State University Traumatology Institute defines compassion fatigue as: “[e]motional exhaustion, caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals or people.”

The statistics from the first-ever survey for veterinarians by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in 2014 revealed that one in six veterinarians had admitted to having suicidal thoughts. The suicide rate for animal rescue workers is a staggering rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers, according to a study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. This statistic is comparable with the suicide rates by firefighters and police officers, compared to the national suicide average for American workers is 1.5 per 1 million.

I’ll admit I have never heard of this condition until this past June at the 5th annual CatCon convention in Pasadena, California. Shelly Roche, the founder of the cat rescue group TinyKittens in British Columbia, gave a seminar on what TinyKittens does for feral and stray cats and kittens. The theme of her presentation was compassion. Roche’s work is nothing short of phenomenal. During her presentation, she mentioned compassion fatigue. She said animal rescuers suicide rates are on par with first responders. That prompted an uncomfortable silence from the audience. As uncomfortable as I was hearing about, I felt compelled to research the topic further.

While the general public may be ignorant of it, as I was, animal caregivers are all too aware of compassion fatigue. The general public’s lack of knowledge of this condition contributes to the problem. It’s too easy and tempting to indulge in online armchair animal activist/veterinarian quarterback behind the safety of a keyboard when responding with highly critical comments to footage of heartbreaking footage of animals in need. Now couple that with animal rescuers dealing with first-hand horrific trauma of animal abuse, despite all their tireless efforts, facing the cruel realization that they cannot save them all. Veterinarians have to deal with grieving pet owners by being the bearer of the tragic news that their beloved pet didn’t make it or has a terminal disease.

“Burn out? Of course! I am crispy fried!” said Alana Miller, founder of Blind Cat Rescue and Sanctuary located in St. Pauls, North Carolina. Blind Cat Rescue (BCR) is a lifetime sanctuary for blind, FeLV and FIV positive cats since 2005. With tireless dedication and building a grassroots online social media presence, BCR now has over a million followers on their Facebook page and has managed to thrive on donations from loyal donors to help the sanctuary provide the very best care for a demographic of cats that would normally be deemed unadoptable in most shelters. When I asked Miller about work-life balance to help counter compassion fatigue, she replied, “Balance? I wish. I do now force myself to take two weeks off vacation; I would love to say that I am completely unplugged, but that is not true, but I do try to only check in 1 or 2 times a day.”

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Honey, and her blind kitty friends at Blind Cat Rescue and Sanctuary in St. Pauls, NC

Grassroots animal rescuers and caregivers like Miller never really take a day off even when they are technically taking a day off. To do this type of work and to do it well, is not for the half-hearted. It demands one hundred and ten percent sustained dedication. The best and the brightest of caregivers can succumb to compassion fatigue. Symptoms can consist of suppressed emotions; overwhelming grief and helplessness; feelings of isolation; unable to concentrate, mental and physical exhaustion; perpetual nightmares and flashbacks; neglecting yourself physically, which includes an unkempt appearance and poor hygiene; and possible substance abuse.

The silver lining to combating and overcoming compassion fatigue is now there are more support spaces than ever before. The best cure is prevention. It is vital for animal caregivers to take of themselves first and foremost. Putting themselves first means they will be better to serve the animals they seek to help. Finding positive time away to recharge is key.  There are also communities of support. Veterinary social workers are available to provide therapeutic support to overwhelmed caregivers.

In Defense of Animals – an international animal protection organization since 1983, provides telephone hotline, e-mail and chat room support. The counselors they provide have been specifically trained to help animal caregivers, as they are animal activists as well, so they empathize and can relate to what beleaguered animal caregivers are going through. The counselors can also refer callers to a list of vegan therapists for longer more extensive treatment of therapy.

Despite the very uncomfortable truths about compassion fatigue, I am glad my curiosity motivated me to learn more about it. I already admired and respected what animal caregivers and activists do, but learning about compassion fatigue, has made my respect for them go to the nth degree. I’m going to take Shelly Roche’s advice from her presentation at CatCon. She encouraged the audience to go out and help a feral or stray animal, no matter how small and share your victory with the world. More shared stories on social media can motivate people to become more involved by taking Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) classes and feeding local cat colonies in their area. Isolation is how compassion fatigue forms and festers, with more people helping out, we’re not only making a huge positive impact on animals’ lives but on our fellow humans as well.

 

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The Doctor’s In: Hot Topics in Animal Health at PetCon 2018

The Doctor Is In panelists

PetCon2018 was held last November at the Jacob Javits Center. It was a weekend-event featuring vendors, pet celebs and their owners, along with some very excellent panel discussions of varying topics to building a social media pet platform to the devastating effects overfishing for human and pet consumption is leading to the disastrous eco imbalance to ocean wildlife.

The most packed panel I witnessed was the panel for pet’s health entitled The Doctor’s In: Hot Topics in Animal Health featuring Dr. Lisa Lippman of @drlisalippman, Dr. Amy Kantor, Dr. Kendra Pope, and Melissa Trihey of @furballsInc. They covered six main topics: grain-free food, vaccinations, dental care, heartworm medication, a raw food diet, and veterinarian check-ups.

To Grain or not to grain. The veterinarians addressed the question if owners should feed pets a grain-free diet. Many people are unaware that dogs not strictly carnivores, like cats. Their dietary needs are similar to people. They need an omnivore diet with carbs and grains to stay nutritionally balanced.

Vaccinations on dogs. Overvaccination is a real concern for pet parents. The veterinarians have seen if a puppy gets the proper amount of vaccines during that young stage in their life will help reduce the need for more vaccines in the future. The procedure of titers (measurement of how many antibodies are in the animal’s blood) is expensive but effective. A sufficient amount may prevent needing additional vaccination. However, the law does not recognize titers for rabies, and if your animal bites a person, they can quarantine the animal or order the pet to be destroyed. Vaccinations for rabies must be administered regularly to stay in the state’s compliance.

Dental care. How many of us are regularly cleaning our pet’s teeth? I don’t clean Lancelot’s teeth as much as I should. The veterinarians couldn’t stress enough the importance of regular dental hygiene, starting when they are kittens and puppies. Circular motion with a pet toothbrush, wipe, etc., is the best technique to dislodge the plaque buildup. Years of oral hygiene neglect may require a professional dental cleaning – x-rays are strongly suggested before any dental cleaning. Dental disease can transfer to other vital body organs with fatal consequences. Teeth and gum care are of paramount importance! Daily or every other day.

Heartworm medication. This can be an agonizing choice for dog owners. Depending on the dog’s lifestyle will determine what heartworm medication will be best. One size does not fit all. Older or dogs with compromised immune systems may have to look for alternatives than pesticide treatments. Heartworm is debilitating if your pet contracts it. The treatment is a long process so prevention is key. The mosquito carrying disease is on the rise with pet animal rescue from disaster areas such as Puerto Rico.

The raw food diet movement. Feeding raw food is not a new concept but it has certainly gone mainstream by more companies offering raw food products for pet owners. The veterinarians strongly cautioned administering such a diet because of the risk of food poisoning like salmonella. They have seen some animals do better on a raw diet due to their unique health issues. Please speak with your veterinarian about a raw food diet.

The final question was about veterinarian checkups. How often? Once a year is sufficient until the pet becomes eight years or older. All the panelists agreed the animal should come in every six months with bloodwork to measure the function of their liver, kidney, etc. A very good discussion. I look forward to PetCon 2019.