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Compassion Fatigue: What Is It and How Do Vet Techs Deal?

by Cathy Barnette - May 21, 2019 8:37:23 AM
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“So, you work in a vet clinic? That’s awesome… you basically just play with puppies and kitties all day, right?”

Ha! If only it were that easy...

Unfortunately, as you’ve probably already realized (or you’ll soon realize, if you haven’t yet spent time in a veterinary hospital!), there are aspects of the veterinary field that can be difficult to handle.

Pets die, despite our best efforts. Clients decline necessary treatments, even after we explain how doing so might harm their pet. Pets are euthanized, despite having potentially treatable conditions. Because of these stresses, and many more, working in the veterinary field can be emotionally exhausting.

There’s a term for this exhaustion: compassion fatigue.

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What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue, which is a common issue among those working in any helping profession, can also be described as “vicarious trauma” or “secondary traumatic stress syndrome.” (1)

The American Veterinary Medical Association describes compassion fatigue as: “A state of exhaustion and biologic, physiologic and emotional dysfunction resulting from prolonged exposure to compassion stress. Individuals that experience compassion fatigue feel overwhelmed from bearing the suffering of others, but typically continue to engage in self-sacrifice in the interest of their patients and clients.” (2)

Am I at risk of compassion fatigue?

Studies have shown that compassion fatigue is most likely to occur when an individual has frequent/recurrent exposure to death and dying, especially in the case of moral or ethical conflict.(2) Unfortunately, this setting describes a veterinary clinic almost perfectly! As a vet tech, you will find yourself dealing with ill or suffering patients on a near-daily basis; at least some of these pets will belong to owners who are unwilling or unable to allow you to provide an appropriate level of veterinary care. It is, unfortunately, a recipe for compassion fatigue.

While all veterinary team members are at risk of developing compassion fatigue, there are certain factors that may increase your likelihood of developing this condition. These factors include high empathy and a history of trauma or traumatic experiences, especially unresolved trauma.(2) If you or any of your coworkers have these characteristics, it is especially important to take steps to prevent compassion fatigue and to intervene early if compassion fatigue occurs.

How can I identify compassion fatigue in myself and others?

Compassion fatigue can present in a number of ways, including the following:(3)

  • Feelings of apathy or emotional numbness
  • Avoiding difficult or stressful situations
  • Withdrawing from activities you once found enjoyable
  • Repeatedly or compulsively thinking about work-related traumas
  • Anxiety
  • Physical manifestations of stress (headaches, gastrointestinal upset, etc.)
  • Impatience with other people and their stresses
  • Depersonalizing those in need of help
  • Feeling trapped and victimized by your work
  • Feeling like your personal life gets in the way of your work life
  • Inability to find meaning and joy in your work

How can I prevent or treat compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue prevention and treatment often comes down to self-care and relaxation. Consider these five ideas:

  1. Eat healthy, well-balanced meals. If you work long hours, designate one or two nights per week for meal prep; prepare a large meal that will provide adequate leftovers for several days. This makes you less likely to resort to fast food and other less-healthy options.
  2. Ensure that you’re getting enough sleep, every single night. Avoid electronics late in the evening and ensure that your sleep environment is optimal.
  3. Exercise daily. Find an exercise that you enjoy; exercise should be fun, not a chore. Consider hiking, biking, or other outdoor activities.
  4. Relaxation techniques, such as yoga, meditation, and journaling, can be useful in warding off compassion fatigue. Brief (1-2 minute) deep breathing breaks interspersed throughout your work day might be helpful.
  5. Work together with your coworkers to combat compassion fatigue. You’re all in this together! Look for a vet tech support group in your community or online; if you can’t find one, consider starting a group of your own.

Finally, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. If you’re struggling, a therapist or counselor can help you deal with compassion fatigue and other work-related challenges.


  1. AVMA. Work and Compassion Fatigue. 
  2. AVMA. Assess Your Wellbeing. 
  3. Durance D. 2007. Recognize Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue.
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About Cathy Barnette

Cathy Barnette is a practicing small animal veterinarian, freelance writer, and contributor to XPrep Learning Solutions. She is passionate about both veterinary medicine and education, working to provide helpful information to veterinary teams and the general public. In her free time, she enjoys spending time in nature with her family and leading a Girl Scout troop.

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