May 18 / Dr Teresa Tyler

Mental Health Awareness in Animal Professions

If like me you live and work with non-human animals every day, you will know that your existence to a large degree is moulded by the responsibilities of caring for those animals. Ensuring they experience a good quality of life is an essential part of our role, including those we work with. But how many of you carry the burden of the working day home with you? That client in your class who was a bit was too heavy-handed for your liking. The cat in the clinic that couldn’t be saved, who you held in your arms as they were euthanized. Or the horse who was kept stabled in isolation, rather than being part of a herd, living life more normally. Then when we turn on the TV, we see news items like the recent Met police shooting of two allegedly dangerous dogs, killed with blatant disregard for the legislation. We can feel traumatised yet again. It doesn’t take much for this drip, drip effect to fill up our emotional buckets and leave us feeling overwhelmed.   Is it a case that we care too much?

Charles Figley created the term, ‘the cost of caring’. He identified the links between animal care industries and compassion fatigue. He identified those most at risk of experiencing the condition because of the nature of the work we do. Care for those who are suffering or traumatised leaves many animal care professionals vulnerable to occupational stress, compassion fatigue or burnout. It is an unspoken hazard of humane work.  

One of the key traits that makes us good at our jobs is the ability to establish trust and build a rapport with both clients and their animals. This requires empathy, and it is this ability to be empathic which allows us to really know and understand what clients and their animal companions are going through. Empathy is a response where we almost become ‘infused’ with another to gain true understanding of them. In conjunction with empathy is the ability to be compassionate.
Compassion is a focussed kind of empathy where you are deeply aware of another’s suffering, and I refer again to the shooting of the dogs in London, where we were all touched so deeply due to our compassion.
Empathy and compassion take a lot of mental and emotional energy from us. We must attend to our clients (human and non-human), being very attentive and aware of what is happening to them. To do this effectively, we pack away our own feelings to be able to focus on theirs, generating trust and connection in the process. This therapeutic alliance is what makes us good at our jobs, and we cannot do it without empathy and compassion.

The problem is there is a risky price to pay for our investment.

Empathy is that double-edged sword that allows you into a person’s (human or animal) world yet also allows you to experience the trauma, experiences, and fears in their lives too. It creeps up on you when you are least expecting it. One minute you are amazed by your own ability to engage with these animals, having that incredible magic touch that makes people call you the dog/horse/cat whisperer. The next, you are tired all the time, angry, keep bursting into tears and feel low. If you don’t recognise the start of this downward trajectory, it can end in feeling numb and ambivalent about those you used to care so strongly about.  

According to Figley & Roop we are all:  “…susceptible to the way we are wired and programmed neurobiologically as human beings. In the mid-1970s, it was discovered that all human brains have two hemispheres, left and right. The practical application of this knowledge is emerging more slowly than is the scientific progress, so some background may be helpful in fully appreciating the professional toll compassion fatigue takes on the human mind. Each hemisphere of the brain is dominant for certain behaviors. For example, it appears that the right hemisphere is dominant for spatial abilities, face recognition, visual imagery, and music. The left hemisphere may be more dominant for calculations, math, and logical abilities. There is a tendency for the two cerebral hemispheres to operate in two very different contexts, one emotional and the other rational. For right-handed people, the left hemisphere is the dominant one for verbal/logical thinking and the details so important to professional functioning. The right hemisphere dominates in the non-verbal/ intuitive functioning that involves philosophical, holistic patterns of thinking. Thus, it is knowledge versus knowing. We need both, and when we are not in a distressed state of mind, both hemispheres work collaboratively, as they are intended. What makes this possible is the corpus callosum, a very important bundle of nerve fibers located between the two hemispheres that serves as a neural pathway or gate.” (Figley & Roop, 2006. p.8)  

During exposure to a shock such as the London shooting our brain initiates a cascade of automatic neurobiological responses. Glucocorticoids are released to mobilise energy, increase cardiovascular activity, and slow unnecessary physiological processes. Our heart may race, and despite us knowing we are powerless to do anything, we can’t stop remembering the event.  

“When we are exposed to shocks that continually generate extremely high levels of glucocorticoids, it can lead to major medical problems, including hippocampal volume reduction (Boscarino 2004). Continued exposure to extreme or chronic traumatic events or the memory of them can result in abnormal patterns of neurotransmitter and hormonal activity and in permanent changes in neuronal differentiation and organization. Therefore, both primary and secondary trauma need to be taken seriously and deserve immediate attention.” (Figley & Roop, 2006.p9).  

Working day in, day out with animals takes its toll. Whether you are involved in major trauma, or the daily grind of care. Stress can accumulate and without the use of key skills can lead to serious physical and mental health problems. Working and caring for animals can bring the greatest joy, is very rewarding, and completely satisfying but beware the demons, learn the art of detachment, find a rhythm and balance in your life that sustains both the joys and manages the lows.  

As Fakkema (1991) wrote:  
 “We understand and accept that sadness and pain are a part of our job. We stop stuffing our feelings with drugs, food, or isolation. We begin to understand that our feelings of anger, depression, and sadness are best dealt with if we recognize them and allow them to wash over and past us. We recognize our incredible potential to help animals. We are changing the world.”  
Empty space, drag to resize
If you would like to learn more about self-care in the animal professions, take a look at our course

Or if you would like to talk to somebody you can access professional counselling here
Created with