Animal Shelter Workers, Vets at Increased Risk for Mental Health Problems, Suicide

A new study has confirmed what FIREPAW has previously reported:  Animal shelter workers and veterinarians are at an increased risk for depression, anxiety, compassion fatigue, burnout and even suicide.  Why?  Because they are frequently faced with animal suffering and death on a routine basis.

Veterinarians in particular are at high risk for death by suicide, according to a study from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which found that from 1979 to 2015, veterinarians died by suicide between two to 3.5 times more often than the general U.S. population.

Employees and volunteers in animal shelters or rescues, and animal welfare and animal rights activists, are also at risk for compassion fatigue and psychological distress.

“Animal welfare agents are exposed to animal abuse, neglect and oppression on a regular basis, as well as routine euthanasia that is common in these settings.”  -Angela K. Fournier, PhD, Bemidji State University

Over 2.4 million healthy cats and dogs are euthanized each year in the U.S., most often homeless animals in shelters, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

“Shelter workers are then caught in a dilemma because they are charged with caring for an animal and they may ultimately end that animal’s life. Research suggests that this causes significant guilt, which can lead to depression, anxiety and insomnia, as well as greater family-work conflict and low job satisfaction.”

Animal welfare agents may also hear gruesome stories of animal abuse or witness the consequences firsthand when they are rehabilitating the animals, which can cause a lot of distress and lead to compassion fatigue.

“Experts suggest that animal welfare agents carry an even heavier burden than those in other helping professions who are susceptible to compassion fatigue because of the issues unique to working with animals, such as euthanasia and caring for living beings who have experienced pain and suffering but cannot articulate their needs and experiences.”

What is the solution?

Awareness is the first step.  Education and training of the mental health risks will need to follow, including cognitive restructuring techniques that help professionals and volunteers in the animal welfare arenas to balance the negative realities with the positive aspects of their jobs (like being mindful of how many animals they help each week) allowing them to get stressful situations in perspective.


Journal Reference: Suzanne E. Tomasi, Ethan D. Fechter-Leggett, Nicole T. Edwards, Anna D. Reddish, Alex E. Crosby, Randall J. Nett. Suicide among veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through 2015. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2019; 254 (1): 104.  Overview/Study DOI: 10.2460/javma.254.1.104