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Caring for those who are caring for those

dvm360dvm360 January 2021
Volume 52
Issue 1

While charged with managing the health of 4-legged patients, veterinarians must also be cognizant of burnout in their 2-legged caregivers when those pets are sick. To do so, we must also care for ourselves.

Soloviova Liudmyla/stock.adobe.com

Practically speaking, veterinarians have 2 patients: the pet and the owner who is providing care for that pet. In other words, the veterinarian is caregiver-squared.

“We know that veterinary professionals can be impacted by caregiver fatigue as a result of their caregiver role,” said Mia Cary, DVM, at a recent Fetch dvm360® virtual conference. In this role, she explained, veterinarians need to recognize their clients’ struggles, from nursing the dog recovering from spinal surgery to maintaining the elderly cat in kidney failure.

The burden of caring

Caregiver burden—the load carried by one who tends to a chronically ill, disabled, or elderly person or pet—can, over time, lead to burnout. One reason for this burnout is that, much to their detriment, caregivers often turn down help because of the notion that they alone are equipped for the job.

“The caregiver is unable to step back from the caregiver role to really recalibrate and recharge,” said Cary, who heads Cary Consulting and is the former chief of professional development and strategic alliances at the American Veterinary Medical Association.

A 2019 clinical study confirmed that the caregiver burden some clients suffer while managing their chronically ill pets can be so severe as to render them unable to engage in healthy human relationships.1 And this distress can lead to a shift in their behavior, which trickles down to the team members at their veterinary clinic and may even dampen hospital morale. But being aware of our owners’ strife can remind us to ramp up our empathy.

Don’t sympathize…empathize

Unlike sympathy—a sense of pity that drives one to paint silver linings for the pitied—empathy involves traveling the emotional path with that person. By pulling empathy out of our crash kit, we can help neutralize the 3 self-defeating habits these pet parents often display:

  • Resisting: painful emotions; when you see this, encourage the person to embrace the sadness.
  • Brooding: overthinking to the point of painting negative scenarios; motivate clients to trade this for favorite activities.
  • Scolding: self-flagellation; support the client verbally with uplifting words.

Too often, Cary noted, we cast empathy asunder when dealing with critical cases: “We are so wrapped up in the diagnosing and treating and communicating that treatment plan that we forget this important part of our role as their veterinary caregivers.”

Losing ourselves

And we also forget to care for ourselves, Dr Cary pointed out. Self-care strengthens us to handle the angst of a sick pet, which can travel downstream from the owner to us through a psychic snarl known as compassion fatigue, or—more aptly put—“vicarious traumatization.” Because we work closely with the owners, we inoculate ourselves with their tension.

By keeping a finger on our own pulse, we can shoo away the compassion fatigue that threatens to creep in on us when we dare to empathize with the burden our clients withstand when caring for sick pets. Instead of fatigue, we must espouse compassion satisfaction, a sense of joy in helping others.

The oxygen mask

In helping our clients, veterinarians can take a page out of the flight attendants’ instruction manual: Should the cabin lose pressure, adults flying with children should fasten the oxygen mask on themselves before putting it on the youngsters. “Remember that self-care is not selfish,” Cary reminded the audience. “You have to practice self-care in order to properly care for others.”

Using a healthy-dose of self-awareness, she said, take inventory of the 9 dimensions of well-being as they apply to you: work/career, emotional, spiritual, social, creativity, environmental, intellectual, financial, and physical. And be sure to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

And when the journey from compassion fatigue to compassion satisfaction is too bumpy, she added, it’s important to seek help from mental health professionals.


  1. Spitznagel MB, Cox, Jacobson DM, Albers AL, Carlson MD. Assessment of caregiver burden and associations with psychosocial function, veterinary service use, and factors related to treatment plan adherence among owners of dogs and cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2019;254(1):124-132. doi:10.2460/javma.254.1.124
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