A Safe Place

dog crateTraditionally, cats have been at the forefront when it comes to providing a space to hide. It has been well documented that by having a box or carrier to freely hang out in, their stress level can be reduced significantly. In turn, by lowering their stress level we reduce their risk of becoming ill. But it’s not just cats that can benefit from this. Dogs and exotic animals need a place where they ‘can get away from it all’ – at least in their own minds. Imagine yourself in a fish bowl with all kinds of noises and people bustling about. It can be overwhelming to say the least. Even pet owners are being marketed to provide dens that mimic side tables or nightstands, or that match the decor in their home.

Hide spaces don’t need to be expensive. Boxes that arrive with inventory can be stored and available for putting in with small dogs, cats, rabbits or guinea pigs. The nice thing about cardboard boxes is that they are thrown away after use and are conducive to infectious disease control. Toilet paper or paper towel rolls can be used with mice, hamsters or gerbils. Cardboard is also a valuable source of enrichment for small mammals because they love to chew it. Carriers or crates work well with dogs and cats, and can increase living area by providing vertical space. A blanket on top of a carrier can be a comfortable perch for cats and small dogs.

rabbitThe main things to remember are safety (not something that will collapse on the animal), sanitation (if not disposable it needs to be a material that is easily disinfected), size (something they can fit into and naturally stand or turn around in), and positioning (having the opening face people as they walk by doesn’t feel safe to the animal). Most often some great hiding tools can be found in storage around the shelter. But for those who want to make an investment there are commercially available cardboard hide boxes for cats as well.

Let’s take care of the animals, and ourselves!

Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself

winter cat

As the temperature cools and daylight becomes scarce, winter brings a chance for us to slow down and catch our breath from the typical hecticness that is spring through fall in animal shelters. This is a good time of year to refocus on our own physical and emotional health, and that of our colleagues.  Remembering to take care of ourselves will allow us to continue our efforts in caring for many shelter animals over the lifetime of our careers.


You’ve probably heard the terms “burnout” and “compassion fatigue” used before in association with animal welfare. But, did you know that they are two different concepts? Burnout is a condition that evolves from a stressful workplace environment, such as working long hours. Compassion Fatigue is the physical and emotional exhaustion that result from your relationship with the animals, essentially from caring too much.

Both Burnout and compassion fatigue are sadly common conditions experienced by those involved in animal welfare. We experience a full range of emotions on a daily basis as we celebrate the adoption of an animal or empathize with the loss of another. Although much of it will depend on the organization you are affiliated with and your own personality, you may be susceptible no matter what your role is within the organization.

Symptoms of trouble

Burnout and compassion fatigue can manifest through either mental or physical symptoms, and in many cases both. Commonly reported mental changes include: depression, sadness, irritability, apathy, hyper-vigilance, and anxiety. Those affected by compassion fatigue in particular have reported a variety of physical indications including: chronic headaches, fatigue, appetite changes, chronic illness, and trouble sleeping. In severe cases, these symptoms may progress to negative coping strategies or self-harm behaviors.

person with headache 

A body, mind and soul approach

Awareness of these conditions and our own susceptibility is the first step in prevention. However, a proactive approach focusing on both our physical and mental health is essential in protecting our career choice.

As it is true for the animals within our shelters, physical exercise directly improves our own mental health. Exercise is a known method for stress relief. Because stress can impair our immune function, exercise can help us fight off pathogens typically encountered this time of year. If a gym membership does not fit into your lifestyle that’s okay! Try taking a dog for a walk for 20-30 minutes each day instead. The exercise and fresh air will be great for both you and your canine companion!

dog in snow

In addition to getting regular exercise, eating a well-balanced diet is essential for physical and mental health.  Fruits and vegetables are particularly important components of a lean diet that supports healthy immune function. Although making healthy food choices can be difficult this time of year, try adding one additional serving of a fruit or vegetable to your diet each day. Gradually add more servings over time until your eating the recommended 4-6 servings per day. You may even discover that you like most of them!

Furthermore, remember that a healthy state of mind is just as important as a healthy body and immune system. Please do not forget to focus on the positive that you do. Animal welfare is a large and complex issue.  However, every positive outcome that you experience is a positive outcome no matter how small it may seem! Be proud of your work and know that you are making a difference in the lives of the animals that you care so very much about.

Ask for help

For some of us, no matter how proactive we are, there will be times when we need additional help in combating Burnout or Compassion Fatigue. Consulting your supervisor to discuss your concerns and brainstorm ideas to work towards a solution may be all that is needed. However, it is often helpful to have a co-worker, family member or friend to confide in as well. These people may give a unique insight to a tough situation.  No matter whom it is that you chose to talk with, remember Burnout and Compassion Fatigue will take planning and determination to overcome.  However, I am sure we can all agree that our career in the Animal Welfare field is well worth the effort!

Additional resources

Taking Inventory (Animal Sheltering 2013)

People Care Starts with you (Animal Sheltering 2009)

Animal Welfare


Merriam-Webster defines welfare as the “state of being happy, healthy, or successful”. Obviously, this definition is geared toward a human perspective. Then what defines animal welfare?  Perhaps the closest we have are a set of principles for basic animal care called the Five Freedoms. The concept of the Five Freedoms originated in a 1965 report to improve care of livestock animals in the UK. The freedoms are as follows; Freedom from Hunger and Thirst, Freedom from Discomfort, Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease, Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour, Freedom from Fear and Distress. These freedoms have served as guidelines for the development of animal care protocols across species. Long term animal housing facilities ranging from laboratory animals to zoo species have also taken from these principles.  The Guidelines for Standards of Care of Shelter Animals was written with these tenets at the basis of each section. Although the five freedoms prescribe what every animal needs to have minimally acceptable welfare, there are no guidelines on how to implement them.


So let’s apply these freedoms to my cat. 1) Freedom from hunger and thirst. Easy, he gets free choice dry and two bowls of water. 2) Freedom from discomfort. Pesco has a number of soft places to sleep many of which are me. However, occasionally I will take him on a five hour car ride home, palpate his abdomen, or attempt to trim his nails, all of which he finds highly disagreeable. 3) Freedom from pain, injury, or disease. Pesco has FIV and dental disease, one of which is being addressed by providing veterinary dental care. 4) Freedom to express normal behavior. Pesco gets to run, stretch, sleep all day, scrape up his litterbox, and scratch his nails on his cardboard. If he tries to scratch the carpet, I chase him around the house. If I’m not home, I’m sure he is quite pleased with himself. 5) Freedom from fear and distress. One phrase: the vacuum cleaner.

I have hopefully used the example of my own cat to highlight the difficulties of maximizing animal welfare. These challenges are quite evident in the shelter setting where we insult animal welfare daily. Noise, cleaning, handling, surgery, even physical examinations can violate 1 or 2 of an animals freedoms but are unavoidable and help maintain the other freedoms that an animal deserves. Animals don’t understand the being uncomfortable to achieve a happy goal. The only understand that they are currently uncomfortable. Maximizing animal welfare can therefore have profound effects on the behavioral and physical health of an animal by minimizing said discomfort. One way that you can maximize animal welfare on a daily basis is to perform daily rounds. Visualizing each animal allows you the opportunity to ask yourself “What does this animal need to move through the shelter?” and “What can I do for this animal right now?”. Even in small shelters where we believe we have a firm grasp on who every animal is and what we think they may need, it is surprising how much can fall through the cracks and how much things can change. Daily rounds enables us to keep track of the animals passing through our doors as well as giving us the immediate opportunity to fulfill their needs.