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)

It takes a village, and not just “animal people!”

Animal shelters need a lot of help — and different varieties of help.  Most volunteers who walk into an animal shelter are “animal people,” and flock to spending their time walking dogs or socializing cats.  And certainly this is an important activity for shelter animal welfare.  However, in this day when animal shelters are getting smarter about business practices and are being held to higher standards of care, the needs of an animal shelter are diverse and complicated.


As an extreme example, one of our favorite local humane organizations recently managed to open a new 15,000 square foot facility largely on the backs of volunteer labor.  While the foundation and the majority of plumbing, HVAC, and electrical were contracted, many jobs were performed by dedicated and talented volunteers.  Carpenters, craftspeople, painters — they came from all sorts of backgrounds and skills.  The work was constant and the days long, but the results are nothing short of spectacular for this small community. Led by the amazing Georgie Taylor, the Humane Society of Schuyler County and the animals in their care are certainly blessed in this holiday season. Many more pictures of the process are available at their website (http://www.schuylerhumane.org/).


The new year is a grand time for resolutions, and a great time for recruiting new volunteers to serve what may be non-traditional roles in your shelter. Think outside the box and strategically about training new volunteers for the new year:  with guidance, volunteers can sew projects, deep clean shelter areas, plant flowers, shovel snow, write letters, make follow up phone calls, produce adoption videos, wrap surgical packs, process paperwork, recruit spay/neuter clients. . . and the possibilities go on.

And of course, when it comes to an animal shelter, everyone can raise funds!  I love to see the stories with kids who have collected donations for the animal shelter in lieu of birthday gifts.  What a fabulous way to learn the value of giving, and making a difference in your community.

Happy holidays everyone. May you find your shelter rich in determination, compassion, and gifts this season.

The magic of fenbendazole

Most shelter workers have heard of the magic dewormer known as Panacur–it is one of my favorite dewormers–and is a great drug for many reasons. Fenbendazole, the active ingredient in Panacur and Safe-Guard, it is a benzimidazole dewormer which prevents cell division. It is generally considered a safe drug, toxicity only occurring at 100x overdoses and in exotic species. Fenbendazole isn’t systemically absorbed and over 50% leaves the animal in feces. It must be given for at least 3 days to kill parasites, since it needs to halt cell division for a certain duration before it is fatal to the parasite. 

Fenbendazole is labeled for use in cows, horses, pigs and dogs; but has also been used in cats, sheep, birds, reptiles and fish. It’s labeled to kill roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, and some tapeworms, but it isn’t effective against the most common tapeworms, and therefore shouldn’t be relied on to kill tapes. Fenbendazole’s major use in shelters is for killing whipwormsGiardia, and lungworms.

Fenbendazole comes as a liquid and as granules, both of which can be kept at room temperature. A major con of fenbendazole is cost. A three day course of liquid Panacur for an adult cat will cost $1, while a single dose of pyrantel (Strongid) will cost $0.05.

Fun fact: When treating whipworms (Trichuris vulpis) you may have heard of the rule of 3’s, treat for three days, then repeat a three day course at three weeks and again at three months. This is an easy and commonly recited treatment regime, but did you know that there is actually a scientific reason NOT to treat like this? Whipworms take 3 months to mature from an egg to an adult. If you kill adults at day 1, then three weeks later there will be some immature adults which will have matured, but you’ll still have eggs and larval worms present. Wait until 3 months and then treat again, and don’t bother with the three week treatment.

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.