Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Reengaging with shelter life: How to avoid another burnout episode

A few months ago, I had to step away from shelter cat work. I wrote about it on this blog, and I tried to be very open and honest about the symptoms of compassion fatigue I was facing and what I thought might help me to feel better.

This week, a reader reminded me that I never did a followup post, even though I have returned to cat volunteer work. That reader wondered what had changed, and she asked for a followup. I think that's an excellent idea.

Here's what I know.

The work doesn't change

As much as we advocate for cats and plead on their behalf and try to help everyone understand that cats aren't nuisances that can be ignored or exterminated, some people just don't get it. And when they don't get it, the cats often end up in shelter situations in sad shape.

It broke my heart when I was volunteering last year. It was nearly too much to bear when I stopped volunteering. And it still happens now. The sweet face of the cat in this blog post is testament to that. Cats still need help, and shelters are the organizations that offer that help.

The key involves making sure that you--as a volunteer--find a way to change.

Setting boundaries and seeking success

Rather than heading into the shelter multiple times per week for shifts and donations and meetings and more, I come in just once every other week. That's a schedule I can handle. It allows me to do meaningful work, while also allowing me to do other things that feed my soul.

Also, reengaging in a meaningful way means allowing myself to spend time with some of the cats that don't necessarily need me. Cats like this one.

Black cat in the shelter

This is an amazingly open-hearted cat who absolutely loves and trusts all people. Spending time with her means being showered with head butts and nuzzles and purrs. She makes anyone who visits her feel so very special. And, not surprisingly, she was adopted about an hour after I met her.

In the past, I avoided spending time with cats I thought might get adopted really quickly. I figured these cats didn't need my help or my attention. I thought I should spend time with the truly tough cases.

As it turns out, I may not have needed to help these cats. But I certainly needed them to help me.

Spending time with the cats that will leave the shelter fast helps you feel like a part of the success story. You get to be on a winning team. Plus, cats like this are simply a joy to be around. They put the fun back in volunteering.

I should say that I always spend time with the tough cases. They call out to me. But as I reengage with volunteering, I'm making a point to spend time with the easy wins too. To me, that has so much benefit.

White shelter cat waiting for a home

Remaining mindful of the cost

Finally, I consider volunteer days to be high-risk days. I try not to pack days like this with a ton of other tasks, including meetings or lunch dates or deadlines. I try to give myself enough headspace to think about what happened at the shelter. And I try to give myself enough time on those days to process the happiness and the sadness I've seen.

It's clear I'm being pretty careful with my heart and my health as I return to this work. And that's smart. I don't want to take another break. These cats need me--now and in the future. By taking these steps, I hope I'm here for them.


  1. I admire you for going back, I am sure it is emotionally draining, but you do so much good.

  2. It really is touch, we understand, the Dad has been there too. Kitty therapy is great though.

  3. I get it. I've been volunteering at our local sheleter for about a year now. I don't get involved in a lot of the shelter work (adoptions, intakes, etc.), I come in once a week to clean cages, feed cats, etc. While the adoption rate is good, , it is hard to see some of the cats get looked over week after week. I've been thinking about taking a break but the only thing that keeps me going is knowing that the shelter really needs the help...and so do the cats that are there. ~Island Cat Mom

  4. Our Mama did volunteer work and also fostered kitties. It can get overwhelming especially if there is no support from the shelter itself...which often happens since most shelters are stretched to their limit!

    the critters in the cottage xo

  5. Pawsome post. I admire shelter volunteers SO much, and I'm very happy you've found a way to go back while taking care of yourself as well.

  6. Excellent follow-up, Jean. I'm so glad you're volunteering again, but with lessons learned and things in place to make sure that you're caring for you, too. :)