The golden rule on how to care for yourself while caring for animals

Caring for animals can be a joy and it can be a heartbreak! Caring for yourself needs to be a priority. When we don’t take care of ourselves the end result – negativity towards others, burnout or even suicide, can be devastating for others surrounding us. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Be kind to animals.
Here, we have asked compassion fatigue, stress management, and animal bereavement specialist Dr Vanessa Rohlf for tips on caring for yourself while caring for animals…

The golden rule on how to care for yourself while caring for animals

The golden rule on how to care for yourself while caring for animals
Dr Vanessa Rohlf

In my work I have the privilege of meeting and spending time with some amazing people. People just like yourselves, who dedicate their lives to helping animals big or small. Sadly, I also see equally amazing people who have been pushed to their limits and have lost their confidence and ability to see meaning in and gain enjoyment from their work and caregiving role.

Working as an animal care professional can expose you to the suffering of animals and people and this can place you at risk of caregiver stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. In a role where your work centres on providing care it can be easy to forget about your own needs. However, please remember “you cannot pour from an empty cup” and if you want to sustain yourself as an animal caregiver, you must practice self-care.

My original intention in writing this blog was to write down five top tips on how to care for yourself. However, after writing the first one I realised that this is all you really need. The rest, like learning how to say ‘no’, taking breaks, and seeking support, will naturally follow once you have mastered this one thing. This is my golden rule.  While I’d love this to be as simple as getting a weekly massage or walking your dog along the beach, it actually takes a little more time and effort! I promise you, it will be totally worth it!

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The golden rule on how to care for yourself while caring for animals


Practice self-compassion

Self-compassion is the ability to recognise suffering in oneself and to take steps to ease that suffering. Research shows that self-compassion is linked with reduced levels of depression, anxiety, stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. Research also shows that self-compassion is related to better relationships and greater levels of compassion towards others. According to Kristen Neff, self-compassion consists of three components; self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness consists of being gentle and kind toward oneself and actively calming and caring for oneself during difficult times. Common humanity refers to the idea that we are all in this life together and that personal failures and imperfections are part of the human condition. The third component, mindfulness, is the ability to accept the present moment as it is, without judgement. This is opposed to, for example, denying the current state of affairs, or getting overwhelmed with feelings of anger or sadness.

The golden rule on how to care for yourself while caring for animals


How to start being more self-compassionate

Tone down self-judgement and self-criticism. You can begin practicing self-compassion by toning down self-judgement and self-criticism. Scans reveal that the brain interprets self-criticism as a threat. The areas associated with error detection and processing are activated. The body feels stressed and releases cortisol and adrenaline. Rather than see ourselves as a problem to be fixed try self-reassurance instead. First, recognise that you’re being self-critical. This in itself will take some effort and you may be quite surprised by how often you talk down to yourself. When you notice that you are being critical reframe the self-talk to something that is more kind and supportive. If you’re unsure of what to say, imagine what you would say to a friend who was in a similar situation to you. You can use this as a guide for how you should speak to yourself.

Engage in mindfulness meditation. Regular engagement in formal mindfulness meditation is associated with greater of self-compassion, decreased levels of anxiety and depression as well as increased performance and productivity.  There are a number of apps available for download to your smartphone try Smiling Mind and Headspace. Tara Brach and Kristin Neff also have a number of meditations available on their websites. For additional resources and self-compassion practices please visit, Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion website.

The golden rule on how to care for yourself while caring for animals

With practice, you will begin to notice that self-compassion will help you identify when you need to care for yourself and how best to do it. You’ll start to know when you need to take a break and go for a walk or get that massage. You will begin to have more respect for your own boundaries and limits, which we all have and what make us human. Self-compassion is important and will come naturally with practice.

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About the author: Dr. Vanessa Rohlf is a consultant, therapist and educator specialising in compassion fatigue, stress management, and animal bereavement. Vanessa provides evidence-based, informative and supportive workshops, seminars, counselling and consultations. You can read more about Vanessa and her work here at

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