The Emotional Highs and Lows of Cat Rescue

Sure, I know I can’t save them all. But the one that got away reminds me just how difficult rescue work can be.

By: penguino
Although animal rescue has its benefits, rescuers experience fatigue and stress regularly. By: penguino

Hudson was a high-strung, 1-person cat, and he never hit it off with his mom’s second husband.

Things had gotten worse since their house went on the market: The stress had gotten to Hudson, and he’d bitten his mom unintentionally. A concerned friend called us at Northeast Abyssinian Rescue, fearful that the husband was going to have Hudson euthanized.

In less than a week, we had our rescue operation in place. One volunteer was all set to pick him up in a few days. She would then drive him to another state where an excellent foster home was waiting for him.

Then, at the end of the week, we got another call from our good Samaritan. Terrible news. With only 4 days to go, Hudson’s family had had him euthanized.

We were stunned, angered and sickened. We had been so close to saving him.

Not for the Faint of Heart

Hudson’s story is a reminder that despite all your best efforts, a rescue can go horribly wrong.

Even when the scenario is not as dramatic, there is still compassion fatigue and burnout. We’re just beginning to understand that people who work with animals are at risk much in the same way that firefighters, paramedics, Red Cross volunteers and caregivers are.

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In fact, some studies “suggest that animal care professionals may be #1 in vulnerability to Compassion Fatigue and Burnout,” writes Nancy Mullins.

“You have constant exposure to trauma,” she explains, “a daily experience with the rescue of animals that have been injured, neglected, abused or tortured, and you face huge never-ending volume of these animals.”

That exposure can result in a range of debilitating emotions, as well as in “nightmares or flashbacks” of suffering animals.

You don’t have to stop rescuing cats. But you do have to take back your life and take care of yourself. Remember the old advice about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping somebody else with his or hers? Well, it’s just as true when it comes to working with animals.

“You’re no good to anyone or anything if you’re tired, miserable, broke or angry all the time,” says Vicki DeGruy of the National Animal Interest Alliance. “Neglecting your own needs makes you less effective, not more.”

In this video, Dr. Cherie Bouisson, DVM, discusses emotional distress for animal professionals and the normalcy of negative emotions:

What You Can Do

  1. Give yourself a break. Not everything in your life has to be about rescue. Do something non–rescue oriented.
  2. Break up your work. Obviously you’re not going to end the plight of homeless felines all at once. Instead, focus on a single cat or benefit at a time.
  3. Learn to say no. We rescuers have a hard time with this one. People always say, “What’s one more mouth?” Well, it’s not just one more mouth — it’s a delicate balance between your own cats and the ones you’re fostering. Refer callers to local veterinary clinics. Most of them have a few cages set aside for cats in need of temporary shelter.

Reiki for Rescuers

Kathleen Prasad is a leading animal Reiki practitioner in the United States. She also encourages Reiki for rescuers, saying, “Reiki holds the keys to healing your heart and mind and getting back on track to helping animals.”

Prasad goes through the guiding principles of Reiki and shows how each one can do just that. “Be grateful,” for instance, is about “figur[ing] out what your silver linings are for the animals that you work with. Perhaps a fearful animal you have worked with is showing progress. Maybe an animal who was abandoned finally found a forever family.”

At one time or another, every rescuer has experienced the profound sadness of saving a cat or kitten only to lose him to illness or injuries. Here, too, there are hidden blessings, Prasad says.

The cat may have known kindness for the first, last and only time in her life thanks to her rescuer. The kitten’s all-too-brief life may have “illuminated cruelty in a way that will teach and inspire people to help.”

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The Upside

Rescue work is not all bitterness and sorrow. None of us would stay with it if that were the case.

There is the joy of knowing in your gut that you’ve found the right person for a particular cat…of getting the e-mails and phone calls from the people who have fallen in love with their newly adopted cats and the photos of former rescues.

There will always be the Hudsons — but there will also be the cats who do land on their feet and get to live out their happily-ever-afters.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, which received a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has also received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association, ByLine and The Writing Self. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Single Parent’s Soul and A Cup of Comfort for Women in Love, and T.J. has worked as a stringer for the Associated Press, as an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School and as a columnist.

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