With trembling hands and red eyes, the veterinarian looked at me pleadingly. “I have 12 pets I never even meant to have. There are IV bags that just stay hung up in my bathroom. I work all day, and then I go home and take care of animals I took in because clients couldn’t pay for them. I’m broke… and I’m tired… and I care so much it’s making me miserable. What do I do?”

For the majority of us in veterinary medicine, our challenge is not failing to find compassion. I think most of us came to this profession because compassion comes easily to us. Instead, we struggle to put boundaries on that compassion so that we are not emotionally wrung out day after day.

When that veterinarian confided in me, I remembered the first time someone told me, “You can’t love a pet more than its owner does.” I was volunteering as a veterinary assistant at the time, and I’ve heard it hundreds of times since then. But the truth? You can. And you will. And it will be a depressing experience.

Caring deeply for the pets of owners who are not able or willing to provide the care their pets need takes an emotional toll on all of us. We have to find a way to create emotional boundaries. So, how do we prevent ourselves from giving and feeling to the point of burnout, resentment, or even depression? For me, the answer lies in what I think of as the paradox of the special pet. Please hear me out… here’s how it goes:

The key to “not caring too much” is not withholding compassion. It’s realizing the truth about all living things. You can believe that each creature you encounter is special and wonderful. You can celebrate the beauty they add to the world. You can love each animal as much as you want. You can know in your heart that this patient is special.

And that patient is also not special. That is, to be happy and healthy, you must know that because all living creatures are special, none are special. Think of how many animals you’ve known in your life already. Now think of how many animals there are in the entire world. Pets are good, beautiful souls, and at the same time they are drops of water in an ocean: unique, countless, and fleeting. Even the most “special” among them lives and dies, and new “special” creatures are born every minute. The existence of a living being, in some ways, is the least special thing of all.

So, you can love a patient and at the same time still know that the animal is a tiny glimmer in an endless sea. No matter what we do, this patient’s life will come and go, and we’ll have thousands more to tend to. You can’t reach the impossible goal of doing enough to save them all, because none of us ever will. Twelve pets and an IV pole in the tub is not “enough” because “enough” isn’t something any single one of us can attain. Does that sound harsh? I don’t mean for it to. I mean for it to help you set yourself free from the need to take over for every pet owner who can’t or won’t care for their pet.

You might try this as a silent meditation whenever you need it:

All creatures are special
No creatures are special
This moment is temporary
All creatures are temporary

You cannot cling to individual drops if you want to keep your head above water. That’s the paradox of the special pet.

You are doing an ocean of good, and you deserve peace and strength. I hope this way of thinking can help you find it.