Monday, March 22, 2010

What Does an Animal Shelter Volunteer Do?

By Julia Williams

If you love animals, becoming a volunteer at your local shelter is definitely something you should consider. You will be making a difference not only to the animals that reside there, but to the shelter and to your community. Words can’t adequately describe the rewarding feeling you get from helping these beautiful four-legged souls that are without a family to love and care for them.

Since most shelters operate on shoestring budgets, volunteers are an essential part of their daily operations. Although there is no central data reporting agency for animal shelters, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that 6-8 million dogs and cats end up in America’s shelters every year. That, my friends, is a lot of animals who desperately need some TLC.

There are a variety of tasks assigned to volunteers; some include working with the animals, some do not. You can walk dogs, socialize cats, clean cages, help with feeding, watering and grooming, do adoption counseling or administrative tasks. Some volunteers choose more than one “job” so they can contribute wherever help is needed most. Shelters also need foster parents to care for animals in their home – you can read more about that here.

Most shelters ask for a two hour commitment every week. That said, they usually won’t turn you down if you have a sincere desire to help but only have a few hours every month. They do, however, expect volunteers to honor whatever time commitment they’ve made. They need to know you’ll be there when you say you will, and if your life is in flux, it’s unfair to the shelter and the animals to make promises you can’t keep.

Getting started as an animal shelter volunteer is easy. You fill out an application, and typically attend a “new volunteer” orientation. Shelters use this orientation to familiarize volunteers with their operations, and to make sure this new relationship starts off right. It’s similar to starting a new job, except you don’t get paid, at least not with currency you can spend. Shelter volunteers get paid with emotional dollars they can put in their personal bank of pride and self-appreciation.

I’ve volunteered at three different shelters throughout my life. My first was at age 17 (the minimum age requirement varies, but is usually between 16 and 18). I signed up as a dog walker, because I felt bad that the dogs had to be cooped up in kennels all day long. The excitement and happiness the dogs exuded when I approached with leash in hand was palpable. They all clamored to be chosen to get out in the fresh air for some exercise.

Those dog walks were always enjoyable, but I’ll never forget one in particular. There was a dog at the shelter I knew quite well, since she had belonged to a friend. I took her out to the large open field and decided to unleash her, because I was certain she wouldn’t run away. The moment I unleashed her, she took off like a rocket across the field. Soon she was just a tiny speck, and as I stood there with the leash, I contemplated how to explain this to the shelter staff. I was certain my dog walking days were over. Much to my relief, Trixie reached the end of the field, then turned around and raced back to me.

At another shelter I was a cat socializer (sometimes called a cat cuddler). The primary duty was to give the shelter cats some much-needed love and attention. I cared about all the cats I interacted with, but sometimes I’d feel a special connection to one of them. Paige was a cat I considered a “lifer.” She’d been at this no-kill shelter for at least a year, and I didn’t think she’d ever get adopted because she had a bit of a split personality. I’m good at reading the body language of cats, and most give you clear signals when they want you to stop petting them. Not Paige. One minute she loved the attention and the next, she’d claw my hand to bits. I could never tell when she was about to go psycho on me. But as it turns out, even a cat like Paige can get adopted if the right person comes along. I’ll always remember the day I came in to find Paige gone. I dreaded asking, for fear she had been put down for some reason. But no – Paige had found her forever home!

Volunteering at a shelter is something I highly recommend for all animal lovers. If you’re like me, it may make you sad (and mad) to see so many beautiful animals without a loving home. Yet it will also fill your heart with happiness to know that you are enriching their lives as they wait to find a family of their own.

Read more articles by Julia Williams


  1. That does sound like a great thing to do. I just have avoided the shelter here, because it is a kill shelter, and I couldn't stand to get to know the poor animals and then they are put to sleep. It would break my heart. If it was a no kill shelter, I would be there in a skinny minute.

  2. I've always wanted to volunteer. I now have a 5 year old daughter who is a huge animal lover. I thought about seeing if a shelter would allow me to volunteer with her. I have no idea if they'd allow someone that young as a volunteer, for liability reasons if nothing else. However, I thought it would be great one-on-one time with her and I, as well as teach her about giving her time to help others. Any advice?

  3. I admire what you have done here. I like the part where you say you are doing this to give back but I would assume by all the comments that this is working for you as well.


  4. hi i am terese i socialize cats and i love i am looking for a career in cat enrichment my second choice is doing feline temperament assessing i feel like i am on the right road i love cats the way they purr knead and roll over on their stomach i love cats period the place where i volunteer has a hiring freeze on they tell me to find a job in the mean time however i am lost without could you let me know of how i can get a paying job enrichment cats lives or assessing their temperament from a cat lover

  5. it made me cry to read your story..i am going to start my volunteering on monday..i really hope my emotions dont get in the way!

  6. Hi I would love to volenteer at an animal shelter but is there anything in particular that you have to have.& what does it say on the application you have to fill out!if you could email me I would appreciate it!thank you

  7. I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up. Came close to it. When i went to school to be a RVT aka Registered Veterinary Technician. After working at an EVet for 5yrs. I decided to have a family. So I left my demanding job. And filled my home the kids and pets. Now that my youngest is in part day kindergarten. I decided to put in an application to my local animal shelter. Which is called animal services. And donate a few hours when i can. I have ny interview this coming Tuesday. Unfortunately the shelter does put animals down due to overcrowding and behavior. I was told that by the receptionist when i first asked about volunteering. I don't have a stone heart but I have learned to deal with upsets like that. From working at the EVet. Any help you give is helping some animal from suffering.

  8. I want to volunteer so bad at my local shelter, but i'm afraid 12 is too young!

  9. I start today ;)

    1. you will love volunteering with the animals i love my volunteer job i beleive it is helping me a great deal go for it


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