15 Things to Know Before Volunteering at an Animal Shelter

Volunteering at an animal shelter

Volunteering at an animal shelter

Volunteering at an animal shelter can be a rewarding experience with many benefits. It also helps shelters that are low on labor continue their endless care of animals.

Shelters are not all created equal, and volunteering can be very different from one city to the next. If you’re thinking of helping out at your local shelter, there are some things you need to know before grabbing your volunteer T-shirt and diving straight in.

1. Time Commitment

Shelters may have a set schedule for their volunteers, so you might not be able to sign up for just an event or pop in when you have a free day. There might also be a minimum amount of hours to meet to keep your volunteer title, so always ask up front what’s expected of you.


One of the reasons I love my local shelter is their lack of requirements. I can stop by whenever I have free time, and they email me once per week with a list of upcoming events for which they need volunteers.

2. Training Requirements

You may be required to complete a training program or class before you can work at the shelter. Training may be given for each individual or, like at my shelter, held only once per month. Ask when the next training will be available and how long it will take.

3. Tasks Involved

This item is particularly important. What you may end up doing can be far from what you imagine.

Are you allergic to cats but not dogs, or vice versa? Do you detest poop but are happy to pass out fliers or answer the phones? There are many tasks involved for the shelter to keep running, so ask what is available and see which tasks you prefer to tackle.

4. Animal Types and Sizes

Check to see what types of animals are housed or taken in at the shelter before signing up. Most shelters have cats and dogs, but some may take in birds, rats or snakes. If you have an aversion to any type of animal, ask which ones you will be expected to assist.

Some shelters, like mine, have separate buildings for cats and dogs. One volunteer was fearful of large dogs, but she was happy to help maintain the cat cottage for hours each day. With any luck, your shelter will have something that fits your preferences perfectly.

5. Weather Conditions

Indoor areas are normally climate-controlled, but you may have to work in outdoor areas or runs for the animals. Extreme heat or cold may be possible depending on your location, so be prepared to work with the elements or request indoor-only work.

6. Accident and Injury Policy

You may be volunteering at your own risk. Some facilities may require you to sign a waiver so that they will not be held liable if you are injured or involved in an accident. If this is a major concern for you, ask about it in advance.

7. Equipment Use

Different types of equipment may be required for certain jobs. Ask about the tools you will need to perform for your volunteering duties in case it’s something unexpected. Office work uses pretty standard equipment, but you might need to use pressure washers or construction equipment.

8. Noise Level

Even though shelters may take excellent care of their animals, even my own facility can be ear splitting with nonstop barking at times. The cat cottage is much quieter, but if noise is a concern you might want to ask where you will be working and with which animals. Ear plugs are not an unusual sight.

9. Scared Animals

Not every animal at the shelter is used to being there or enjoys their surroundings, and they may be just as scared of you as you are of them. As you get to know the animals, they can become more comfortable around you. If you are unsure about approaching an animal, ask a shelter employee for assistance first. Accidents can and do happen, and sometimes a scratch or bite is just a very scared animal’s way of trying to protect itself.

10. Applications

Shelters may require you to complete a paper or online application before you can be considered for volunteer work. These applications can vary greatly; some may ask for basic information such as your address or phone number, while others may require employment history, references and more. Ask for a sample application if it’s required, and feel free to ask questions about the information they are requesting.

11. Allergies

Even if your duties restrict you to an office, being inside an animal shelter is a sure bet that you will come into contact with pet hair and dander. This shouldn’t deter you, though; there are plenty of ways you can help the shelter without having to be inside. Graphic design, passing out handbills, volunteering at a fundraiser and more are all great ways to get involved without the fur flying by your nose.

12. Volunteer Overload

Shelters can be overflowing with volunteers sometimes, and they may not need or want to take on additional volunteers. Don’t fret. Check around at other shelters or call rescue organizations to see if they can use some help. This could be anything from working with the animals to doing graphic design or helping them advertise available animals for adoption.

13. Shelter Expectations

If you haven’t been to your local shelter yet, stop by and ask for a tour. Shelters are operated differently; some may resemble a clinic or zoo while others are underfunded and understaffed. If your priority is helping a no-kill shelter, ask if they euthanize animals before you sign up.

Many shelters operate veterinary services at their locations, and those will involve euthanizations for ill pets. The type of euthanasia mentioned previously refers to shelters that euthanize animals due to overcrowding. Unfortunately, many places still do this across the country, so ask up front if it’s a sticky point for you.

14. Animal Person May Not Equal a People Person

Some people work with animals because they prefer their company over people. In short, don’t take offense if someone seems a little quiet or shy. You have a common interest at heart, and talking about animals is a sure way to strike up a conversation.

15. Heartbreak

If you volunteer at a kill shelter, it can be heartbreaking to see animals you have come to know and love be taken for euthanasia. Even in a no-kill shelter like mine it’s easy to get attached to the animals and miss them once they are adopted. I play out scenarios in my head of how I can buy a bigger property and save them all, but it’s simply not feasible. I tell myself they are going to a loving home and that’s all that matters.

You will also see animals in pain, dealing with injuries, trying to recover from abuse or even being returned after being adopted. These are normal shelter occurrences that will happen.

The video below shows a tour of the dogs at the Memphis Animal Shelter. For me, this is the hardest part of volunteering. Walking past those cages, seeing those sad eyes — it takes everything in me not to open that gate, give a hug, and promise that someone out there will save them and give them a life of love and happiness.

The key to being fully prepared before volunteering is getting the answers to the above questions. Also, be honest and realistic about how much time and effort you can spare. I always want to volunteer for every event and visit the shelter as much as possible, and truth be told I would happily be there every day.

That’s not possible, but I am comforted in knowing that other volunteers are there regularly helping the animals and giving them comfort. Let’s hope one of those volunteers will be you!

Photos: Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition (BARC)

From Around the Web

  • Max

    Thank you for a great article.

    • http://www.petsadviser.com/ Pets Adviser

      You’re very welcome, Max. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Debbie

    Terrific post! I shall be recommending to my blog readers and more!

    • http://www.petsadviser.com/ Pets Adviser

      Thanks Debbie. Good to see ya. Love your blog.

  • Vicci

    Great article. Please can I make a plea about the training. I am a dog trainer in the UK and help an animal shelter with their dogs and help train the volunteers. We get quite a few who “have watched all the TV programmes”, “had dogs all my life” and are reluctant to be told anything different. One of the most difficult things to achieve in a shelter and one of the things the dogs most need is consistency. If you are told “do not use the snatch and jerk method to get dogs to walk on a lead properly” or “we do not support the alpha dog/dominance theory as a training method at this shelter” then do not snatch and jerk the lead or go on about dominating the dog! I love new ideas and encourage everyone to share their views and ideas and I will incorporate them (giving due credit!) or explain why we can’t use a particular idea. Do not wait until I/the staff are out of sight and then please yourself what you do. While we are very grateful to volunteers for all that they do please remember it is a two way process and you get somehting out of it too; it is a privilege to be allowed to work with these dogs, not an automatic right just because you asked to, so please show the shelter and the dogs the respect they deserve. And of course, if you see/hear anything you are not happy with then please report it immediately.

    • Kristine

      Thanks for your reply, Vicci. My shelter has a trainer that comes in on a regular basis to work with the dogs. I follow the shelter’s guidelines and can say the rest of the volunteers do an excellent job as well. You did raise a good point, and it is important for volunteers to leave the training to the staff and/or professionals.

  • Marcy

    Great article that really explains the highs and lows of volunteering at a shelter. I rescued both my dogs and they complete our family. Thanks for the great infomation

    • Kristine

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Marcy. The list is based on my own experience as a volunteer, and I hope I have inspired people to get out there and help the animals, even if it’s just one day a month. I’m sure your dogs feel very lucky to be rescued by you, and hopefully there are more people like you out there looking to save a furry friend.

  • Cheryl Chervitz

    I love the shelters near me. They let me know if they need anyone and when. All of the people are friendly and we all share the same feelings towards all animals.

    • http://www.petsadviser.com/ David Deleon Baker

      That’s great, Cheryl. Volunteering is so much more fun when it’s something you’re passionate about.

  • Anne

    My partner and I have been volunteering for shelters and rescues for over 8 years. It has brought us together and given us nearly all of our furkids!!!

    • http://www.petsadviser.com/ David Deleon Baker

      Aww, I love hearing that.

  • Don Heath

    Thank you for this. I have been thinking about volunteering at a shelter and because of this article, I realize that I may not have fully considered the “heartbreak” aspect and should probably give it some more thought. I still intend to volunteer but I should be better prepared now that I have read this article.

    • Kristine

      Thanks for your comment, Don. The heartbreak is just one aspect that I have experienced, but there are rewards to balance that out. Overall I think knowing that I have helped the animals outweighs the heartbreak, and I would definitely recommend giving it a try if you are interested.

  • Lynn

    What a great article!!! Made me think hard about wanting to volunteer, I don’t know If I could handle the heartbreak part but am still going to try it as there are so many out there that could really use an some help. Thanks!!!

    • Kristine

      Lynn, the heartbreak is a part of it, but the overall experience is very rewarding. It affects people differently, so give it a chance and see how you feel. I think the heartbreak is a little selfish on my part; I get sad seeing the animals go, but I remind myself that they are lucky to be able to leave the shelter and receive the love of a home and a family. If you decide to volunteer, let me know how it goes.

  • Carol

    Great article offering really good advice for anyone thinking of volunteering at an animal shelter, it so helps to be prepared!

    • Kristine

      Carol, you are right that it helps to be prepared! People have asked me if volunteering means playing with puppies and kittens all day and while that might be a part of it, there is much more to the role. Hopefully my experiences will help others be more prepared and more interested in volunteering.

  • Mark Cohan

    I love pittie in above video. wonder what happened to him and others there that day or do I dare? so sad that puppy mills drive the shelter industry(??)===if we outlawed puppy mills and backyard breeders the shelters would all close for lack of supply of dogs/cats! that’s my goal!

  • Shazza

    I believe this is an excellent article. I’ve been involved on the rescue end for years, but have never actually volunteered with a shelter or rescue. This makes me think again whether I really want to or not. Thank you for it.

    • http://www.petsadviser.com/ Pets Adviser

      Shazza, the feeling you get from doing GOOD… priceless.

  • Deborah J Austin

    Not sure if I could volunteer, I love animals too much, I would want to bring them all home. As a matter of fact, when I was much younger, my parents worked in a shelter, and I can remember having a LOT of cats on the farm. I do believe they brought them all home to keep them from being “put to sleep”.. :)

    • http://www.petsadviser.com/ David Deleon Baker

      Aww, cute story!

  • Lorraine

    I have always wanted to volunteer at a pet shelter but I think I would become so attached to all the lovely animals, I would want to bring them all home!!! I so admire people who do this!!

    Lorraine – Ontario, Canada

  • Global Citizen

    I was thinking of volunteering with a pet shelter but like others I think I would be too attached to them and may want to bring all home. Definitely a must read for all.

  • LMS

    Instead of volunteering (worried about too many adoptions?), always consider skimming clearance sales at the local pet store for food that’s on sale (or toys, leashes, bowls, litter) and see if a rescue could use these items, especially if you can’t afford a substantial monetary donation. Or, steel yourself and do what you can to help there even if you have to tell yourself “No, I am helping as much as I can but I cannot take any more animals into my home”.