Originally Published Febuary 10th 2023, Updated January 14th 2024.
Volunteering at an animal shelter is a wonderful experience, giving you unique insight into the behaviour and mindset of animals, as well as allowing you to create a huge impact in your community. But, as with everything, there are pros and cons to working at a shelter, and distinct attributes that make the experience better.
You Love Animals
Having a love of animals is a key requirement in volunteering at an animal shelter, and, given that you’re reading this, I’m going to guess and say you definitely do. When volunteering, you are working hands-on with all types of animals at your shelter weekly, and all need attention. At Pets for Life, we work with cats of all ages and backgrounds, and some need more patience or specialised care than others. For example, some cats have no trouble warming up to people and returning affection, whereas others, due to past experience, need extra patience and kindness from volunteers to teach them that they are safe.
On numerous occasions, we’ve had kittens come in that are scared to be handled and/or near humans, either due to minimal interaction with them or harmful interactions with them. In cases like these, it is essential for volunteers to be patient and show them kindness, so they may redefine what they consider a threat and see the safe environment they are in. Whilst hissing and shrinking back may be off-putting to many people, it is important for volunteers to understand that these animals are trying to protect themselves, and their actions are not definitive of their character.
In another case at our cat shelter, we had an older kitten who would exhibit these “dangerous” traits and try to keep away from people who came into the shelter. But, after months of being exposed to kind volunteers and understanding that people are not threats, she was comfortable enough to show us her true personality, becoming the friendliest cat. She would follow the volunteers everywhere and greet us at the door, constantly seeking and giving affection.
As such, if you have a true love and appreciation for animals, and know they are inherently caring creatures, you are the kind of person these animals need. The experiences you get working with these animals only widens your perception of them, and allows you to see first hand the depth of their love and courage in return.
You are Responsible
For those of you aspiring to work in animal-based industries, such as becoming a veterinarian, we highly recommend volunteering at animal shelters to be able to familiarise yourself with the responsibility that comes with working with animals. For example, every cat at Pets for Life is desexed before they are adopted, making it a job for volunteers to check stitches and monitor the health of the animals recently operated on. Volunteers are better exposed to the medical practices of animals, as well as taught to identify and medicate diseases and infections in the animals, and the consequential preventative methods to handle these illnesses. However, you don’t have to be going into the animal welfare field. Anyone with a passion for animals and/or their welfare can volunteer, as long as they are still responsible enough to handle the more medical side of animal shelters, and open to learning more.
You Have a Strong Sense of Altruïsm
Finally, altruïsm is integral to being a volunteer, as you are giving up a couple hours of your week to assist these animals for no benefit to yourself except for a rewarding experience. However, many volunteers find their willingness to help others grow when volunteering, because it’s not always all snuggles and laughs. Sometimes you are dealing with hairballs, vomit and diarrhoea all in one shift. But you’re not alone in your work, and in seeing your impact in making even just one animal’s life a little easier, you’ll find the less enjoyable times are worth it.
Recently, we had a litter of young kittens who all came in with diarrhoea, and in the span of one night they managed to get their faeces spread all across their enclosure, up the cardboard lining their back wall, and all over themselves. The amount of little paw-prints they had stamped across the floor was countless, and while it took a little extra effort to clean both the cage and the kittens up, it was rewarding enough seeing them get healthy again and learn how to use their litter trays properly. And luckily, this doesn't happen often as most kittens are trained by their mothers!
So, in knowing the key attributes all volunteers need, let's unpack the responsibilities volunteers have:
As previously mentioned, there is a big responsibility surrounding handling the animals, medicating them, and cleaning their cages. For all animals, giving them attention may come in different forms. The most common include brushing their fur, letting them run around and play with you, and holding them, but for more timid animals, it may very well just mean sitting in their enclosure and talking softly to them, and seeing if they will come to sniff you out after some time.
For medicating animals, it may be something as simple as taking them down to the vets for their scheduled appointment, or giving them tablets or ointments for diseases they may have. Additionally, it is always important to register and record a change in an animal’s behaviour or body to make sure they are not developing any diseases, and communicate any concerns with other volunteers.
Feeding and cleaning are the two constant jobs for volunteers, and include everything from changing litter trays to mopping the floor of an animal’s enclosure. It is important to be able to be flexible when feeding animals, giving each animal what it specifically needs. For some, that may be specialised food to help with anxiety or diseases, or adding in milk to wet food for younger animals.
Regardless of the pros and cons surrounding becoming an animal shelter volunteer, the work is never short of rewarding. If you’ve ever considered becoming an animal shelter volunteer, there is never any harm in giving it a try! All shelters need more assistance, and volunteering is one of the most beneficial ways you can contribute to these animals’ lives. If you want to learn more about the day-to-day tasks of a volunteer at our shelter, read our day-in-the-life blog. Click here for Part 1, and here for Part 2.