Many people often want to volunteer at an animal shelter but are unsure of how to get started or are wary of what they may be asked to do. This link is an insiders look at how to get started and what you may be expected to do. Volunteer activities look great on a resume and fill a person with pride, knowing that you helped an animal in need is truly one of the best feelings of all.
Every animal shelter is different. Some shelters have paid staff who take care of the stray animals, the sick animals, and the ones on 'death row'. Many of these shelters have staff who clean the cages and feed the pets. The volunteers are strictly there to play with the cats, take the dogs for walks, and to pat the bunnies. In short the volunteers usually do the fun jobs that the paid employees do not have time to do. More on volunteer duties below.
Other shelters have volunteers who run the whole show, they clean the cages, care for the pets, and help the veterinarian when needed.
Still other shelters do not have a building at all and use volunteers as foster homes who keep pets in their own home and may get together for public adoption events.
Some shelters allow volunteers to drop in whenever they want, others put them on a schedule, or ask that the volunteer call before coming.
Cat adopted, and photographed, by Author.
Most shelters have rules about how old a person must be to volunteer there. Sometimes they allow under age people to volunteer with a parent. Many allow volunteers 16 and over to be there on their own, others may ask that a parent be on the premises but not necessarily right with the child. Most will not allow young children to walk dogs on their own. To be sure anyone under the age of 18 who is interested in volunteering at an Animal Shelter should call and ask if there are age requirements.
Shelters have rules about what hours they are open for volunteers. Usually volunteers are asked to leave half hour before the shelter closes as a way to make sure every thing is done (all the animals put away) and taken care of by the staff before locking up.
Many animal shelters will have restricted areas and it is important that volunteers are aware of this. The restricted areas might contain sick animals (potentially contagious) as well as dangerous animals, or those needing more rest.
The duties volunteers have will depend on the type of animal shelter a person is volunteering at. Most often volunteers just want dogs and play with the cats. It is important to remember that there are other small animals who may benefit from being held, hamsters, rabbits and guinea pigs, for example.
There are many things volunteers can do too. They can groom the pets, asking staff for permission before bathing or cutting hair on any pet of course! They can help the staff with the laundry or dishes. They can offer to clean the bathrooms or take out the garbage. Once you have volunteered for a while and the staff are comfortable they may allow you to do other volunteer jobs such as fostering orphaned animals, or helping to train a special dog.
Volunteers are always needed to help with fund raising events. Most shelters cannot operate without having several fund raisers and need people to help. These may be garage sales, dog jogs, open houses, and so forth.
Many shelters are registered as charities and as such run by a volunteer board of directors who may meet once monthly and make important financial decisions and try to plan fund raising and awareness events. Typically the people on these boards are voted into their positions at an annual general meeting. Positions range from President, to Secretary, and Treasurer.
What about Death?
Most shelters, except those run solely by volunteers, do not have their volunteers work with any pets other than those up for adoption. Volunteers need to realize that animals up for adoption have been deemed safe and are vaccinated. Once the shelter has invested money in vaccinating a pet, euthanasia is not something they want to do. That is not to say that it does not happen but if it does it is usually a last resort as when a pet was there too long and getting stressed or dangerous.
Volunteers should realize that they are there to help pets to be good animals so they get adopted. Without them, the pets might not get the mental stimulation they need to behave when adopters come to look at them. As such the worry that an animal would get euthanized should be put aside knowing that more animals are helped.
A few shelters operate as no-kill and they do not put pets down, but all shelters, and the animals in those shelters, truly need volunteers to help and love them. While it might be sad to go to the shelters who are forced to deal with surplus animals by euthanizing some of them, it is sadder when nobody cares enough to go to those shelters.
How to Get Started
It all starts with a phone call. If you do not know of a shelter in your area, check the phone book or call your veterinarian. Ask them specifically about their age requirements, their volunteer hours, and what types of things you may be doing.
Most shelters have a volunteer contract you may be required to sign. Some have orientation sessions they may want you to attend. If there is anything else you need to know, ask your local shelter, because, as mentioned earlier, every shelter is different.
One Final Tip: Remember while volunteering at a shelter you are potentially acting as an animal trainer. Do not let any of the animals engage in behaviors that will make them less adoptable. Do not allow kittens to bite your fingers, or dogs to jump up on you, etc..
If you Have Pets at Home
There may be some concerns in regards to the fact that you can bring home some diseases on your clothing, so it is best to be aware of these concerns if your pets are young and unvaccinated.