Life as an Animal Shelter Worker: Getting Started as a Volunteer

Here’s what to expect — from the moment you apply to the day you pet your first puppy or kitten.

By: U.S. Navy
Sure, there are cute puppies to play with — but that’s not all volunteers do. By: U.S. Navy

People volunteer with animals for many reasons, but not everyone is ready for the commitment involved. On the surface, volunteering at a shelter may just look like petting kittens and walking puppies. In reality, shelters need a lot more from their volunteers.

First, contact your preferred shelter and find out what their volunteer needs are. Although many shelters are always in need of extra hands, some are fortunate enough to have more than enough volunteers and may have a waiting list.

You may be required to:

  • Fill out an application
  • Attend an orientation
  • Make a tax-deductible donation (to cover potential costs associated with volunteering)
  • Participate in training courses
  • Sign a liability waiver

Every shelter follows its own set of guidelines regarding volunteers. Some have rigid procedures; others require no more than a signature and identification before handing over a leash.

Don’t Miss: 15 Things to Know Before Volunteering


You may wonder what sort of duties you could be responsible for as a volunteer. Chances are your shelter is wondering what sort of duties you’d be willing to perform beyond playing the day away with masses of puppies.

Although lots of face time with puppies and kittens may very well be requested of you, other needs may include:

  • Walking dogs
  • Socializing cats
  • Showing pets to potential adopters
  • Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning
  • Photographing pets
  • Landscaping
  • Office tasks such as printing or copying
  • Fostering

Decide what tasks you’d be most comfortable with initially and make sure the staff is aware of any limitations you have. As you spend more time volunteering, you’ll find a good routine and may even take on more hours and responsibilities.

Check out this multitude of jobs performed by animal shelter volunteers:


Because most are nonprofits, shelters need volunteers to keep operations running smoothly and the doors open to the public.

If volunteers are in such dire need, then, why do some shelters have such complicated application processes? Believe it or not, it’s not to frustrate or deter you — it’s to ensure that you are committed and reliable.

Too often, shelters receive interest from people who aren’t prepared to dedicate more than 1 or 2 visits at the most. If each volunteer needs training to handle the animals and understand standard procedures, the process is a waste when trained volunteers quit after spending as little as 20 minutes playing with the animals.

Here’s what you can do to prepare yourself for volunteering:

  • Set aside at least 2 hours per week specifically for spending at the shelter.
  • Turn your volunteer time into part of your routine so it’s harder to skip.
  • Consider becoming a volunteer with a friend or family member so you can go together.

Reliability is one of the most important characteristics needed in volunteers. Shelters need to know they can count on a core group of people to keep the animals healthy and happy. So if you know that you plan to volunteer only for a limited time, inform the staff when you apply.

By: MendocinoAnimalCare
Socializing cats and kittens is one job a shelter volunteer may perform. By: MendocinoAnimalCare

The Benefits of Volunteering

From a practical standpoint, volunteering for a nonprofit organization is a great addition to your resume. It is also an easy way to open some doors if you’re looking to land a paying job in a shelter.

Don’t forget the emotional reward that comes with spending time with animals. Few things are as calming as petting a purring cat or rubbing a dog’s belly. You have the chance to form bonds with the animals and help them find loving homes. You get to exercise them, pamper them and, if you fall in love (like I did on my first day), you can bet that the staff will be happy to help you adopt a new family member.

Don’t Miss: 7 Benefits of Being an Animal Shelter Volunteer

Volunteering can be a long-term commitment and may not always be easy or convenient, but if you can stick with it, volunteering with animals is one of the most rewarding experiences available. All it requires is a little dedication and a whole lot of love.

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Editor’s Note: “Life as an Animal Shelter Worker” is an occasional series of articles by Allison Gray about what it’s like to work at a shelter. Allison’s previous articles in this series were “Knowing You Can’t Take Them All,” “The Stray Animal Dilemma” and “Finding Love in a Shelter Pet.”

Allison Gray

View posts by Allison Gray
Allison Gray gained a wealth of knowledge about animal welfare issues and responsible pet care during her nearly 5 years of work for an animal shelter. She is a writer, photographer, artist, runner and tattooed remedial knitter. Allison also has been researching, testing out and perfecting nutritious pet treat recipes in her kitchen for Petful since spring 2017.

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