While your local pound works to find forever homes for many cats, dogs and other animals, volunteering is an easy way to improve their lives while they wait.
Becoming a volunteer generally starts with an application. You can choose the kinds of activities that interest you, whether that’s walking dogs, cleaning kennels, reading to cats or creating social-media posts, to name just some of the options. There might be a short informational session or, for specific skills, some hours of on-site training.
Many shelters ask volunteers to commit a certain number of hours per month, but say even the smallest act is appreciated.
“A successful volunteer is someone who loves animals and appreciates the fact that no matter what they do, how small their role might seem, it has a huge impact on the pets here at the shelter,” says Callista Pearson, marketing and development manager for Salt Lake County Animal Services, in Utah.
“Someone who is just really open to not being intimidated by a pet that doesn’t immediately warm up to them, but who is willing to give it time and a little bit of love,” she says. “And that kind of friendship and trust can roll over into that pet being adopted and having a better relationship with its new owners.”
Six ways to volunteer:
Shelters are boring for animals. There’s lots of noise but little to do. Enrichment activities to keep them occupied include making and delivering food-puzzle toys, reading to them, sitting and petting them, or taking them on walks.
Volunteer dog walkers will probably be trained in leashing dogs, getting them in and out of their kennels, and managing them around other dogs. Often, volunteers start with easy, smaller dogs and after some experience walk stronger dogs.
At Maricopa County Animal Care in Phoenix, volunteers with the Petite Pet Project simply sit in a room with dogs and give them small treats and toys, letting the dogs socialize at their own pace.
“I love seeing them learn it’s OK to come out,” says volunteer Julie Jo Hughes. “The socialization of the dogs, getting them used to touch — it’s kind of like dog therapy. You’re committed to helping the dogs find their best self.”
Cats might need help getting acclimated to a shelter so they won’t be nervous when potential adopters come by. Just by checking in on and petting cats, volunteers can help them learn to be calm during interaction with humans.
“The more comfortable a cat is with a person approaching the cage and putting their hand in there, the more likely they are to get adopted,” said Katy Hansen with the Animal Care Centers of New York City.
Fostering an animal can be great for someone who loves having a pet in the house but can’t guarantee a forever home. Fostering programs vary, but usually start with a conversation with a coordinator about what level of involvement and time commitment you’re willing to make. Fosters can take a dog for the afternoon, the weekend, or until they are adopted.
Pearson says the Salt Lake City shelter houses around 9,000 animals a year, and the constant noise and activity can be stressful for dogs. Having a quiet home to escape to for the day or weekend can help dogs relax.
Hansen says Animal Care Centers has a “Boroughbreak” program that lets people take a dog for the afternoon, and a “Stray-cations” program that allows people to spend a holiday weekend with an animal. “If you aren’t going anywhere for the long weekend, why not have an animal with you?” she asks.
Shelters also use fosters to house animals recovering from surgery or illness. “They’ll recover faster in that home than in the kennel,” Pearson said.
She added that fostering kittens or puppies, while time-intensive, makes it more likely those animals will be adopted quickly “because they’ve been now handled by people,” and “socializing pets is a huge thing.”
An important part of making shelter animals happy and healthy is keeping kennels clean.
“We all have to be willing to do some dirty work, because with over 700 dogs in our care on a daily basis, there is a lot of cleaning to do,” says Samantha Wessel, volunteer engagement coordinator at the Phoenix shelter.
A clean blanket for each animal means a lot of laundry.
Terri Sharp, a retiree who has volunteered at the Phoenix shelter for more than two years, starts her day checking on all the linens in the kennels.
“We also mop and clean as we go. It helps them thrive,” she says. “We want to give them every opportunity in here to succeed.”
Shelters always need donations, so consider setting up a collection box or fundraiser for much-needed goods. Consider bringing in a box to work or school and collecting toys, blankets and other items.
“They can be new or used and washed,” said Hansen. “The only thing we can’t take is open or expired food or treats.”
Lots of shelters have online wish lists too.
Another way to help from home is by joining a shelter’s social media team, sharing or helping to run social media pages.
“Answering questions people post, writing bios … that’s just so helpful,” says Hansen.
Volunteers can design flyers, create templates and share ideas. “Good flyers can get shelter pets adopted quickly,” says Karen Hirsch of Lifeline Animal Project in Atlanta.
For insurance reasons, many shelters don’t allow kids to volunteer without a parent or guardian present, but there are often supervised opportunities.
“Children are always welcome to come and read to our cats via our Book Buddies program,” says Salt Lake’s Pearson. “The cats absolutely love the attention they get during these reading sessions.”
The Animal Care Centers of New York City has a similar program, “Books with Boroughbreds,” where children read to animals. “It’s really reassuring to the cats and dogs and it’s great for the kids,” Hansen said. “We also have a girl who comes in and she plays the cello to the cats.”