4 Things I Learned From Working at an Animal Shelter


Before I started working at Whiskers Animal Benevolent League three years ago, I was oblivious to the amount of time, energy, and dedication that went into caring for the animals in shelters. I saw websites and social media pages posting transformational pictures, and I saw volunteers working at adoption clinics, but I never considered what it takes to see rescued animals through transformation, to get them to where they are adoptable.

The past three years have opened my eyes to a world that I barely knew existed. Here are four big concepts the past three years have taught me.

Me and Tig
Me and Tig.

The volunteer structure is complex

I’d never have guessed how extensive the volunteer network is. Here are the main categories of people who volunteer in shelters.

  • In-house shelter workers: These weekly volunteers are responsible for feeding cats, cleaning cages and free-roaming spaces, scooping litter boxes, basic grooming, and socializing the more skittish cats. In my shelter we had four to 10 volunteers per shift, and shifts happened twice per day.
  • Meds team: These people are responsible for giving cats medications, keeping track of various health problems, and making the call when a cat needs to see a veterinarian. In my experience, these are the hardiest volunteers. Other volunteers, no matter how exhausting and filthy their shift is, can look forward to cuddles and purrs from the cats who are eager for attention. The meds volunteers, however, are almost always greeted with hisses, spits, and growls. A cat rarely wants to cuddle with the person who just squirted medication down her throat.
  • Transporters: These volunteers take cats to various veterinarian appointments and are on call for emergencies. They also transport cats to and from the adoption clinic and foster homes.
Lynette with a FIV+ cat
Lynette holds a cat who’s FIV+.
  • Foster coordinators and foster homes: All rescue kittens must spend time in foster homes because of their delicate immune systems and their need for more constant care and attention. Many other shelter cats simply can’t thrive in the shelter environment, whether because of medical issues or personality quirks. These volunteers open their homes and hearts to these special cats until permanent homes can be found.
  • Adoption coordinators: These folks review applications, call references, organize meetings between cats and prospective families, and do everything they can to make sure the cats get adopted into loving, healthy homes. These volunteers know the history, temperament, and quirks of each cat to ensure great matches between cats and adopters.
  • Maintenance team: Like the emergency transportation team, the maintenance team is always on call for repairs. These volunteers also brave their way to the shelter after snowstorms to shovel and salt icy sidewalks.
  • The board of directors: The board members make decisions about how the shelter will function, organize fundraising events, and make decisions in the best interest of the cats.
Me and Fin
Me and Fin.

A volunteer system that relies on the individual schedules and memories of so many individuals will never be flawless, but it all fell into place. While working there I met some of the most dedicated and big-hearted people I have ever known.

Cats with FIV are adoptable

When I started working at the shelter I was a bit apprehensive to handle cats who had the feline immunodeficiency virus. Like most people, I didn’t understand the virus or how it was spread, and I worried about bringing it home to my own cats.

Over my first few weeks there I learned so much about FIV. Most notably I learned that FIV is actually pretty hard to transmit, and it’s passed from cat to cat primarily through deep bites and scratches. Not only were these shelter cats not a threat to my cats at home, but the FIV+ cats could even live healthily with uninfected cats as long as none was aggressive.

Lynette and another FIV+ cat
Lynette and a cuddle bug.

Most shelters don’t accept FIV+ and FeLV+ cats

Until I saw how many cats with FIV and the feline leukemia virus my shelter was rescuing from being euthanized, I had no idea how many cats were denied the chance to live.

Unlike FIV, FeLV is highly contagious, and cats with this virus require their own private space in shelters, away from uninfected cats. Most shelters can’t afford to alter their spaces to accommodate this need. Because of this, many FeLV+ cats get euthanized automatically because there is simply nowhere to put them. Given a chance and proper medical care, cats infected with FIV and FeLV can live happy and relatively healthy lives.

Me and Fuzzy.

Leaving can be difficult

I moved out of state last month. Of all the places and loved ones I left behind, the cats were the hardest to leave. They could get adopted, they could get sick, and the remaining ones might not remember me in a year. It was a very real possibility that I might never see many of them again. Holy heartbreak.


I knew I’d work in a no-kill shelter in my new city. It has been such a huge part of my life for so long, and it’s where my passion is. The most recent shelter where I volunteered set the bar high, and I’m still trying to find the right one. It’s important to me to work with cats who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance, like my FeLV+ friends from back home. I learned a lot while working at the shelter, and now I know how much work goes into rescuing cats. I also know how much I want to be part of a team that works hard every single day to make the lives of cats better.

About the author: Andee Bingham is a freelance cat writer from Asheville, North Carolina. She lives with her two sweet and sassy cats, Nora and Ida, and occasionally fosters others. When not snuggling with or writing about cats, Andee loves to read, write fiction, and explore the mountains. Learn more about Andee at her website and Dear Nora.

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