5 Tips to Being the Best Possible Cat-Shelter Volunteer

If you're inspired to help cats, consider these things for an effective volunteer experience.


So, you think you want to do shelter work and help cats. That is a good thing! We all love cats, and what could be wrong about wanting to help them in every way possible? Helping with adoptability, socializing, cleaning, or other kinds of volunteering, all make a difference. You’re contributing resources — your time — that directly or indirectly help cats.

I have volunteered in a few different shelters over the last 30 years and have done everything from walking dogs, playing with cats, brushing and clipping cats’ claws, to cleaning cages and common areas. It’s all good. But shelters can certainly vary. Keep your eyes and ears open as you explore the possibilities. Your observations or intuition may have a lot to tell you about whether you and a shelter may or may not be a good fit.

Here are some tips to making your volunteer experience all it can be.

Beautiful adult gray tabby by Shutterstock

1. Do you like the guiding philosophy of the place?

There are things you may not be able to discern until you’ve volunteered for a shelter for a while, but you could always ask up front. Are they a kill or a no-kill shelter? Does that matter to you? What are their adoption policies? Do they support TNR? You’ll be happiest in a shelter that’s aligned with your values.

2. Is your heart in shelter work?

There are many ways to help cats. I love working with the cats at the shelter. I even love cleaning cages, just because I get to be around so many different and wonderful cats. I can help spread the word on my Facebook page, for example, about particular cats for adoption. But shelter work might not end up being the way you want to help cats. I recently have gotten to know another cat/animal welfare go-getter here in Vermont, and I thought it was very insightful when she told me that she had started out volunteering for a shelter, but that her heart wasn’t really in that kind of work. She realized, as time went on, that she thought she could make more of a difference doing hands-on TNR. And that is what she did. She went on to found a non-profit that focuses on TNR in Vermont’s rural landscape, and she coordinates with area shelters. I think the thing I learned from this story is that there are many ways to help cats — you need to follow your passion.




One of the plusses (I choose to call it a plus) about working at a shelter is that you will be tempted to adopt. Rama, and many of my other cats, were adopted from shelters I volunteered at.

3. Can you handle shelter work emotionally?

Shelter work has never bothered me emotionally, which is surprising as I am highly sensitive. (Now, if I had to euthanize animals, that would be another story.) But for a friend of mine, volunteering in a shelter proved to be too much. She was emotionally impacted by the setting — many animals in cages waiting for homes. It was more than she could deal with. If you are like this but you want to help cats, organizations or shelters probably have many other ways that you can help out without actually being in the shelter environment. Could you do writing for the shelter? Assist with fundraising? Help with the website or social media? All these things free up time and resources so that you or others can help the animals.




Kitten in transport box by Shutterstock.com

4. Will the shelter let you bring your best gifts to your volunteer work?

Usually it’s been my experience that the shelters I’ve been at have tried to work with me so that we’re both happy. I guess it’s possible that some shelter might need a particular kind of help that you don’t want to give. If you’re going to be happier working with cats than walking dogs, for example, but the shelter you’ve approached only needs dog walkers at that time, you might stick it out, or you might consider another shelter.

5. What is the vibe of the shelter? What do you observe?

My girlfriend calls it “spidey sense” — what do you pick up on when you go to the shelter for the first or second or third time? Is it clean? Chaotic? Does the staff seem professional? Happy? Sullen or apathetic? How does staff treat the animals? All these things will help you decide whether it’s a place you want to volunteer at. You’ll be picking up on stuff that you might not even be aware of. Honor your observations.

When you volunteer in any capacity to help cats, it’s a huge gift! Make sure that the match of your time and talents to the entity of your choice (shelter, non-profit, grassroots group, whatever) is a good match for you!

More by Catherine Holm:

About Catherine Holm: Told that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of The Great Purr, the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books, and the author of two short story collections. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots from the city.


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