Ultimate Guide to Volunteering with Animals

Volunteering helps animals lead fulfilling lives – and it has many personal and professional benefits for humans, too. Animal volunteers can peek into potential fields of interest, develop practical skills, and work their way into paid positions in animal welfare organizations. Volunteering with animals is also a great way to make friends and have fun. Plus, studies show that working with animals lowers stress levels and increases your sense of stability and meaning in life.

Ready to get started? This guide shows the many different ways you can volunteer with animals and how to find the right opportunities for your skills and interests – from working at your local shelter to volunteering abroad. You’ll also find volunteer search and preparation resources and get insider tips from an active volunteer at the country’s largest no-kill animal community.

Last Updated: 03/25/2020

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Meg Marrs

Founder and CEO of K9 of Mine

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Meg Marrs is the Founder and CEO of K9 of Mine, a dog care site focused on helping owners understand and care for their furry four-legged friends. K9 of Mine provides a variety of training guides, gear reviews, and breed profiles for owners looking to provide the best life for their pups! Meg is a shelter volunteer and pet foster parent with Austin Animal Center, the largest open-intake, no-kill shelter in the country.

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Popular Ways to Volunteer with Animals

Lending a hand at the local animal shelter may be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about volunteering with animals, but there are tons of different settings and roles beyond the shelter for prospective volunteers to explore. Wild and domestic animals alike need help from human volunteers, and even those who want to help animals without handling them directly can find their niche.


Animal Shelter Volunteering

Approximately 6.5 million animals enter shelters annually according to the ASPCA. Caring for and homing shelter animals is a collaborative effort, so volunteers are needed to fill many different types of roles. Hands-on behavior modification, animal handling at off-site adoption events, educational outreach, groundskeeping, veterinary transportation, photography, administrative work and everything in between are crucial to the success of animal shelters and their furry residents.

Common Volunteer Tasks & Responsibilities

  • Socializing cats
  • Walking, running and playing with dogs
  • Training and behavior modification
  • Bathing and grooming
  • Transporting animals to vet appointments and adoption events
  • Cleaning and maintaining grounds
  • Community outreach and education
  • Working in the shelter retail store
  • Working off-site adoption and fundraising events
  • Administrative and office work
  • Pet photography
  • Gathering background data on adoptable animals through observation and interaction

You’re a good fit for this type of volunteering if

  • You’re at least 16-18 years old, depending on the volunteer position
  • You can commit to a consistent volunteer schedule
  • You can bend, lift and spend multiple hours on your feet
  • You work well with people as well as animals
  • You communicate effectively in person and via email and text
  • You enjoy hands-on work

Real-Life Animal Shelter Volunteer Programs

Volunteer programs will vary from shelter to shelter, but the following examples of real-world programs can give future volunteers an idea of the opportunities that may be available in their area. Volunteers can find a program type that aligns with their interests, skills, and schedules and ask their local shelter if they have similar opportunities available.

Animal Shelter Group Volunteering

Group volunteering opportunities are great for students, office teams, clubs and other small organizations to lend a hand and build comradery. These are typically single sessions that last a few hours. Group volunteering at the Oregon Humane Society is open to small and large groups and can entail socializing animals and maintaining grounds.

Youth Volunteer Program

While many opportunities require volunteers to be at least 18 years old, many shelters have youth programs that allow kids and teens to help out in a variety of capacities. At Lucky Dog Animal Rescue in Virginia, youth volunteers can participate in adoption events and help with administrative work in the shelter office. Fundraising, educational camps and even birthday parties where kids make treats and toys to donate to the shelter make for hands-on volunteer opportunities off-site, too.

Animal Photography

Shelter animals often get a quick photo snapped when they enter the shelter to help them get adopted, but these animals are often scared and uncertain when they first enter a shelter. Volunteer photographers play a key role in taking nice photos that make shelter pets look more appealing to prospective adopters. Photographers, like the ones at Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA, may also take photos at special events.

Off-Site Adoption Events & Special Events

Orphans of the Storm shelter in Illinois notes the unique impact off-site and special event volunteers have on getting animals adopted. Volunteers develop relationships with animals outside of a shelter environment, get to know their histories and personalities and hype them up to potential adopters who either can’t or prefer not to visit shelters directly.

Retail or Thrift Store Volunteering

Shelters often have a retail component to help fund shelter operations. Volunteers may help out in these stores, taking in and selling merchandise. The Humane Society for Southwest Washington’s ReTails Store has been consistently voted the best thrift store in Clark County thanks to its volunteers, and proceeds go to help the shelter’s animals in need.

Reading with Rescues

Reading programs are nice ways for kids to spend time with animals who can benefit from the soothing effects of a human voice and company. Kids can also gain confidence in their reading and speaking skills since animals are a non-judgmental audience. Minnesota’s Animal Humane Society Rescue Readers program offers a low-cost season pass for young readers who want to visit regularly.

Teaching Animals Basic Behavior Skills

East Bay SPCA puts a strong emphasis on behavior modification to help animals get adopted faster and thrive in loving homes. After receiving training, volunteers help in training, socialization and enriching animals during their shelter stay.

Exercising Pets

Animals in shelters don’t usually have the ability to roam freely and get exercise on their own, so they rely on volunteers to help them stay healthy. Pet exercise can include walking dogs, running with high-energy dogs, playing with cats, and helping prospective adoptees burn off excess energy during adoption events. The San Clemente-Dana Point Animal Shelter’s Pet Project Foundation even has volunteers who set up safe exercise pens for their rabbit residents.


Fostering Pets in Your Home

Pet foster parents are essential players in the animal adoption and shelter system. When shelters don’t have room for new animal intakes, or they have animals who could benefit from being in a temporary home rather than a shelter, foster parents step in and open their homes to hundreds of thousands of pets each year. Keeping animals in foster homes rather than shelters gives them a chance to let their true personalities come out, which is key in finding permanent homes. The Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Virginia found that after placing 52 dogs thought to have behavioral problems in foster homes, 90 percent turned out to be normal and were adopted within a month. The shelter environment was simply too stressful. Foster homes are needed for all types of animals, not just stressed dogs, so it may be a great option for people who like the idea of having a significant impact on animals without the long-term commitment.

Common Volunteer Tasks & Responsibilities

  • Understand the individual needs of your foster pet and ensure you can meet them
  • Provide basic care, including exercise and vet visits, as well as a safe and loving home
  • Socialize foster pets with other animals
  • Work on training
  • Take pictures of your foster pet to help them get adopted
  • Learn about your foster pet’s personality and behavior and talk about them to potential adopters

You’re a good fit for this type of volunteering if

  • You want a flexible way to help animals
  • You like caring for animals but don’t want or are unable to take on the full commitment of a permanent pet
  • You can commit to care responsibilities for different animals, like walking dogs, administering medication, or nursing kittens.
  • You have experience training animals
  • You are patient and empathetic
  • You are able to promote your foster pets to help them get adopted


Volunteering with Animals in Agricultural Settings

There are many opportunities for people to volunteer in agricultural settings, particularly at farm sanctuaries. These sanctuaries provide care and enrichment for animals who have escaped or been rescued from factory farms or other inhumane animal agriculture facilities. There are farm sanctuaries around the country, but since they strive to let animals live out their lives in the most natural way possible, more opportunities exist in rural areas, where animals have space to roam freely. Volunteers typically help with animal care, grounds maintenance and guided tours and education for the public.

Common Volunteer Tasks & Responsibilities

  • Barn cleaning
  • Grounds maintenance and minor repairs
  • Feeding, cleaning and providing other care for animals in the shelter’s hospital
  • Hospital chores, like cleaning and laundry
  • Feeding barn animals and cleaning troughs and food dishes
  • Egg collecting
  • Administrative support
  • Public education
  • Guiding tours
  • Running the gift shop or visitor’s center
  • Assisting with special events
  • Answering visitor questions

You’re a good fit for this type of volunteering if

  • You meet minimum age requirements or plan to volunteer with an adult parent or guardian
  • You can work in all types of weather
  • You are physically fit
  • You are interested in volunteering on a regular basis
  • You are invested in the welfare of agricultural animals


Volunteering with a Therapy Pet

Unlike the other volunteer opportunities addressed here, where volunteers help with animals that live in sanctuaries or don’t have permanent homes, volunteering with a therapy pet typically involves pet owners working with their own pet to help people in their community. Therapy pets can play many helpful roles, like helping young students learn to read, relieving college student stress, calming nervous fliers at airports or enriching patients at hospitals and residents of elder care facilities.

Common Volunteer Tasks & Responsibilities

  • Participate in handler training
  • Participate in regular therapy pet training, including the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen training for dogs
  • Talk with visiting people while remaining attentive to their pet
  • Visit hospitals, schools, assisted living facilities, airports and other participating locations
  • Ensure that both human and animal participants are calm and safe

You’re a good fit for this type of volunteering if

  • You have a well-behaved pet, and you work well together
  • You can commit to training
  • You can pass a criminal background check
  • You and your therapy pet can commit to regular visits to participating organizations
  • You are okay with others touching and interacting with your pet


Volunteering in Wildlife Conservation

Volunteers can play important roles in animal care and wildlife conservation, both directly and indirectly. There’s a huge range of volunteering opportunities where you can help protect wildlife. Some volunteers may work in enclosed wildlife sanctuaries, caring for animals that can’t survive in the wild, while others may work in fish hatcheries or nature refuges ensuring animals can continue thriving in the wild.

Common Volunteer Tasks & Responsibilities

  • Visitor education
  • Working in the retail shop or visitor center
  • Grounds maintenance and restoration
  • Feeding and food preparation
  • Cleaning enclosures
  • Community outreach
  • Grant writing and fundraising
  • Observation and data gathering
  • Special events coordination
  • Rehabilitation and medical care
  • Preparing animals and facilities for seasonal changes

You’re a good fit for this type of volunteering if

  • You can meet the physical demands of volunteer work, such as lifting heavy objects, bending, twisting and navigating different terrains
  • You are comfortable working on different types of tasks as needed
  • You can commit to training and a consistent volunteer schedule
  • You can work in different climates and types of weather
  • You communicate effectively with visitors and fellow volunteers


Volunteering with Animals Abroad

Volunteering with animals can be a global adventure. Wildlife and domestic animal populations around the world can benefit from volunteer efforts in a range of capacities, from caring for street dogs to making sure that newly hatched sea turtles survive the dangerous journey from beach to ocean. Because of the incredible breadth of ecosystems, animals, organizations, and needs around the world, international volunteers can offer specialized aid that they may not be able to provide in the U.S. Upon returning home, volunteers can continue spreading awareness of global ecological and animal welfare issues and apply their skills in local settings, too.

You’re a good fit for this type of volunteering if

  • You have a passport
  • You are at least 18 years old or will be traveling with a parent or volunteer organization
  • You are interested in ethical volunteerism abroad, not just social media clout
  • You are flexible and adaptable
  • You can pay travel fees
  • You can get any requisite vaccines
  • You can work in all weather conditions

4 Rewarding Ways to Volunteer with Animals Abroad

Because there are so many ways to volunteer with animals abroad, you may find it helpful to narrow your focus to one of the following areas of interest before seeking volunteer positions.

Wildlife Sanctuary Volunteering

Wildlife sanctuary volunteers help care for sick, injured and orphaned wild animals. Volunteers can work with a wide range of indigenous wildlife in a single area, which makes sanctuary volunteering unique and exciting. Some sanctuaries focus on rehabilitation and release into the wild while others care for animals through the remainder of their lives. Australia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Costa Rica are popular wildlife conservation destinations.

Volunteering with Street Animals

Many areas around the world do not have the resources to care for and house homeless animals. International animal care volunteers typically provide care to street dogs, but opportunities to work with other animals may be available as well. Volunteers generally feed, wash and play with street animals and may help shelter staff with cleaning facilities and providing medical care to animals. Opportunities are common throughout Asia and South America.

Volunteering with Marine Life

Coastal regions around the world need volunteers to help preserve and study turtle populations and collect data on reefs, fish and other aquatic life. Volunteers may go on deep dives, comb beaches or help in rehabilitation and care facilities. Marine life volunteer opportunities are common in Costa Rica, Seychelles, Thailand, Fiji, Sri Lanka and Mexico, but opportunities are available in many other island and coastal areas.

Farm and Livestock Care

Those who volunteer on farms abroad often do a combination of animal care and farming work. Volunteers may learn about sustainable farming practices and help ensure animals are fed and tended. Volunteers may herd goats, milk cows and gather eggs as well as build and repair farm buildings and infrastructure. Farm and livestock opportunities are available in Thailand, Kenya and Nepal.

Examples of Animal Volunteering Abroad Programs

Australia – Wildlife Animal Sanctuary

Volunteers help out at Walkabout Wildlife Park, a wildlife sanctuary and Aboriginal cultural site, for 1 to 4 weeks. Volunteers spend half their on-site time working directly with animals and half maintaining sanctuary grounds. They have weekends free to explore the surrounding areas. Living accommodations are provided on-site.

Location(s): Calga, Australia

Animal Care/Animal Rights in Guatemala

Animal care volunteers are placed in high-demand facilities, including dog and cat shelters, exotic animal refuges and veterinary clinics, and may perform many basic care duties. The facilities commonly rely on volunteers to clean enclosures, help with vet care, bathe and play with animals and work on small construction projects. Volunteers live with host families during their stay.

Location(s): Antigua, Guatemala

Elephant and Endangered Sea Turtle Coastal Conservation in Thailand

Volunteers can have a direct impact on two endangered species: the green sea turtle and the Asian elephant. The program begins on Thailand’s southern coast, where volunteers work with turtle conservation groups, like turtle nurseries. Then volunteers head to northern Thailand to help trainers reintroduce Asian elephants to semi-wild habitats.

Location(s): Chiang Mai, Thailand and Phang Nga, Thailand

Marine and Coast Conservation Volunteer Program in Spain

This volunteer opportunity involves working with marine wildlife as well as studying coastal plants and animals nearby. Volunteer work focuses heavily on gathering data and monitoring wildlife like whales, turtles, dolphins and seabirds. Volunteers also help improve wetland ecosystems and work on underwater and beach cleanups.

Location(s): Denia, Spain

The Little Farm Friendly Project

Farm volunteers assist with both animal care and sustainable agricultural work. Animal-focused duties can be hands-on, like feeding, bathing and raising, but volunteers also help with building enclosures and cleaning up after animals. Simple living accommodations are provided along with two meals per day. Volunteers are asked to commit to at least one week of work.

Location(s): Ratchaburi, Thailand

How and Where to Find Animal Volunteer Opportunities

Once you’ve decided how you want to volunteer with animals, it can sometimes be difficult finding organizations and programs that are located nearby and/or offer the exact type of volunteer work you’re looking for. Here are some tips and resources for tracking down the perfect animal volunteering opportunity.

Look online for animal volunteering opportunities

Whether going directly to an organization’s website to check their volunteer positions or searching through a volunteer database, looking online can be a great way to find a wide range of animal volunteer options. These websites can get you started in your search:

  • Petfinder: Unfamiliar with shelters in your area? Petfinder’s shelters and rescues search can help you find a place to volunteer.
  • ASPCA: Learn about and find ASPCA volunteer opportunities by location and area of interest.
  • International Volunteer HQ – Wildlife and Animal Care: International Volunteer HQ facilitates many animal volunteer opportunities abroad and provides helpful information to future volunteers.
  • World Animal Net Directory: Search for animal protection agencies domestically and abroad to help narrow your volunteer opportunity search.
  • Corporation for National and Community Service: This government resource helps volunteers find local opportunities in their area of interest.
  • The Nature Conservancy – Volunteer and Attend Events: Find events and ways to volunteer with The Nature Conservancy, which has chapters around the country.
  • Projects Abroad: Find international volunteering opportunities focused on conservation, animal care, marine life and more.
  • Oceans 2 Earth: Oceans 2 Earth is a nonprofit organization that works exclusively with wildlife habitat conservation and animal welfare organizations around the world.

Inquire in-person about volunteer needs near you

Stopping by an organization in person can often be the most direct way to get information about different volunteer positions. Staff or volunteer coordinators may even be able to give prospective volunteers more detailed information in person. Consider asking about opportunities by visiting a variety of places within your community, including:

  • Animal shelters
  • Wildlife sanctuaries and refuges
  • Veterinary offices
  • Conservation organizations
  • Farm sanctuaries
  • Animal rehabilitation centers
  • Local fish and wildlife department or parks and recreation department
  • Hospitals

Animal Volunteering Checklist

Volunteering with animals can be exciting and you may be eager to get started, but volunteers typically have to do some prep work before they can lend a hand. Specific procedures vary by organization, but these steps can help potential volunteers get ready to work with animals in need.

Research the volunteer requirements and responsibilities

Before settling on an opportunity, prospective volunteers need to make sure they meet the position’s requirements and can fulfill all responsibilities. Volunteer coordinators can help potential volunteers find positions at their organizations that may be a good fit.

Fill out a volunteer application

Volunteer applications may be available online or at the volunteer organization. Applications often include requirements, codes of conduct and liability waivers, so be sure to carefully fill out and read through the form.

Pay volunteer fees

Depending on the organization, volunteers may have to pay a fee. For local organizations, this may cover training and supplies. International volunteering fees may be greater but can cover room, board, and extracurricular activities.

Complete a background check, if required

Some organizations require background checks. Background checks can take a while to process and may require an additional fee, so be sure to inquire about this when researching volunteer requirements.

Attend any required volunteer training

Most organizations require volunteers to attend training sessions before letting them help out. These training sessions are essential in preparing volunteers to provide the best help they can.

Get ready to volunteer!

Depending on how you volunteer, this can be as simple as putting on animal-friendly clothes or considerably more involved. Fosters, for instance, need to prepare their house for their new animals. International volunteers may need to get passports and vaccines squared away. Careful research and planning can make for a smooth and rewarding volunteer experience.

Interview with the Expert: Advice and Insights for New Animal Shelter Volunteers

Meg Marrs

Founder and CEO
of K9 of Mine

Meg Marrs is the Founder and CEO of K9 of Mine, a dog care site focused on helping owners understand and care for their furry four-legged friends. K9 of Mine provides a variety of training guides, gear reviews, and breed profiles for owners looking to provide the best life for their pups! Meg is a shelter volunteer and pet foster parent with Austin Animal Center, the largest open-intake, no-kill shelter in the country.

What are some of the ways volunteers help out at Austin Animal Shelter?

There are always tons of things to do and ways we need help. If working directly with the animals isn’t your cup of tea, the enrichment team always needs help putting together stuffed Kongs, making felt chew toys and assembling other puzzle toys for pups. One recent project an Eagle Scout completed for AAC was putting together a wooden ramp and stairs elevated play surface for the shelter playpen. Staff love this Eagle Scout project because it provides enrichment for the dogs and helps dogs who aren’t familiar with stairs get some practice.

AAC also loves when volunteers take dogs for overnights. This allows for the collection of valuable data about the dogs. Some of these dogs are total mysteries, and even single overnights help staff know [things like:] Is the dog house-trained? Have they ever been in a home before? Can they handle stairs okay? How do they do being left alone for an hour or so? This information is what helps the staff’s behaviorists work and address the dog’s individual issues, and ultimately gets dogs adopted! People are much less inclined to adopt a dog with no background data about it.

Other helpful roles include organizing donations, doing shelter laundry and greeting visitors to show them around the shelter. You can even help from your computer by sharing your favorite shelter dogs’ profiles on social media channels to help them find their forever home, and raising awareness online about any special adoption events the shelter is organizing.

Are there any unexpected volunteering challenges to be aware of before getting started?

Volunteering at an animal shelter can be difficult at times. You tend to see the best and worst of people. It can be heartbreaking to witness some of the abused and neglected animals that come through the doors, and some folks really have a tough time with that aspect. It’s also easy to get attached to certain dogs and wish that you could take them all home. Ultimately though, it helps to remember that you are not there to find yourself a dog–you are there to help dogs find their perfect homes. While you can’t take home every animal you meet, there’s so much you can do to help animals find their dream family.

What about unexpected benefits?

Volunteering at a shelter, you end up learning a lot about dog behavior and dog training. Many shelters offer great classes for volunteers, and I’ve learned a lot about dog training that I’ve been able to share on my website K9 of Mine, as well as strategies I’ve been able to use for training my own dog at home.

What tips do you have for prospective volunteers?

If you can’t commit each week, don’t worry–just show up when you can. Shelters really appreciate weekly volunteers, but most know it’s not practical for everyone. Just try to set a realistic volunteering schedule and remember that even when you can’t show up in person, even just sharing a few of the shelter’s social media posts each day online can do wonders for exposing pets to various families and individuals who might eventually end up adopting.

Additional Resources and Reading for Volunteering with Animals

Veterinary Volunteer: 4 Great Ways to Start Volunteering with Animals Today

Humane Society of the United States: What to Know Before You Volunteer

Why We Need More Animal Volunteers

So You Want to Be a Photographer in an Animal Shelter?

How to Get Your Dream Job Working in Animal Conservation

How Animal Rescue Volunteers Create Happily Ever Afters