5 min read

A Day in the Life of an Animal Shelter Volunteer


Written by Emily Bayne

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 04/28/2022, edited: 05/19/2023


Animal shelters are best known for providing care to homeless pets — but they do much more than just offer abandoned animals a place to sleep. They reunite families, rehabilitate sick, injured, and abused animals, and help control the pet population by organizing spay and neuter programs.

But animal shelters wouldn't be able to function without the help of the compassionate volunteers and staff who bring their mission to life. For Adopt a Shelter Pet Day on April 30, we wanted to get an inside look at what animal shelter volunteer work involves. That's why we interviewed Sarah, a former animal shelter volunteer in South Carolina, for some insight into the responsibilities and challenges that come with working in a shelter.

What does an average day look like for these volunteers? And what advice would they give those who want to follow in their footsteps? Read on to find out.

Disclaimer: For legal reasons, Wag! is not allowed to disclose the name of, or any other identifying information regarding, the shelter where Sarah volunteered. All images featured in this article are stock photos. Sarah has also asked to be anonymized — a request we’ve honored by including only her first name.

animal shelter volunteer in green scrubs kneeling next to golden retriever dog

Cleaning, playing, and other daily duties

Animal shelter volunteers have very little — if any — down time. From sunup to sundown, there are always animals to feed, meds to give, cages to clean, and walks to do.

A volunteer's day will vary depending on the facility, the number of animals at the shelter, and the volunteer's pet care experience. Experienced volunteers may be asked to complete more complex tasks, like transporting animals, whereas newer volunteers often perform simpler tasks, like scooping litter and feeding animals.

Sarah says her shelter days would always begin with cleaning kennels — lots of them. She recalls tackling the process of cleaning kennels in sections. First, each dog is moved to one side of their enclosure so volunteers can clean the other side. Then, the dogs are moved back to the freshly cleaned portion of their kennel so they can eat breakfast and take their medication while the volunteers scrub the other half of their enclosure.

According to Sarah, the cleaning/mealtime shuffle takes until lunchtime most days — even with several people working. But after their hard-earned lunch break, volunteers get to have a little fun playing with the four-legged residents!

"After lunch, everyone tries their best to keep the dogs entertained with the donated toys and the short amount of outside time they get each day. But due to the number of dogs, that time is very limited."

The staff also spends a lot of time dealing with the animals' medical needs and making sure they stay as healthy as possible. "Every dog is vaccinated, dewormed, heartworm tested, and microchipped upon intake," Sarah explains.

The highlight of the shelter pets' (and volunteers'!) day is when potential adopters come to look at and play with them. Even a belly rub and a game of fetch in the play yard provides much-needed respite from the lonely kennels. While prospective adopters interact with the animals, the staff members cross their fingers, hoping their favorite residents find a home where they'll be happy and loved.

As the visitors leave and the workday draws to an end, the volunteers start their evening routine. They give the dogs and cats their evening meal and administer meds to those who need them. Then, the next day, the work starts all over!

gray and white tabby cat in a black cage

The challenges that volunteers face

Animal shelter work comes with significant challenges that can take a mental (and physical) toll after a while. When asked about the most difficult part of being a shelter volunteer, Sarah replied, "Watching dogs go kennel crazy and seeing cats absolutely traumatized in their cages. There isn't any sugar-coating what happens to animals in the shelter."  

Shelter volunteers and staff work hard to keep the animals in good spirits, but their best efforts aren't always enough. "The employees do everything in their power to save them and defend their mental health. But the mental torture these animals face — by being surrounded by close walls, loud noises, unfamiliar people, places, and smells — is unavoidable." 

She says it's heartbreaking to see animals she's grown attached to "decline mentally and physically and knowing, despite everyone's best efforts, the only way for that dog to be saved is to be adopted. Because oftentimes, no one ever comes for them."

Tragically, many shelter pets that don't find homes are inevitably euthanized. But Sarah wants pet parents to know that "even in no-kill shelters, the most humane thing is always the priority."

"It takes about 6 weeks for a dog or cat to fully adjust to their new home and surroundings. They are going to be skeptical of other pets, children, and new sounds, and they will not yet know the rules."

A word of caution for pet parents looking to adopt

Placing homeless pets in loving homes is the ultimate goal of shelter workers. But sadly, many adopted shelter pets are returned to the very same shelter they were adopted from. Sarah says that shelter workers do their best to match dogs and people based on their personalities, activity level, and lifestyle, but this isn't always easy. 

Sarah stresses that an animal's behavior in the shelter isn't a true reflection of their personality. "What you see in the shelter is a scared, stressed, and under- or over-stimulated animal that needs help."

This change in personality can sometimes make pet parents rethink their decision to adopt a particular pet. But Sarah encourages pet parents to give their new pet time to adjust.

"It takes about 6 weeks for a dog or cat to fully adjust to their new home and surroundings. They are going to be skeptical of other pets, children, and new sounds, and they will not yet know the rules."

Sarah urges new parents to be patient and take things slowly. Shelter pets may have come from abusive or neglectful homes, so it may take some time for them to warm up to you. Bombarding your fur-baby with new faces and experiences can be overwhelming. Sarah's advice? "Don't invite new people over to see them or introduce them to anything too fast."

She also recommends setting rules from the beginning and using positive reinforcement to solidify good behaviors. "Teach them what you want from them and reward them for good behavior."

The happy endings make it all worthwhile

Animal shelter work can be physically and emotionally draining, but seeing animals progress and find their forever homes lets volunteers like Sarah know their work makes a difference.

"I love watching children read to the cats and older people who come in to sit them. It's amazing how much socialization helps animals."

Sarah says there is nothing more rewarding than "watching cruelty case dogs and cats go from being terrified, 'aggressive,' and emaciated to trusting, loving pets that are finally being adopted, never to be hurt again."

Related: 5 Heartwarming Animal Rescue Stories to Start Your 2022 Off Right

"Employees do the best they can, but there is never enough help."

Her advice for those interested in volunteering

When asked what advice she would give someone interested in becoming a shelter volunteer, Sarah said, "There is always something you can do. Even sitting in a kennel with a dog is the biggest help you could imagine. Reading to cats is also an enormous help that most wouldn't think about."

With so many animals and so few workers, it's hard to meet every animal's mental health needs. "Employees do the best they can, but there is never enough help." 

Sarah says she had so many fun and heartwarming experiences at the shelter and urges everyone to volunteer or donate if possible. "Any amount of time you can volunteer will give you so much joy," she writes.

We'd like to give a very special thanks to Sarah for sharing her time and expertise with us and for everything she does for animal welfare. To quote author and canine behaviorist Karen Davison, "Saving one dog will not change the world, but surely for that one dog, the world will change forever."

Have you volunteered at an animal shelter or know someone who has? We'd love to hear your story! Reach out in the comments, or tag us on Instagram!

Comments (2)



Hi my name is Mobina and I live in Manchester. I love animals and I am interested in helping and loving them, I am eager to work in the field of helping animals as a volunteer or employee. Please email me if you are interested.Thank you



Hi there, hope you are well. I am reaching out to you because I would like to volunteer for one day at your animal shelter to help out. How does the process work ? would I be able to volunteer for one day only ?

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