My family and I have been volunteering at the Lied Animal Shelter for several months, and I have learned a great deal of lessons already just by regularly doing service. If you have ever considered volunteer work, specifically at an animal shelter, then look no further because this article will illuminate you on ten things you should be considerate of prior to signing up and buying your volunteer t-shirt.

1. Cats Need Just as Much Love as Dogs.

When I first started volunteering at my local animal shelter, I was told that I should go through the cat handling training as soon as I could because no one seems to want to deal with cats. Now, this could be from cat allergies or some other innocuous reason, but I was shocked being the fervent cat lover that I am. I was in disbelief until I signed up for cat training, got my certificate, and went volunteering the next day: practically no one was in the cat “tent” helping them, petting them, or tending to them. Sure, the staff was there, but they have other duties on hand and do not have time to just give the cats love.

2. The “Big Dogs” Need the Most Love and Walking.

When first starting out as a volunteer, shelters often restrict you from walking or fraternizing with bigger dogs because of obvious reasons, but as a result, these dogs do not get walked as much even though they are the ones that need it the most. I see them in their cages just longing to go on a walk, begging to be given just a small pat on the head or a belly rub while the Chihuahuas and dachshunds get all the attention. The small ones may be cute and portable, but the big ones still need love and never get enough of it.

3. Being Bombarded With Questions That You Don’t Know the Answers to Humbles You.

What’s wrong with this cat? Why was that dog abandoned? Is this one a stray? Why is this cat’s fur all clumpy? Why does this rabbit have special food? These are just some of the questions I get from parents, kids, and grandparents looking to adopt. I don’t know the answer to every question, but since I’m wearing an official shirt of the shelter, people think I work there, and other volunteers work there. In these cases, I just have to step back and say that I honestly don’t know, but my superiors know, and I’m glad its not my responsibility to know everything.

4. Give the Old Cats a Chance.

I saw a 12 year-old black cat last week at the shelter—he was grumpy, depressed, and hated the situation he was in, but who could blame him. I opened his cage and let him sniff my hand, attempting to pet him while he glared at me and shrugged away. Eventually he warmed to me, allowing me to pet his head but only for a few moments. You can see why I was utterly amazed when I heard him purring, and when he stretched out from his huddle in the corner.

5. There are Always too Many Animals.

Recently, the shelter I volunteer in received an influx of cats, almost sixty from a hoarder’s house which means that the shelter is very much over capacity. I feel terrible for the woman who died, but I also feel terrible for the state of the cats. Situations like these happen too frequently, and there’s no way of stopping them; therefore, volunteers are needed to help take care of them.

6. Sometimes You Aren’t Just There for the Animals.

Yes, the animals are your major concern as a shelter volunteer, but the staff needs you the most. I see staff sweep, mop, fill bowls, tidy litter boxes, wash towels, mainly doing all the dirty work, but they don’t seem satisfied and not because their job is drudgery: they want the animals to be loved, and they don’t have time for them. When I walk in with my family, all clad in our volunteer t-shirts, they just smile, ear to ear. I was told how amazing volunteers are by one lady, and she couldn’t thank my family and I enough for just being there for the animals. I thought to myself, well, we aren’t just here for the animals; we’re here to help you too.

7. Sometimes You Don’t Have Time to Pet the Animals.

The staff at animal shelters are usually amazing, quick, and organized to the best of their abilities, but they need more people that they just don’t have the money to hire. That’s where volunteers come in handy—giving your time to any organization helps alleviate unnecessary stress and gets messes cleaned up. Last Saturday at the shelter, I was told to clean dishes and kennels. I thought it would be a simple task, but there were mounds of soiled food bowls and water dishes to be cleaned that it took me about a half hour of washing and drying to finish. Next, I had to hose down and dry kennels to prepare for new arrivals which also took around the same time as the dishes. I didn’t have time to really pet the cats that day or walk any dogs, but I was productive.

8. You’ll Get Attached to an Animal, and Then it Will Get Adopted.

I met this cute black and white kitten one day while volunteering, and I decided that I’d help him out or make him appear more adoptable. His name was Rio, and all he huddled in the corner of a shoe box shaking whenever someone would come up to his kennel, but he didn’t do that with me. When I would come over to open his cage and pet him, he stayed in his box, yes, but he would deeply peer into my eyes. I could feel a connection between us. He eventually let me hold him, and that was quite an accomplishment for me. After a while, he was more gregarious, letting people pet him with their finger stuck through his kennel’s holes, purring when stroked. He was a completely different cat by the time I was done with him, but then, he got adopted. I never knew who adopted him.

9. You’ll Always Wonder how an Animal got to the Shelter, and You’ll Have to Live With That Uncertainty.

Animals usually get to the shelter by their owner surrendering them, but the reason for that surrender does not have to be disclosed. You may see a cat or dog with disheveled hair or a bruised eye and feel deeply sorry for them, wanting to know what on Earth they’ve been through and how they got to the shelter, but you probably will never know. I have found myself multiple times trying to dissect an animal’s papers, searching for why they were at the shelter, but my searching has always been in vain, so I’ve learned to put that aside and simply give my time and love.

10. There is a Soul in Each and Every Animal, and They Should be Treated With Respect.

This reason is the best reason to volunteer at a shelter, and it’s a lesson that is sown deeply into my heart. I already knew animals were genuine spirits trapped inside a body of fur just as we are stuck in our flesh before volunteering, but when you see an animal locked up in a cage, lost for meaning and purpose, denied of love and a proper space to roam, you see that spirit come to life. Their eyes are painful to look into, especially seeing them helpless inside a metal box. The sound of the cages are loud and frightening, and no one should be subjected to that sharp clanking or be cramped into such a small space.

All these lessons and more are vital to me, and they have shown me that volunteering, especially at a shelter, is one of the most rewarding things you can do for yourself, animals, and others. My advice to you is to search for a local shelter and see if you can volunteer because I can guarantee that my experience is not individual, and help is always needed.

Image source: Erick Pleitez/Wikimedia