6 Ways to Help Your Local Animal Shelter

Adopting is awesome. But there are myriad other ways you can make a difference, from fostering kitties to photographing pups.

by Lindsay Hamrick, CPDT-KA
August 28, 2021
anonymous woman pampering and taking care about a small ginger kitten
Thai Varela / Stocksy

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Newsflash: Adopting a pet isn’t the only way to help a dog or cat in need. Most animal shelters and rescue organizations are underfunded and short-staffed, which is to say their resources are spread pretty thin and they can use all the support they can get. From volunteering in person (think: walking dogs, cuddling cats) to volunteering your skills (photography, graphic design), there’s a niche for everyone. Here, a few of the myriad ways in which you can lend a helping hand in finding homes for the six to eight million homeless pets who pass through the shelter system each year in the U.S.

1. Foster

Maybe you’re not quite ready for the long-term commitment of adopting a new family member, but that urge to get a kitten fix is strong and there’s no reason to fight it. Fostering delivers on the rewards of being a pet parent, without (most of) the downsides — you’ll still need to scoop or pick up poop, but only for a few weeks. Many foster pups and kitties have never lived in a normal home, so foster moms and dads are often the first person to show that animal love and earn their trust. There is arguably nothing more rewarding than watching a feral kitten take a treat from a human’s hand (yours!) or a fearful puppy wag their tail for the first time (you did that!).

The gig is to show a rescue animal how to be a family pet, which will get them adopted far faster than if they were cowering in the corner of a cage at a shelter. After all, you’ll have insight into the dog or cat’s personality, likes, and dislikes that a shelter worker doesn’t — not to mention tons of derpy photos. Most organizations provide foster parents with the necessary supplies, and anything else you purchase is a tax write-off. The main reason why people hesitate to foster an animal is the self-limiting belief that it will be too emotionally taxing. We feel you — but while letting a foster pet go to their adoptive home can be bittersweet, knowing that you made that happen by showing them how to dog or cat feels pretty darn good. Plus, not only does that mean you can bring a new foster pet home who needs you now, it also opens up space at the shelter so they can take in new strays off the street.

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2. Volunteer at a Shelter

Maybe fostering isn’t your thing because your landlord doesn’t allow pets, or you just know you’ll end up keeping all 12 kittens from that litter you bottle-fed. Volunteering at your local shelter may be the next best thing. At many overcrowded shelters, volunteers are dogs’ only hope to go for a walk. We don’t have to tell you how grateful a dog stuck in a kennel 24/7 will be for some fresh air and the chance to stretch their legs (and lift them on things). Cats don’t need walks, but they still need affection and socialization. So, if you’re a cat person, head to your local shelter and go cage by cage doling out kitty cuddles.

Rescue organizations also rely on volunteers to handle (read: show off) animals at adoption events and talk to prospective adopters. But if you’re more the behind-the-scenes type, ask your local shelter how else you can help — perhaps their adoption space needs a fresh coat of paint to make it more inviting? If you’re not afraid to roll up your sleeves, your local shelter will surely find something for you to help with.

3. Volunteer Your Skills

Don’t dismiss volunteering if you don’t have animal handling experience. Great photographs are essential for getting a pet adopted, so whether you’re a professional or amateur shutterbug, capturing those puppy-dog eyes or kittenish curiosity will help grab the attention of prospective adopters. Organizations also need help writing grants, designing fliers, planning events, and keeping their social media media feeds fresh. Do you have a strong Instagram or TikTok following, or know how to write shareable posts? Maybe you’re looking to dust off your graphic design degree and finally prove to your folks that it was a necessary part of your career path by creating catchy adoption promotion materials?

4. Transport

There are a lot of moving parts in animal rescue — literally. If you own a car, you can drive shelter animals to/from the veterinarian, saving staff valuable time. Some shelters organize free or low-cost spay/neuter clinics for people in underserved communities, but not everyone has the time or transportation to get their pets to appointments. Offering someone’s dog or cat a ride helps that pet, plus prevents unwanted litters that may wind up in the shelter system. If you live in the Northeast, many shelters “pull” animals from shelters down South or the Caribbean. These dogs and cats often arrive on chartered flights, and organizations need volunteers to transport them from the airport to shelters or foster homes.

5. Donate

Of course, we’d be like a dog without a (safe, durable, non-toxic) bone if we didn’t mention donations. Organize a pet food drive at work or at your kid’s school to help keep your local shelter’s pet food pantry stocked, drop off those threadbare towels and blankets, search for the best toys to keep shelter cats and dogs entertained during their stay, or put together a puppy or kitten “shower” to collect all of the supplies on your local shelter’s Chewy Wish List. Create a Facebook fundraiser, designate your local shelter to receive donations as you shop on Amazon Smile, see if your workplace has a matching gift program to match your monetary donation, or use an app like ResQWalk that sends donations to your shelter every time you log a walk with your dog.

6. Advocate

Many of the reasons why animals end up in shelters are connected to the struggles of families in your community. Whether it’s a lack of affordable, pet-friendly housing or a pandemic that leaves so many out of work, becoming engaged in the bigger picture can have a long-term impact in keeping families together. If you’re already connected to a social service agency, this connection will be obvious. Consider partnering with a local shelter to create a fund to cover pet security deposits or a program that provides temporary fostering of pets while an owner is in the hospital. Offer to run a community pet food event, distributing food and supplies to pet owners who can’t easily get to the shelter for help.

That you clicked on this page means you care a lot about pets in your community. Take an inventory of your interests and skills, figure out the time commitment you can offer, and then let the creative juices flow. Just try not to keep all 12 of those kittens.

Lindsay Hamrick, CPDT-KA

Lindsay Hamrick lives in New Hampshire with her three dogs, chickens, and an assortment of rotating foster animals. She forces her elderly chihuahua, Grandma Baguette, on overnight backpacking trips, can diaper a lamb with one hand, and while she’s a long-time Certified Professional Dog Trainer, 66.7% of her dogs still won’t lay down when asked.