Volunteering at an animal rescue

Photo by Pawsitive Match Rescue Foundation

Volunteering provides physical, social, and psychological benefits and is a valued role for older adults. Although adults volunteer for various organizations, there is limited understanding of why older adults volunteer for animal rescue organizations.

Since the 1990s, the number of animal rescues increased significantly, due in part to the animal welfare movement and a societal shift in the importance of companion animals. Hence an increase in rescue organizations. Since most rescues rely on volunteers for day-to-day animal care, this project set out to investigate older adult’s understanding of volunteering at such facilities.

Thirty-three community-residing older adults participated in a telephone interview for a project funded by the New Horizons for Seniors Grant. Twenty-five individuals reported no volunteer experience at an animal rescue, and eight participants reported rescue volunteer involvement. Each participant received a $20.00 gift card in appreciation of their time.

During the interview, participants discussed general past and current volunteer experiences, the factors that support a rewarding experience, and the issues that lead to volunteer dissatisfaction. The second part of the interview included a discussion of companion animals.  Finally, participants expanded on their understanding of animal rescues, their knowledge of the type of work that goes on within a rescue, and reasons that encourage or limit animal rescue volunteerism by older adults.

A Volunteer’s role

Generally, the role of a volunteer is held in high regard. Volunteer experiences differed from person to person, and a number reported multiple types of such engagements.  The majority of participants discussed the suspension of volunteer activities due to COVID-19; however, participants expected to resume these activities at some point.

When asked what makes a volunteer experience rewarding, participants identified several factors including feeling competent in their role, feeling appreciated by an organization, and believing that their volunteer time made a difference.  Participants also value a clearly defined organizational mission statement that aligns with their values. While they often look for good relationships with an organization’s supervisors and other volunteers, doing a good job was more important than making friends for the participants in this study. If friendships develop, that was an added benefit but not the primary motivation for joining an organization.

Participants identified several factors that would lead them to terminate a volunteer role. Key issues include lack of time, organizational changes that limited volunteer involvement, a change in the organization’s mission, physical health changes, and feeling that their contribution level had plateaued.

Companion animals

Participants believe that society is more tolerant of companion animals today. Each participant spoke of relationships past and present with animals. Many continue to care for animals, although the ability to continue to do so was dependent on factors such as housing, physical health and the decision to not replace a deceased animal. Despite the strong connection with animals, there was some lack of awareness of the role that rescue organizations now play in providing companion animals generally.

Animal rescue organizations

Most participants were generally aware of large rescues largely due to television but were less familiar with smaller rescue organizations in providing for animal welfare. Several participants were aware of animal rescues because a friend or family adopted from such an organization.

When asked to expand upon their general understanding of potential volunteer roles within an animal rescue, participants identified fostering, dog walking, and feeding but were less familiar with facility management, fundraising, marketing, laundry, and kennel cleaning. Beyond the large rescues, there was the assumption that most rescue organizations do not have a shelter and that animals go directly from rescue to foster.

When asked if there was a shift in companion animals’ role in society, each participant answered in the affirmative.

Many participants discussed their companion animals, both living and deceased sometimes with much emotion. There was little mention of the role that rescue organizations could play in providing companion animals or replacements for the same in older adults’ life.

Several participants had considered volunteering at animal shelters but were unsure about the process of signing up. As society shifted toward online applications and limited opportunities to ask questions, some felt the process had become too complicated or provided too little information.  

Suggestions to remedy this situation included articles in local community newsletters and presentations at community events. Several participants suggested a straightforward approach and asking someone to join. Once given all relevant information by a recruiter, such persons would be in a position to make an informed choice and complete a successful online application with help, if needed.

Several participants expressed concern about the physical capabilities associated with rescue volunteer duties, particularly the expectation of taking a big dog for a walk.

A few also discussed the emotional aspect of animal rescue and the concern that it would be difficult to leave an animal behind in a cage at the end of a shift at the facility.

Of the few participants currently volunteering at a rescue having known someone with previous rescue experience was an influencing factor in participants decision to volunteer.

These participants relied on the acquaintance to provide an accurate description of the role. While it is not always possible to know someone with experience, they felt that information sessions with q & a could help individuals make an informed decision about whether rescue volunteering was for them.


Generally,volunteering is alive and thriving among older adults. Our participants evaluated personal experiences, preferences, and talents to select opportunities that fit their unique lifestyles. They sought out experiences that provided emotional and intellectual stimulation. Despite the temporary halt to volunteering caused by COVID-19, participants looked forward to re-engaging in previously held roles.

In this group, there was a general lack of knowledge about rescue organizations beyond the large organizations. When explicitly asked about volunteering at an animal rescue, there was also limited awareness of smaller rescues and the diverse volunteer roles necessary for the organization’s day-to-day management.

Despite the increasing importance of companion animals in our society and especially so for older adults, our participants were mostly unaware of the importance of small animal rescue organizations in providing access to animal companionship, either by volunteering at a facility or by fostering or permanent adoption. As a result, they were also unaware of how these smaller organizations reduce much of the medical and financial exposure of rescued animal hosting in foster situations.

Participants suggested that if rescue organizations plan to engage older adults, community outreach is essential. The over-reliance on technology to recruit volunteers disenfranchises some individuals. Although the older adult population is increasingly computer literate, providing printed material and a monitored telephone line remains a preferred communication method for some individuals.

The emotional aspect of animal care came up sufficiently to suggest that this is a concern worthy of further discussion. Although this project did not investigate types of support, rescues play a role in supporting their volunteers’ emotional health, and more research is required.

In conclusion, to bridge the gap between the individual and rescues, organizations should consider expanding educational awareness of roles and opportunities. When deciding on a volunteer opportunity, individuals will assess various factors such as time commitment, ability to fill the expected position, and intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. For the individual to make an informed decision, rescue organizations need to reach out to the public and provide information on the volunteer roles.

 To assume that older adults will go to the website and just sign-up is short-sighted. Targeted campaigns must provide information to older adults about roles and the mutually beneficial value of contributing to the welfare of rescued animals. Such movements are vital to recruiting individuals and maintaining them within the organization.

I want to thank all the individuals who participated in this project. Your contribution is much appreciated. If you have questions about the project or animal rescues, please feel free to call me at 403-708-9639 or email me at training@pawsitivematch.org