Everything I needed to Know About Life I Learned from the Animal Shelter

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First cat I adopted in 2009.

Cedric was the first cat I adopted at the shelter I worked at for five years. I want to thank everyone that made my five years the shelter a great experience. We had a fantastic team of staff members and volunteers. This post is in memory of my last day at the animal shelter.

Read: How I learned About Confidence and Never Giving Up From the Animal Shelter

Teamwork

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The most important lesson I have learned at the animal shelter is about teamwork and working together. Teamwork is involved in every aspect of the job which includes bathing, grooming, or handling a fractious animal for a vaccination to name just a few scenarios.

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For instance, one person might hold a dog while the other worker administers a vaccination or one person will hold a cat while another person cleans their cage. Even a small task can be better accomplished with two people instead of one.

Compassion

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Compassion must be at the root of everything that a person does in his role at the animal shelter or veterinary clinic. I often asked myself how I can better handle each animal for routine procedures such as cleaning, grooming, and vaccinations.

Each year the shelter has designed many guidelines to make each step of the intake and cleaning process stress free and even fun! Compassion also plays a key part when dealing with animals that need bottle fed and for emaciated animals that are fragile and scared in the shelter. The below picture is Captain Nibbles who came in feral and covered in oil. We had to bathe him and socialize him which was a challenge.

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Compassion is also important when dealing with an animal that hisses out of fear and only needs a gentle touch and a soft voice to get them to open up. The below picture is the first foster cat I socialized. His name was Snowy. Snowy took 2 months to completely socialize him. The first picture is the before picture and the one following that is the after picture.

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When I work with feral cats at the shelter I go very slow, feeding them canned food on a spoon as I slowly petted them and worked their confidence level up. This is combining challenge and reward.

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Honesty

Honesty is one of the most important traits you can possess while working at the animal shelter. Our policy is to always tell the truth but to work hard toward changing the truth that we have to tell.

For example – we are morally obligated to tell adopters if an animal is sick, but we eventually want to tell the person that the animal is healthy and ready for adoption.

Asking Questions

Learning to ask questions on the job is a great way to gather important information about the expectations set forth by the animal shelter. For example if a volunteer notices that a cat has hurt leg, the volunteer might ask if that cat requires any special treatment as they might be the first to notice.

Another form of asking questions is a volunteer asking for additional tasks after their current assignment is complete. Sometimes it can appear frightening to ask questions as it was for me at first, but I learned that it is valuable in life and in work. It can be the thing that saves a life or accelerates treatment or success. Asking questions opens conversation which leads the way to brainstorming solutions.

Distractions and Going with the Flow

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Learning to deal with distractions and detours to a normal routine is valuable. One big distraction is when you just get started cleaning a cage and a new cat comes in.

Because all cats have to be entered into the shelter system in a timely manner, you are forced to drop what you are doing to get a cage ready for the new arrival sometimes. In life, we learn that there is no straight road to anything in most instances. Sometimes the path to success will include road blocks, unexpected stops, merging, and detours.

Acceptance

Being accepted for who you are is the same as accepting an animal as they are. Some animals just like people may have disabilities. The featured cat below is Autumn, a calico who went through 4 different owners. She came in with a broken jaw which the vet said could not be fixed and made it clear that putting her to sleep would be the answer.

I told them no, that I accepted her as she was and was going to find her a home even if it had to be mine. She deserved to live as long as she was playful, happy, and loving. She was one of the best cats I came to know, and she found a home with a great lady. Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe even it is hard and not the popular option.

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Some cats have 3 legs or 1 eye while other cats can only eat canned food or food that has been blended due to having no teeth or a jaw problem. Some cats also have disorders that mimic human disorders like cerebral palsy.

Special Care

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We learn that some animals in the shelter require special care just like humans. Some cats might require canned food, blended food, kitten food, or medicine each day. Cats or dogs requiring special food is very likely if the animal has a jaw injury or is too old to eat hard food.

Special Food

Some animals might even require physical rehabilitation or physical therapy if they have an injury. This is usually the case with animals that come in with broken legs or pelvis injuries which require surgery to correct. The below cat and dog were the result of an illegal trap being setup in a park location.

The origin of the trap being there was unknown. Both animals had their leg amputated (just the front) and got around almost better than some of the four legged animals.

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Three legged dog

Time Management

Learning about time management. Going at a good pace… not too slow, not too fast. Each day the cat and dog cages need to be cleaned by noon. It is expected that cages are cleaned at a good pace while balancing quality and time.

One bad thing about going too fast would be filling up a water bowls to quickly which could lead to over filling the water bowl and drenching the cage, requiring the cage to be cleaned up. On the flip side, going to slow could hold up afternoon operations. Another important time related task is that disinfectants have to sit for 10 minutes when a surface is sprayed down or wiped down.

The Small Things

The small things matter when it comes to keeping the animal shelter clean and welcoming to the public. The big things like making sure the cages are clean can easily make the little things not stand out as much. Some of the small things that is important to remember include:

  • Opening cages slow so the animals are not frightened by the loud noise.
  • Moving slowly as not to frighten the animals that are new to the shelter.
  • Disinfecting hands between each animal.
  • Remembering that if anything hits the floor, it is dirty and needs replaced.
  • Keeping landmines cleaned up in the yard (dog poop).

Mistakes

Mistakes shape who we are and so does learning how to problem solve. When a new volunteer begins to start cleaning cages, I expect mistakes. When I spot a mistake – I happily point it out and show each volunteer where they can improve. I make it fun by telling them that if they make more mistakes, at least try to make it more of a creative mistake so we can find a creative solution :).

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I tell them that if they make another mistake I am very open to giving them more pointers to prevent it from happening again. An example of a mistake is forgetting to water one cat, dropping a litter box, or accidentally placing the cage items in the wrong spot. Another great example is taking pictures of cats or dogs… they say you always get about 10 bad pictures before a good one which happens to be true!

Being Unique

Every animal is unique and deserves individual consideration for housing, grooming, feeding, and watering, and so on. Each cat and dog will have a different personality, color pattern, and receptiveness to being handled as well.

Each handler, cleaner, and volunteer that socializes with that animal should be required to learn the specific needs and traits of each animal so they can provide optimal care for them. The funniest instance was when a cat insisted they had to sleep on my shoulder while I cleaned their cage which is the video above.

Happiness and Sadness

Everyone learns happiness beyond measure and sadness beyond comprehension. This is to be expected in any animal shelter. When a cat or dog comes in with an infection or broken bone, everyone wants to see the animal get better. And when they get healed up and adopted, everyone cheers. On the other side of things, sometimes there is nothing we can do for an animal even with veterinary help and hospitalization. Sometimes with severely injured animals, you just have to make them comfortable until you get them to the veterinarian to see what they can do. One thing I have learned in 5 years at the shelter is that you always treat every animal and person with respect regardless of what the outcome will be.

Sanitation

Sanitation and disinfection is a crucial skill that volunteers learn. Dishes need cleaned with dishwater, rinsed, bleached, and then rinsed one last time. The dishes are then set to dry. Cat cages are cleaned with Trifectant, an FDA registered disinfectant. Dog cages are sprayed daily and bleached once weekly. Another disinfectant that we do weekly is specifically designed to disinfect against parvo. For both cat and dogs cages, special care should be taken to ensure that the floor, walls, and windows are cleaned thoroughly of feces and organic matter.

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When cleaning a cat cage it is important that the newspaper is replaced, the covers are evaluated and replaced if dirty, the bowls are refilled, and the litter box is scooped or replaced as needed. When cleaning a dog cage you have to scrape the poop, spray the cage down, and squeegee it dry. Bowls are replaced if too dirty to be reused and the food and water bowls are refilled.

Another big sanitation skill that people learn is how to wash their hands and sanitize properly between each animal and before leaving the shelter. The shelter re-quires hand washing for 15 to 30 seconds prior to work and after finishing, along with 10 seconds of rubbing their hands with hand sanitizer between animals so that nothing is transferred or carried over from each animal.

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The disinfectant that is prepared and used is day is diluted with water. There is different dilutions for what it is being used to disinfect. Volunteers learn the conversions for ounces, quarts, and gallons. Volunteers also learn how to make the disinfectant so it is ready for use each day and learn how to and use it properly

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Another big sanitation skill that people learn is how to wash their hands and sanitize properly between each animal and before leaving the shelter. The shelter requires hand washing for 15 to 30 seconds prior to work and after finishing, along with 10 seconds of rubbing their hands with hand sanitizer between animals so that nothing is transferred or carried over from each animal.

The disinfectant that is prepared and used is day is diluted with water. There is different dilutions for what it is being used to disinfect. Volunteers learn the conversions for ounces, quarts, and gallons. Volunteers also learn how to make the disinfectant so it is ready for use each day and learn how to and use it properly.

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