The Beginner’s Guide to Workawaying with Animals

Working with animals is a big dream for many people; it certainly was for me from a young age. In fact, I often find it easier to connect with animals than people – friendly, forgiving faces and warm, welcoming cuddles from a lovable animal never fails to brighten my day! Good thing for us animal lovers, with such a huge range of Workaway projects to choose from, the opportunities to volunteer with animals are limitless!
Perhaps you have never worked with animals before; maybe you have some basic animal experience from childhood pets of your own; or perhaps you have worked in depth with a particular species but want to branch out and gain some experience with other animals now… During my two years of Workaway adventures, a large chunk of my hosts have involved some sort of animal care and day-to-day interaction -- so here are a few things I’ve learnt from my experiences that I’d like to share with anyone who is thinking of volunteering with animals too!

collage of workaway experiences with cow, piglet in sweater, getting kisses from three dogs

There’s always a right host out there for you

Hear me out on this one! Animals require a lot of attention and care, in a different way to, say, a DIY-focused Workaway. For this reason, it is important to be honest about our level of skill and experience when it comes to choosing a host. 

Some points to think about: have you had experience taking care of animals you are not familiar with? Animals that might have trust or health issues, that might not be as cuddly and clean as we imagine them to be? Would you be comfortable being on your own with just the animals? 

It’s easy for us all to think back to a time when we looked after a friend’s pet rabbit or dog walked an uncle’s dog – and often this type of experience is very relevant and enough to be a pair of helping hands for your host. However, in some cases, hosts might need more specialised knowledge from you, without which you might leave the animals and yourself in a situation that’s awkward at best and dangerous at worst. This isn’t a reason to feel disheartened – as I say, there are definitely suitable animal-related hosts out there for everyone ( over 1000 on Workaway in fact!); it’s just a matter of being understanding and finding the right place for you, based on your experience and expectations! Which is why your profile should be an accurate description of you and what you can offer -- and if you’re not sure whether you are capable enough to handle a particular task, don’t be afraid to just ask. Being open, honest and initiating friendly communication is the best and most responsible way to find the right host.

Related blog post: Five questions to ask yourself before your first Workaway experience!

workaway walking through ranch with wheelbarrow and horse

Not every animal is always in cuddle mode… and that’s ok!

Yes, volunteering with animals means we’re likely to get some snuggly cuddles, but we need to understand that it’s not free hugs and sunshine all the time! One thing I’ve learned is how different every single animal can be in different environments! For example, I worked with one particular rescue pig in Ireland and, when I first got to know him, I was warned to keep a distance and be careful; I even saw him charge at a friend of mine, leaving her with a nasty leg injury. However, a month later when we reached the midst of summer, we were able to move this little guy out into the field where he could lie in the sun all day with his companion and roll about in a muddy wallow. From this moment onwards, he became one of the friendliest, cuddliest pigs I’ve ever known!
volunteering with Seamus the pig
Seamus the pig! Don’t let his grouchy face scare you off from being his friend :)
Animals are, of course, directly affected by their surroundings and circumstances, so it’s impossible to ever predict how they may behave. Even an animal you have connected and bonded with over a long period of time can still display unpredictable behaviour for unexpected reasons – something as simple as bad weather can disturb a sensitive pig or dog. Remaining somewhat reserved and respectful is essential for both your own safety and that of the animals you are working with; patience and calmness are key.
sleepy pig cuddles simple happiness

The bonding we form with them is like no other

My experience is limited to Europe (so far) ,but even here, I have discovered a broad range of animal-related hosts. It varies a lot – from agricultural farm environments and working animal-based industries to rescue sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres. In most cases, I would definitely recommend reserving a longer period of time for your stay. After all, animals are sensitive and need a lot of time and patience to trust a person. For this reason, the longer you can stay with such a host, the better connection you can form with the animals there, thus enabling everyone to get the most out of the experience. Animals undoubtedly benefit from longer term Workawayers; it enables them to develop and adapt to a comfortable, efficient routine. The longer you spend together the deeper a bond you can form ; the better you can understand one another; the best level of support and care you can provide and the more rewarding your stay will be too!

Related blog post:  Stop counting countries: Travel slow and travel further

collage of workaway ambassador Ellie with horse, cuddling a cat and pig

We can really give back towards meaningful causes and animals in need

Before I reach out to any projects in an animal-focused environment, here are some questions I ask myself:
  • Why are the animals there?
  • What impact will I have on their lives?
  • What is the bigger picture behind the help I will be doing?
Whilst travelling, I like to try to keep an open mind and consider the broader picture of my actions. It is, of course, always important to try to appreciate and understand the key cultural and lifestyle differences when we visit a new country. For example, some animal-based activities such as husky sled-racing and traditional meat farming are standard practices in many countries, and often even something that a country may rely on (e.g. for its tourist industry or another key proportion of its wealth). 

That being said, when it comes to travelling as a Workawayer and volunteering for these local projects, think about how we can potentially make a positive impact at a community level as well. Personally, I find rescue sanctuaries to be the most fulfilling type of host. It is such a fantastic opportunity to learn about animal care and management on a very different level to what we normally read about or experience in more traditional agricultural environments. When volunteering at smaller-scale project, it's often easier to see the impact you are making and that the animals and hosts really appreciate your time; and there’s nothing better than feeling welcome and useful whilst doing something you are passionate about.

So, when browsing through all the animal care projects around the world, perhaps think not only about what you will gain from the experience, but maybe also who your actions will benefit the most, both directly and indirectly. There are always ways to work with animals in a meaningful way; it is just a matter of finding and aligning your own passionate views to ensure your effort is well-received.

Related blog post: Voluntourism: selfless or selfish?

group shot of donkeys and workawayer
happy donkey leaning on ellie

There’s SO MUCH we can learn from them

I have been at my current Workaway host for 8 months now – a vegan pig rescue sanctuary in Ireland – and, I have to say, I still learn new things every day. The connection I’ve made with some of the pigs here is incredible, but it took a lot of time to reach this stage where we can, for example, lie together in the field or roll about in the mud. They’ve taught me to stay patient and positive even when things don’t go as planned, and never to give up because hard work will eventually pay off. And, of course, despite all the highlights, it is important to be prepared for the downsides of animal work too. Particularly in the case of rescue sanctuaries, the sad circumstances and stories behind some of the animals does mean that not all of them will make it. This is a sad reality, but at least if you can somehow provide a positive stepping stone in their journey then you’ve had a worthwhile impact on their life . Sometimes you will have a bad day, but always remember to focus on the bigger picture; be positive and do your best for those you can help!

At the end of the day, if you are a true animal lover, you’re already halfway there –  just keep an open mind and be aware that every experience is different and there’s always more to learn, from every single animal.

Related blog post:  Life Lessons From Travelling & Workawaying Around the World

kisses from rescue pig
Now that we’ve covered all the essentials of starting your animal welfare Workaway, here’s a few hosts that I have stayed with that you may also love!

For anyone with a good level of spoken Italian, this dog rescue shelter is located remotely in the beautiful island of Sicily and will always appreciate an extra pair of hands to help balance out all the muddy paws! Some previous experience working with dogs will be handy, especially for those with more unpredictable behaviour; but if you can commit to a longer stay you will learn as you go and fit in no problem here.

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 Italy

  • Cultural exchange Cultural exchange
Come help at our animal shelter in beautiful Sicily, Italy
Visit the beautiful island of Sicily and help us improve the lives of the many strays we care for in our shelter. Our non-profit association has been working for years to care for the strays of Sicily by taking them in, sterilizing and providing ......
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Located up in Northern Spain, this place really is a little paradise for retired donkeys. Even if you’ve got very minimal previous experience with animals, you should be able to help out here no problem. Donkeys are generally very relaxed, calm and easy-going animals; once you know the routine it’s easy to really get involved and there’s also lots of time for warm donkey cuddles!

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 Spain

  • Cultural exchange Cultural exchange
Care for rescued farm animals near Arriondas, Asturias, Spain
Important Notes about this WorkAway: • We seek volunteers interested in ANIMAL CARE, GARDENING, AND MAINTENANCE. • We have a MINIMUM STAY of one month and MAXIMUM stay of three months. We are a project which aims to provide a quality home and life ......
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Where I’m currently at! Another beautiful Workaway host, but one that is definitely more demanding and certainly benefits from you having worked with animals previously. Focusing primarily on pigs, there is so much to learn here – but the pace of work is fast and so it helps if you already understand some basic animal etiquette and are really prepared to get stuck in, no matter the weather. Longer stays are definitely appreciated too, as with most rescue sanctuaries such as this.

 Ireland

  • Sustainable project Sustainable project
Help out on our quaint rescue farm and learn how build trust with animals in Kildare, Ireland
We live on an old estate with 13 rescue equines (donkeys, ponies and horses), 60 rescued pet pigs and various sheep, goats, dogs and chickens. We are part of a larger animal rescue charity. This is our private residence with mostly retired animals ......
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So, if you’ve made it to the end of this post, I’d say you’re definitely interested enough to give it a go! Even if, up until now, you’ve only really worked with people, now is maybe the time to branch out and get some animal experience. Volunteering with animals really is something I will never get bored of; it’s just so rewarding and no two days are ever the same…
I’m more than happy to talk about my travel adventures and connect with other like-minded travellers. Say hello on Instagram, and, as always, happy workawaying! 
workaway group enjoying walk with sanctuary pigs

Huge thanks to Workaway Ambassador Ellie for sharing her tips and insight with us! 

After three years of studying Microbiology in England, Ellie was ready for a change and headed straight to Europe to start her first Workaway adventure. Having now hopped about numerous countries, met many amazing faces and made some incredible memories, Ellie's adventures aren't about to stop! The opportunities out there are endless and there's something for everyone.
animal loversvolunteeringworkaway tipsanimal sanctuary

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We are so glad to have an active community of travellers and hosts who’ve been inspired by their Workaway experiences and want to share with us! Be it a funny story, interesting insights or helpful ti... show more...

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