Human hand holding dog's paw

Want some good news? Even as we tighten our belts in this struggling economy, Americans are still very giving people. More than $290 billion went to charity last year, three-quarters of it from individual donors. Unfortunately, animal charities are not in the top ranks when it comes to money given – less than two percent of all donations went to environment/conservation and animal causes, according to Giving USA, the annual report of the American Association of Fundraising Counsel. But while the cash donations aren’t exactly pouring into your favorite animal charities,  when it comes to volunteering, there’s nothing like a little puppy breath or a cat’s purr to keep the people coming back, it seems.

Animal Causes Are the Number One Choice of Volunteers

I was struck this week by a report in USA Today, noting that 17 percent of volunteers give their time to animals, putting animal causes at No. 1, just a tick or two ahead of volunteering to help combat poverty and hunger (15 percent) and sick children (11 percent). While all volunteering has two-way benefits – it’s the do-good that makes you feel good – I am not at all surprised that helping animals appears to be even more satisfying than other good works.

As I wrote about in my best-seller, “The Healing Power of Pets: Harnessing the Amazing Ability of Pets to Make and Keep People Happy and Healthy,” it has long been scientifically established that sharing our lives with animals benefits us at least as much or more as it benefits them. That seems especially true when times are tough. Interestingly enough, the Giving USA report notes that while 60 percent of all charities saw donations drop even as charitable giving overall grew, donations to animal charities and human services remained steady overall. (And while that’s good news overall, I know it didn’t cover the increased need for what these charities provide in tough times.)

Volunteering to Help Pets? You’re More Likely to Also Help People

I often hear that people who love animals, and especially those who donate time and money to help animals, “love animals more than people.” I have found this to be anything but the truth, and I have come to believe that this criticism comes from people who don’t seem to love much of anything but complaining.

My wife and I have long been very active both in charitable giving and in volunteering, and our interests range widely when it comes to helping out – animal charities, of course, but also many other kinds. Most of the people I meet in my work with animals are the same way – they are more likely than others to be socializing pets at the shelter one week and driving hot meals to homebound seniors the next.

I think this greater sense of helping comes because people who love animals recognize more easily that both animals and people need our help to live. Caring people don’t limit their love to one species – they help where and when it’s needed. That’s why, I’d guess, volunteering to help with poverty and hunger came in at No. 2.

But I’d also guess that people who volunteer to help animals often appreciate that working with pets can be blissfully uncomplicated. They can’t talk back, after all, and can’t ask for more of you than you’re prepared to give. The same, of course, can’t be said of other people.

Volunteering Helps You, Too

Still, I really do believe it’s the healing powers that keep us putting in our volunteer time with and for animals. The lowered blood pressure from stroking the warm fur of a purring cat. The contagious smile of a dog during a rousing game of fetch. The happy feeling of accomplishment when a foster pet goes to a perfect forever home.

I’m feeling great just thinking about it!

You really ought to get in on the action, for your own good. If work (or lack thereof), your mate (or lack thereof), money (or … well, you get the idea) is weighing heavilly on your mind, do what others are doing to get through: Volunteer!

You’ll feel better for doing so, and you’ll be helping to make the world a better place for everyone, animals included. Animal shelters and rescue groups large and small need your help now. Everyone has a little time to spare, and if everyone does, it all adds up to a lot.