"It was always clear to me that I needed to give voice to those who couldn't speak out for themselves," Inaba, 44, tells PEOPLE. "To give them shelter through whatever storms they're going through."
Everything Inaba has pursued in her life since then, she says, has led to this very moment, and she is finally proud to announce that with the launch of The Carrie Ann Inaba Animal Project, she has achieved one of the things she has wanted her whole life.
For something that feels as natural as this, Inaba's road to her animal foundation was terrifying. "When you're really going after your true dreams, you're afraid of failure," she says. "I can't fail because this isn't for me, it's for the animals."
It took the death of her beloved cat Shadow last fall to kick the project into gear. At first, Inaba redirected her energy to fostering, which ended with her adopting four more pets. (Her total headcount: Squeaker, a 17-year-old cat; Taz, an 11-year-old special-needs cat; Bubble, a 1-year-old orange cat; Miley, a calico cat; Peanut, a Chihuahua; and Cookie, a boxer.) "I realized I was going to end up with 25 animals in my house if I wasn't careful," she says. "I needed to think bigger picture."
Inaba partnered with with the Entertainment Industry Foundation to lay the groundwork for the Animal Project, whose mission is to support the rescue, welfare and well-being of animals.
As part of the mission, Inaba has set the impressive goal of raising $1 million in her foundation's first year. To get there, she has set up an auction through Charity Buzz, where people can bid to win four tickets to the Dancing with the Stars finale.
"I'm giving away my own personal tickets to the finale," she says. "My friends are a bit upset with me."
Friendly gripes aside, Inaba feels fortunate to be in the position she's in.
"I'm very grateful that I have a job and am able to make a living," she says. "I don't need that much to live – we don't need that much to have a wonderful life. I learned that from animals."
For more about Carrie Ann Inaba's charity auction, which ends Nov. 8, visit her Charity Buzz page.