Letting Go of a Foster Pet

As we discussed in my last post, “So You Want to be a Foster Home,” the hardest part of fostering is letting go. For every foster pet, there comes a time when she has gained all she can from foster care, and needs to find a permanent, adoptive home. It’s bittersweet, knowing that you’ve done a great thing by giving an animal a second chance, but having to allow a pet you’ve come to love to move on. It’s important to allow yourself time to grieve, and to celebrate your foster pet’s new home.

Understand the Adoption Process

Many foster parents find that taking an active role in the process of adoption helps ease their foster pets’ transition from foster home to adoptive home. While every rescue has a different policy on the amount of weight a foster parent’s opinion carries during the adoption process, and how involved you can be, if you think that helping to choose your foster pet’s forever home would make letting go easier for you, seek out a rescue that allows this. Many rescues, particularly those that operate primarily through a network of foster homes, allow foster parents to review adoption applications for their foster pets and nix applicants who sound like a poor match.

However, busier shelters and open-admission shelters most often require that foster pets be returned to the shelter for adoption, unless they happen to find a new home during the foster period. While most people find returning a foster pet to a noisy, hectic shelter environment difficult, the busiest shelters are most in need of help. Foster parents who volunteer for shelters with open admission policies often are the only thing standing between vulnerable pets, from the very young to the very old, and euthanasia at the time of intake. Some municipal shelters are unable to accomodate pets with special needs, and, in the absence of an available foster home will euthanize pets unable to thrive in a shelter environment.

Even if you must return your foster pet to the shelter and can’t be involved in the adoption process, know that the employees see many adoption applications every day, and become adept at ensuring that each pet is matched with the right adopter. You may be able to leave your contact information and request that the adopter call to update you on your foster pet’s progress. Some shelters will allow you the option of taking a foster pet back in if it does poorly in the shelter or isn’t adopted initially.

Remind yourself often that by fostering, you gave a pet without many options a chance to be loved. Look at your own pets, and think about how much you love them, and imagine how happy your former foster pet will be to find his own loving family. Understand that while your foster pet will remember you, and may well be grieving your loss as you’re grieving his, animals are incredibly resilient and adaptable. Your foster pet will fit into his new family and be a happy family member in very short order, once the right match is made.

Take All the Time You Need

With the constant demands of rescue work, you may feel pressured to immediately open your home to another foster pet after releasing your previous foster pet for adoption. If you’re ready to make that committment again, go for it; some foster parents find that adding a new foster pet immediately distracts them from the absence of a foster pet who has moved on to an adoptive home. However, if you’re still missing your last foster pet and experiencing feelings like grief and anger, don’t be afraid to say, “Not this time,” to your Foster Coordinator. Every shelter volunteer has had the experience of becoming attached to a pet and grieving its loss despite knowing that it will be loved by a wonderful family.

If your Foster Coordinator or other shelter contact pressures you to accept another foster pet before you’re ready, that’s a red flag indicating the foster program doesn’t respect the emotional needs of its volunteers. Good foster parents are among the most precious resources in any animal rescue program. Shelters and rescues that understand this will honor your feelings and needs. If you’re ever pressured with scare tactics like, “Oh, that’s okay, but you know, we’ll have to put him down if a foster parent can’t take him today,” or, “We’re running out of space at the shelter and may have to euthanize some adoptable pets,” consider fostering for a different organization. Your role in the group’s mission is to care for foster pets if and when you are emotionally, physically, and financially able to do so, and no more. Asking a foster parent to overextend him or herself leads to foster burnout, which is all too common even under the best of circumstances.

Take all the time you need to cope with your foster pet’s transition into a new home. It may help to ask the shelter to connect you with other foster parents. People who’ve never shared the experience of providing foster care to pets in need aren’t likely to understand how you’re feeling. Every foster parent sometimes hears, “So what? It’s not like he died or anything, right?” from a friend who doesn’t foster. It’s difficult for non-foster parents to comprehend the emotional investment put into each foster pet. Surround yourself with people who do understand, and make sure you have closure and are feeling prepared before you take on another foster pet.

It Gets Easier, But Not Easy

If you stop missing your foster pets when they leave, it’s probably time to stop fostering, at least for a while. The loving care that makes a foster program so valuable is the same thing that makes it hard to let go. However, the first time is the hardest, and it gets easier from then on. You won’t stop loving every foster pet, but you will learn to better understand your own feelings, and find out what makes you feel better after releasing a foster pet for adoption. You’ll also likely begin to get messages from adopters of your past foster pets, thanking you for a wonderful family member. Every time a pet must move on from your home, thinking about the great families who’ve adopted your past foster pets can help to make the experience more sweet and less bitter.

You’ll probably have some foster pets that you just don’t like. That’s normal; don’t beat yourself up if you find there’s the occasional yappy dog or reclusive cat that just doesn’t mesh with your personality, and you’re not too sorry to see them go. You’ll also have some favorite foster pets who “click” with you like they’ve always been part of your family. If you know a favorite foster pet will be moving on soon, take extra time to make memories and take photos together, and know that you’ll feel the loss more acutely. However, the majority of your foster pets will be in the middle– dearly loved, but closure will come quickly after they go on to an adoptive home.

Foster Failure

I’ve always said that the only true foster failure is the failure of someone with sufficient time, love, and space, to foster at all. However, the term “foster failure” in the rescue world most often refers to adopting one’s own foster pet. In other words, a foster parent who adopts her own foster has failed to “foster,” because the pet never moved on to another home. Foster failure is an occupational hazard and, chances are, it’ll happen to you eventually, unless you foster for one of the handful of rescues that handle this phenomenon by simply not permitting foster parents to adopt their own foster pets.

However, even if you know and accept that you’ll eventually “foster fail,” try not to do it with your first foster pet. If you fail the first time, you’re far less likely ever to foster successfully. Let that first foster pet go. Is your love for her worth relinquishing the space in your home to save dozens of lives over the next year? It’s worth celebrating any time a pet finds a permanent home, but it’s worth an even bigger celebration if you choose to let a foster go, knowing that your time, space, and love could be spent saving more lives.

However, no matter the outcome, or how many pets you can foster before you know that one has come to stay, give yourself a big hug and a pat on the back for fostering. If every person with pets opened their home to a foster pet, even if many of these people “foster failed” on the first try, shelters would be nearly empty.

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15 Responses

  1. Reekoe
    | Reply

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I really needed this article. I am a first time foster, and my foster kitty Kirby is now officially available for adoption and he’s going to his first “adoption days” this weekend. I’ve been struggling with trying to figure out how I was going to deal with giving him up when the time comes. This article gives me some peace of mind. Thank you!!

  2. Jelena
    | Reply


    I’m glad my article was useful to you. Thank you for fostering! The world needs more people willing to take that plunge. Good luck finding Kirby the perfect home!

    My own first foster cat left my home pretty suddenly. I took him to the vet for diarrhea, she kept him overnight for observation, and she never gave him back! Could hardly say no to the VET wanting to adopt him. Talk about perfect homes!


  3. Debbie
    | Reply

    I’ve been considering becoming a foster owner for some time, and your articles have been a great source of insight. My family has always received dogs from rescue organizations, and I always wondered what the process before us was like. This is a lot to consider, but will have to think and long and hard on when I will be able to be a foster owner.

  4. TrilbyKat
    | Reply

    What a beautifully written article. Thanks for all the good information.

  5. Robin
    | Reply

    I am a first time foster mom of 3 SPCA kittens. I was told that I would keep them for 4 weeks or until they reached 2lbs. Well, it has been 3 months and the SPCA jsut now has enough room to reclai its kittens. In that time, I have become very attached, naturally. Now I want to keep them all, but I cnnot afford it, so I am keeping one. You call this being a FOSTER FAILURE. That is a HORRIBLE term and makes me feel like a weakling b/c I could not keep my heart hard enough to keep from bonding with these 3 kittend that I was only supposed to have for 4 weeks, not 13!

  6. Lucy
    | Reply

    I’m really struggling to give up my first foster cat. I would be completely happy to give it up to a good home, like a doting older couple. I could come to terms with taking it back to its cabin at the rescue centre so it could be seen by people and have a high chance of finding a lovely home, though that will be hard. But what I am finding really difficult is that I might have to give it up to adopters who I don’t approve of – it is a very nervous cat who has had an extraordinarily tough time and it might be jointly owned by a loud flatshare. What is the best way to a) convince the centre that the people aren’t right or b) come to terms with it if it happens? I am desperate for advice!

  7. Sara
    | Reply

    I just dropped off my first foster dog, an adorable beagle terrier mix named Trooper, tonight. I miss him so much I feel queasy. It feels exactly like giving up a pet–not that I ever have. I really clicked with this quirky little guy and it feels like a breakup in a way. I’m not ready to foster again but I know giving him up will have been in vain if I don’t continue to foster other dogs in need. I haven’t cried this much in a long time.

  8. Lucy
    | Reply

    Dear Sara,

    Just to let you know that while the first one feels like your heart is being ripped out, it does get easier. Since my anguished post above, we have had three fosters and about to start my fourth, and it definitely gets easier. Hope that helps.

  9. Sara
    | Reply

    Dear Lucy,
    Thank you. I’ve decided that fostering another dog asap is the best remedy. I guess it hurts so much because I can’t explain to him what happened. I fostered him for three months. I think it will be better now; I signed a contract saying I wouldn’t foster my first dog so at least now I have a choice.


  10. Sunshine
    | Reply

    Thank you for this wonderful and thoughtful post. I found a stray Chihuahua in my front yard two months ago. He was in bad shape-very skinny and a hurt leg. We were not able to find the owners. He is an awesome dog and has worked his way into our hearts. Unfortunately, we have two dogs, two cats, and two kids under 4yrs, and we just cannot keep him. I’ve found someone who wants him, and I believe she will give him a good home, so why am I having such a hard time letting him go?! Your article way very helpful. I guess I just need to keep in mind that he is much better off than when we found him, and we are doing the right things by finding him a loving home.

  11. Jen
    | Reply


    I posted almost a year ago about my foster boy Kirby. Well, tonight, I’ll be dropping him off at his new home. After a year with us, he finally got adopted! This post really helped me come to terms with my feelings about letting him go. If you click on my homepage link, you can read my thoughts and feelings on letting go of my first, long-term foster.

    Thank you again for the wonderful post!


  12. Molly K
    | Reply

    I have a wonderful foster dog right now who has been with me going on three months. He is approximately my 10th foster dog in the past two years and I have to say my favorite. It is going to be very difficult to let him go, if I do.

    My other three dogs were also fosters. Geez, it just occurred to me that I have an almost 50% foster failure rate! Thank goodness for having the resources to foster.

    Thanks for the great article.

  13. Jessa
    | Reply

    Your article means a lot. I rescued a cute guy from a kill shelter with every intention of rehoming him but so far we have been foster failures with not enought time or knowledge of how to alert people to our foster. Since we rescued him, most of our local agencies won’t help us out as he isnt their dog. Part of foster failing is also not having the right connections or information.

  14. Ella Malcolmson
    | Reply

    It is really hard dealing with it at first, but time heals all wounds.. that i believe

    thank you for sharing this entry!

    Ella Malcolmson
    Colorado Springs, CO
    Concrete Countertops Colorado Springs

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