Fostering a homeless pet is one of the best things you can do for animals in need in your own home town. Watching an abused, neglected, or abandoned pet blossom and flourish in your home, then go on to become someone’s beloved family member, is among the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced. However, letting go can be difficult. Fostering is not for everyone. To foster successfully, you need dedication, time, patience, intuition, and the ability to grieve healthily while simultaneously celebrating your former foster’s new home and family.
If you don’t currently volunteer for a shelter or rescue, start small. Volunteer to walk dogs or clean kennels. Work in the community to educate potential adopters about rescue by helping to dispel myths about adoption. You could also help to write a newsletter, plan an event, or provide basic medical care and evaluation to new arrivals.
Make sure you’re comfortable with young pets, old pets, and pets with special needs (both medical and behavioral) before you apply to become a foster parent. Healthy, adoptable pets in the prime of life go up for adoption, not into foster care, unless the rescue is based solely on a foster network and doesn’t include a shelter. Chances are, you’ll be caring for an animal that, for some reason, is not yet considered adoptable. Some foster parents specialize in bottle feeding orphaned puppies or kittens, while others take on senior animals that need extra TLC to be adoptable. People with experience in treating behavior problems, or who are willing to learn and take classes in order to gain that experience, sometimes take on untrained or poorly socialized pets, or foster pets with mild behavior problems that might prevent them from finding an adoptive home.
When you feel you’re ready to start fostering, you’ll probably need to fill out an application, go through an interview and home visit to ensure you’re capable of caring for an extra pet, and then network with a Foster Coordinator to select the right foster pet for your home and lifestyle. In general, you should trust your Foster Coordinator’s judgement; if you think you’re up to bottle-feeding a litter of puppies, but she thinks you’d do better caring for an elderly dog who’ll make less demands on your time, listen to her, at least for your first few foster animals. Many new foster parents bite off more than they can chew, and bouncing an animal from foster care back to the shelter before it’s ready can do more damage than just leaving it in the shelter in the first place.
The New Arrival
Before bringing your first foster pet home, make sure that you have all necessary supplies on hand, all your questions have been answered by the shelter or rescue with which you’re volunteering, and your whole family is on board both with fostering and with letting go when the pet is adopted.
You should have an animal first aid kit on hand, as well as the phone number and address of your nearest 24 hour emergency vet, and the phone number of your Foster Coordinator. You may be required to feed the foster pet a particular type of food; if so, have a plan in place to keep your other pets from snacking on it. Be prepared for vomiting, diarrhea, and drool; the stress of a new home can be very upsetting, particularly for an older pet or a pet with anxiety issues. Have sleeping arrangements for the foster pet worked out, and make sure they include some sort of separation from your current pets, like enclosing the foster in a crate or a bathroom. Until you’re sure that everyone will get along swimmingly, it’s wisest not to risk a fight between your pets while you’re asleep.
If possible, arrange to pick up your first foster just before the weekend so that you can focus on getting her settled in before returning to work. Keep her stress levels as low as possible for the first few days; for dogs, limit exercise and new experiences, and allow plenty of supervised quiet time to adjust to the new environment. For cats, keep the foster secluded in a spacious room with food, water, and a private litterbox, and spend time sitting quietly in the foster’s room reading a book or listening to music, allowing her to approach on her own. If you are concerned about the new foster’s health or behavior, call your Foster Coordinator or another contact at the shelter immediately. Some well-placed advice early on can nip problems in the bud, from fights between dogs to litterbox non-use in a cat.
As I mentioned earlier, most pets in need of foster care have special needs of some sort. Most adult pets relinquished by or seized from their former owners will come with emotional baggage. Some have separation anxiety, others food aggression, and still others simply don’t know how to receive or give affection. Cats may hide or fail to use the litterbox. Senior pets in particular are prone to stress and anxiety after losing their homes. Pets who have been abused or neglected will almost certainly have at least a few behavioral quirks. No matter how calm your new foster seems, or how well-integrated with your existing pets, take plenty of time to observe his behavior before you decide to trust him unsupervised, if you do so at all.
It’s wise to crate train any foster dog, and use the crate while you work and sleep. With plenty of exercise while you’re home and awake, the foster dog won’t feel left out or upset about being in the crate, and being crated for several hours each day is still much more pleasant than living in a shelter. Some rescued dogs may, however, have a serious fear of enclosed spaces. If the new dog reacts badly to the sight of a crate or to being encouraged with treats to venture inside, consult a behavioral specialist with the shelter before proceeding further with crate training.
Life with a Foster Pet
With any foster pet, your most important responsibilities are to improve her suitability for adoption, and to provide loving, watchful care. Dogs should receive obedience training while in foster care. Many shelters offer classes for foster parents to attend. If yours doesn’t, ask where other foster parents have taken obedience training classes. It’s best to work with a professional, unless you are a very experienced trainer. Classes offer an opportunity for socialization and exposure to sights and sounds the foster dog may never have seen, as well as the expert opinion of a professional dog trainer. In addition, taking classes with your foster dog may be a tax-deductible expense (consult a professional), and potential adopters will be impressed to know that she has been professionally trained.
To improve cats’ suitability for adoption, focus on positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors in the home. Cats don’t need to do tricks, but they do need to be trained to accept attention, use the litterbox reliably, and avoid naughty behaviors like counter surfing and houseplant munching. Make sure the foster cat gets lots of lap time, and avoid rewarding any potentially annoying behavior. A tiny kitten who bites and claws your hand is awfully cute, but remember, by the time that tiny kitten is adopted, he may be big enough to do serious damage. Play sessions with any cat should end immediately if claws or teeth are used on human hands. Wrestling games are a no-no. Use cat toys to play with your foster cat, not your hands.
Your family’s routines may be disrupted by the arrival of a foster pet, but within a few days, you’ll find that new routines develop around the foster pet’s needs. Soon, she’ll be fitting into your family as if she’s always been there. Of course, that’s when the hardest part of fostering happens: Letting go.
Allowing a foster pet to go on to their permanent home is perhaps the most difficult part of fostering. Being unable to release a foster pet for adoption is so common that longtime foster parents refer to it laughingly as “foster failure,” and many have failed at least once. Because letting go is such a complex topic in and of itself, we’ll discuss it in another post; stay tuned, and if you’re interested in fostering, get started now by volunteering with your nearest shelter!