When my husband and I became pet foster parents in the winter of 2012, we faced a few challenges that required creative solutions. For example, it quickly become apparent that our cat and our foster dog didn’t like one another. If they encountered each other during the day, the dog would bark and snap and the cat would hiss and swat. So then how would nights work, with all of our pets with us in bed? Gizmo did tend to stay put, but what if he wandered onto cat’s side? My husband first strung a clothesline down the middle of the bed and hung a sheet over it to create a partition. This worked did successfully separate our two mortal enemies, but it also separated us. After more thought, my husband created a raised bed made out stackable wire mesh storage cubes. It was low enough that Gizmo couldn’t jump onto the bed but high enough that my husband could pet Gizmo and let him know he was near. Such solutions were instrumental in our decision to remain long-term pet parent foster parents for Gizmo.
If you talk with those who have pet fostered, you’ll find that while fostering can involve challenges, discovering solutions can be a fun part of the pet fostering experience. In this second of a four-part article, I’ll talk about responsibilities involved with fostering, offer tips on how to handle whatever challenges might come your way, as well as share more insights from local pet fosters.
WHAT ARE THE RESPONSIBILITIES?
When I first began researching the topic of pet foster parenting, I often encountered the statement that anyone with time and dedication could become a pet foster parent. As I kept digging, I found that there are actually questions one should ask before making such a life-changing decision. Some of those questions are no different from those one should consider before getting any pet, but there are also questions specific to the decision to foster. These are ones I’ll cover here.
Can you commit the time? Pet foster parents don’t need to be home twenty-four hours a day, but you might have to plan on spending more evenings at home and postponing that weekend getaway. This is particularly true if you agree to take on puppies or kittens, who will need a lot of immediate attention, training, and care. It might also apply if you accept an injured, scared, or sick animal. Should you know of upcoming travel plans, let the animal group know so that it can decide whether to pay for a pet sitter or if it will need to find alternative short-term care.
Can you afford the cost? Although some rescue groups pay all of the expenses, others expect the foster parent to help with at least some of the costs. Most groups will cover any veterinary expenses, but you may have to pay for others.
Are you able to separate the foster pets from your own? Even if you have multiple pets of your own, bringing home a new animal will mean adjustments for everyone in your home. For that reason, you initially should have a place where you can isolate your foster pet. A separate room or enclosed area with no carpet will work best for dogs and cats. In the case of exotic animals, an enclosed cage will suffice. In this way, all of your critters can adjust to this new situation gradually.
Can you protect your pets? Be aware too of any common ailments a foster animal may expose your pet to, like kennel cough. If your permanent pet is old, sick, fragile or infirm, think twice about whether fostering is even a good idea. While you personally may be ready to foster, the health and opinions of your other pets matter too.
Will the foster animal become like one of the family? Introductions come with a new set of issues. If your pet is possessive of your lap, how will he respond when a guest animal tries to sit there? Some breeds are more prone to quarreling than others, and the arrival of an additional animal could upset the balance of pet power in your household. Just like human siblings, your pets may be reluctant to welcome anyone new into the home. Your normally well-behaved pet may “act out” and even forget her house manners.
Can you get to the shelter’s vet quickly in case of an emergency? The shelter or rescue group for whom you foster will likely work with a vet who will treat your foster pet at no charge to you. However, if the animal you’re fostering needs medical attention, you still might need to transport him or her to the vet’s office or shelter for care.
Are you emotionally prepared to return the pet after the foster period is up? One of the most difficult parts of pet fostering can be letting go. I’ll talk more about this is my third article, but just in keep in mind that you might need to take your foster pet to weekend adoption events. Also, while there will be tears when the day comes that you must say goodbye, remind yourself that you’re part of the reason they found a forever home.
By now you should realize that fostering isn’t just about making sure an animal stays fed, clean, and healthy. For this reason, it’s important that all members of your household are on board with the foster plan.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES?
While there are plenty of healthy and happy companion animals who won’t pose responsibilities beyond the above, there will be ones that need behavior training or medication, and even those who have suffered from mistreatment or malnourishment. You do not have to be able to handle all of these situations, as you can be specific about what types of pets and what types of situations you’re willing to accommodate. At the same time, the more knowledge and experience you have with pets, the more useful you will be to a fostering program. What follows are some challenges shared with me by local pet parent fosters.
Pet Introductions: Kaywin Sohl, who fosters with Big Dogs Big Paws, noted that a new foster dog may take hours or days to settle in and so might need to be separated from the other dogs in the home during an adjustment period. For that reason, her foster dog stays in a crate if she isn’t home. Even when Kaywin is home, she’ll initially keep a foster dog on a leash for optimal control.
Behavior Modification: Amanda Brokaw, who fosters with Big Dogs Huge Paws and Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue, stated that the biggest challenge is “behavior”. While a positive is that through all the different dogs she’s fostered, Amanda has learned a wide variety of training techniques, Amanda also recognizes that teaching new behaviors can be hard work.
Food Theft: Pauline Balta, who is on the board of Lincoln Animal Ambassadors, quickly learned that her foster dog was an a expert counter-surfer! Melanie’s final “epic” surf at Pauline’s house was to steal a brand-new, never-opened jar of grape jam off the counter, open it, eat half of it and not spill one drop. Other goodies swiped on Melanie’s counter-surfing expeditions: at least two pears, one avocado, five tomatoes, three loaves of bread, and half of a homemade apple pie. “Melanie’s surfing at my house has become a legend and provides for entertaining stories!”
Property Damage: Kaywin shared that there has been damage to her home, in the form of clawed doors, chewed furniture and door knobs. She even had to replace all of her carpeting with tile.
Kitten Care: Angela Gebhardt, who has fostered for the Capital Humane Society and Husker Cats, once took on the task of nursing nine kittens who barely had their eyes open. Every day she weighed them to be sure they were gaining weight. She also took on the formidable feat of raising a feral kitten. When Angela first brought Charlie home, he was so terrified that he sat in his water bowl in his cage. Initially, Angela couldn’t even make make eye contact with him, let alone touch him.
Saying Goodbye: For those who enjoy fostering, the biggest challenge isn’t the medical or behavior needs. Instead it’s that one day they’ll have to give up their foster pet. Kaywin told me, “…. when the transport person comes to pick them up to take them to their new family, I cry a river of tears.” Angela shared that, “It pulled at my heart to let Charlie go up for adoption.”
Even worse, there’s the challenge of losing a foster pet to death. Janet Wilkinson, who fosters for Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue, talked about how a foster parent blames oneself, going through the “what if this and what if that” and the “what could I have done different”. These feelings, which are typical to anyone who loses a pet, can be just as strong for a foster pet as an owned pet. A few weeks into caring for those nine kittens, Angela noticed one of the kittens wasn’t gaining weight and was no longer latching onto mama. The kitten had pneumonia and wasn’t going to survive. The heartbreak didn’t stop there, as another one of the babies began showing the same signs only a few days later. When Angela took the whole family to the vet, it was discovered that yet two more babies had pneumonia and weren’t going make it. “It was a heartbreaking experience and especially to see the mamas wondering where their babies were.”
Foster Parent Burnout: When it comes to rescue, there’s also the challenge that for every animal companion you save, countless others have been lost. Jen Schurman, who fosters for Big Dogs Huge Paws and for Nebraska Great Pyrenees Rescue, shared that, “The hardest part is always feeling like it’s that I’m helping more but there are so many more who need help. It’s the understanding that for the one I am touching, we are losing one, ten, hundred, thousand. The constant awareness that ones who make it are the lucky ones.”
She proceeded to add that one has to think of rescue in terms of the starfish story about making a difference. None of us can save every animal, but we can help one. To that one, we have made a difference.
I think about this a lot because my husband and I were the first to spot Charlie, the feral kitten who Angela fostered. Since she took him in, two other feral cats from his group have drowned. It saddens me when I think about all the cats we fail to save, but then I think of Charlie, who now has a forever home. Truly, Angela made the difference between life and death for him.
WHAT ARE SOME TIPS?
My point in sharing the challenges isn’t to scare you away from becoming a pet foster parent, but simply to help you make an informed and realistic decision about it. When sharing with me, Angela recognized that fostering DOES take time and work. However, she also stressed the joy of interacting with a cat and bringing it back to health, or raising a litter of kittens, and seeing your wards adopted, and that the time and laughter and love you get from fostering is beyond words. So I also hope that should you decide to pet foster, my four-part series will better prepare you for that marvelous responsibility. With that in mind, let me turn to tips from local pet foster parents.
Take time for introductions: Kaywin said, “When a dog first comes into my home, it is important to have proper dog introductions. Never let dogs meet face to face. They need to sniff each other’s behind, then gradually meet, but keep in mind that no dogs like other dogs in their face.”
Be certain your pack is stable: Jen noted, “I am the world’s dog sitter. We have dogs coming in and out all the time. They’re conditioned to new dogs being playmates. If your pack is stable, they will help the new one that isn’t stable.”
Have extra vacuums: Jen also added, “Be prepared with dogs to have a lot of vacuums die.” This is due to the hair and the dirt.
Angela shared three tips for fostering cats if you already have your own cat.
Have an extra water dish, food dish, and litter box: It will take extra time for all of these, but the cats will appreciate it!
Invest in a baby gate: Angela shared, “The first time I fostered, it was for an older cat that had a URI and needed 10 days of medicine to heal. That was no problem, but one of my cats was SO curious about what was going on in the other room that he would dart into the room every time I opened the door! That only happened a day or two before I realized that I needed a baby gate for me to step over to get in and out of the room and that solved the problem.”
Foster a pair or a family: Angela added, “Fostering can be stressful for cats. So after a few fostering of single cats, I asked to foster a pair of cats or a family of cats for the next few times until my cats learned that there will occasionally be other cats in the house. That lasted maybe a year of fostering and now I can foster single cats, a family of cats, whatever!
Accept quirks: Amanda advised, “Do not have any expectations when you get a dog. Just because they look great on paper does not mean that they are perfect. I call them quirks. Each dog has them. The dogs we have adopted are the ones that I do not notice their quirks. We foster the rest … I also have fostered (and still do sometimes) for several different rescue groups. Each has a personality all its own. I would suggest to find a group where your gifts shine and where you love the people you work with. Even though it is volunteer, it is still work and I do what I love.”
Look at the positive: Finally, Janet Wilkinson encourages foster parents to look at the positive in a foster pet when things get challenging; they are learning too. Always treat the foster as your pet. Love all their little quirks and make memories to share with their forever home. Don’t ever give up on finding the right home for a foster pet. Finally, foster parents should take time (even if just for five minutes) to de-stress, for fostering is full of both joys and challenges.
If you’re reading this article and have an abundance of pet fostering experience, please add your own tips through a comment. If your experience is more limited or none, but fostering interests you, be willing to educate yourself about companion animals and to learn from those who are pet experts. Then ask questions here or of those whom you know in animal welfare.
Local Animal Groups
- Big Dogs Huge Paws
- Capital Humane Society
- Dolly’s Legacy Animal Rescue
- NE No Kill Canine Rescue
- Promise 4 Paws Dog Sanctuary