How to be a Pet Foster Parent

Our foster dog was happy-go-lucky, full of energy, acting more like a puppy then a senior. He loved to destroy his toys. He loved walks and unhealthy foods. He loved our poodle. When there was nothing to do, Gizmo would sit and wobble like an excited R2-D2. Even after an injury left his back legs paralyzed for a few weeks, not once did Gizmo lose his zest for life. My husband and I admired his positive outlook on life and felt mixed emotions in the spring of 2013 when Gizmo found what we hoped would become his forever home. In this third of a four-part article, I’ll explain how to be a foster parent for a pet, what happens after you foster, and share more insights from local pet foster parents.

HOW EXACTLY DOES ONE FOSTER?

If you’ve followed my articles so far, you know I’ve tried to convince you of the needs and benefits to pet foster parenting, as well as prepare you for the responsibilities and challenges involved. The next step is to actually decide whether or not to foster. With that in mind, below are some answers to questions about how to start the process.

Where do I find companion animals to foster? First, find a rescue group or shelter near you and contact them. Each article in my series has provided links to all rescues represented in my series. Beyond that, the process will vary by organization. Andy and I volunteered  through Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue (NNKCR). The process involved simply filling out and submitting an online application.

What happens after I fill out a Foster Application Form? Not long after submitting our application, we received a phone call and were asked follow-up questions. Around the same time, we were also told about two possible matches. When my husband and I made our selection, Gizmo was brought to our house to meet us and our pets. At this point, we were still not committed.

Other local pet foster parents have also referred to undergoing an application process and a home check, as well as receiving information about matches and education. The last of these, education, we received from NNKCR any time we had questions about Gizmo’s care.

How long is the foster commitment? The foster coordinator will generally let you know what the expected timeframe will be. The standard seems to be an average of four to eight weeks unless it is behaviorally or medically indicated. For Gizmo, we were told upfront his fostering might take longer, due to his health issues.

What does it cost to foster a pet? As with other questions, this varies by organization. Gizmo’s former owner provided us with a crate, blankets, toys, and supply of food and treats. When the latter ran out, we covered the cost of replenishing them. NNKCR took care of all of Gizmo’s medical expenses, including medication and vet visits. This seems to be standard for rescue organizations. When Andy and I went on vacation, NNKCR  arranged for another couple to take over.

What kind of support will I get? When we started to have questions about how to help Gizmo get along with our cat, we received suggestions and articles. We were even provided (free of cost) a muzzle, bark collar, and other supplies.

Can I adopt the companion animal I foster? The short answer is yes. In fact, pet foster parents are generally given first priority. When foster parents adopt their foster pets it’s endearingly called “foster failure”, which I’ll discuss this in my fourth and final article.

HOW DOES YOUR FOSTER FIND A FOREVER HOME?

Should you decide not to adopt, possible methods for finding an adoptive home include: attending adoption events, hanging posters at pet supply stores and other areas around town, posting the pet’s picture on websites, putting an ad in the  local paper, and even simply spreading the word about the dog to anyone who will listen. What follows are other suggestions I found in my research.

Become active in the adoption process: While every organization has a different policy on how involved you can be, most are delighted to get as much information about your foster pet as possible. This information could be invaluable to ensuring that your foster pet is matched with the right family.

Get your friends or family involved: Having your foster pet bond with a variety of people is great for both you and the animal. You’ll stop worrying about whether your foster pet can be happy without you, which will help keep the emotional distance you’ll need to eventually say goodbye. Having others greet, handle, play, and cuddle with your foster pet will get him used to interacting with strangers. This will give the best chance of him making a good impression on potential adopters.

Help find and screen potential adopters: Some ways you help find potential adopters might include sharing your foster pet’s profile on Facebook, taking great photos and writing a detailed description of your foster pet for his shared profile, or even making a video of your foster pet that the organization can share. Some organizations will even allow you to help screen potential adopters; this will help you feel more comfortable saying goodbye because you’ll you know your foster pet is going to a loving forever home.

One local pet foster parent, Julie Zitek, wrote that she asked around “in the hopes that I would be able to find Mickey* a home where she would be treated like the princess she was”. She goes on to tell of meeting a couple “who had previously owned a dog of this breed who recently had died, so they knew exactly what they were getting into. When they said they had an underground fence, I trusted them. They met her and fell in love with her immediately.”
* Mickey’s photo is not featured to protect privacy

Anthena, a Cane Corso being fostered by Julie through Big Dogs Huge Paws, and who is available for adoption
Athena, a Cane Corso being fostered by Julie through Big Dogs Huge Paws, and who is available for adoption

HOW DO YOU LET GO?

It’s only natural to find you have a stronger bond with certain companion animals and may even question whether or not to adopt your foster pet. At these times it’s important to remember why you became a foster parent: to save a life. Getting involved in the adoption process can help, as can the below tips!

Get a foster dog who’s not right for you long-term: PetFinder advised that letting go starts the moment one decides to take on a new foster pet. For that reason, you should select fosters whom you can help but wouldn’t want to adopt. Amanda Brokaw, who fosters with Big Dogs Huge Paws and Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue, elaborated on this wisdom. “Many people who have not fostered seem confused as to how I can let the dogs go once they get adopted.  Honestly, you won’t love them all and there are better homes for some of the dogs I have fostered.  Some dogs do better in an active home (children, ball games, walking, etc.) some need more attention than others (separation anxiety or escape artists), so if a person works from home or has a dog sitter then the dog can receive the attention they deserve throughout the day.”

Belle, Amanda's latest foster puppy with Big Dogs Huge Paws
Belle, Amanda’s latest foster puppy with Big Dogs Huge Paws

It gets easier with time: For many pet foster parents, the first time you say goodbye to a foster pet is the hardest—the second time is easier, and the third even more so. While you never stop caring for the foster animals that come into your home, you’ll soon realize that the sadness will get replaced with the satisfaction of knowing you helped save a life.

Cherish the memories: From photos to reminiscent stories and other memorabilia, a scrapbook is an ideal way to capture the memories of your foster pets. It’s also a beautiful tribute to the many companion animals whose lives you’ll directly help.

Learn to celebrate: From throwing a little goodbye party to treating yourself to a special dinner, it’s important to acknowledge your hard work. It’s also good to commemorate the fact that your foster pet has found a new forever home. So go ahead, pat yourself on the back for a job well done AND celebrate your foster pet’s most joyous occasion.

Don’t feel guilty: After days, weeks or even months of bonding, it can be painful to say goodbye to a foster pet. You may even experience strong feelings of guilt for not adopting the animal yourself. However, it’s important to understand that while these feelings are natural, your foster pet will become part of his new family and be living happily ever after in no time!

Ask for follow-up stories and pictures from your foster pet’s adopter: If you’re fostering with an organization where you don’t meet the adopters, talk to the volunteer who did the adoption and ask for as much info as you can get about the adopters. On the other hand, if you have met your foster pet’s adopter, ask for an e-mail update and pictures. You might not always get them, but when you do you’ll be on cloud nine.

Join a foster support network: With the constant demands of foster work, you may begin to feel a bit burned out. You may also simply need time to process your feelings. It can be helpful for pet foster parents to communicate with others who can share advice and experiences, as well as give support.

None of these tips will ensure you won’t get attached. Nor will any of them alleviate the pain of letting go. Yet repeatedly each pet foster parent I talked to felt good about their decision.

Angela shares, “It TRULY pulled at my heart to let Charlie go up for adoption at The Cat House. He will make someone a WONDERFUL companion but he really holds a special place in my heart. To think that this little love came into my home as a feral kitten and left my home as a normal (yet slightly skittish at first) kitten…just remarkable.”

Charlie, a feral cat Angela fostered
Charlie, a feral cat Angela fostered

Julie writes that soon it will be two years since Mickey was adopted.  “She no longer chases the cats or needs a crate.  She also has passed an obedience class!  I can visit her any time I’d like and they often send me pictures of her.  If fills my heart to know I changed the course of her life and helped a couple get the dog they wanted… I’d do it again in a heartbeat!”

Candice, a young Saint Bernard whom Julie fostered through Big Dogs Huge Paws and who is available for adoption
Candice, a young Saint Bernard whom Julie fostered through Big Dogs Huge Paws and who is available for adoption

The bottom line to remember is that each time you say goodbye, you’ll be able to open up your heart to provide a temporary home to a companion animal in need. This is no doubt why Kaywin says, “While I question my decision to foster, because it is hard on my heart, I turn around and do it again when they leave because otherwise I feel something is missing from my life. I guess a little love from a face that deserves it through no fault of their own is all I need.”

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