During our first year of fostering Gizmo, we discovered that no one was interested in adopting a senior silky terrier with Cushing’s Disease. This left only two options: Gizmo could bounce around from foster home to foster home for the rest of his life, or he could live out his remaining days in a kennel. Not liking either of these, we decided that our first foster would be a failure—that is, we made Gizmo a permanent part of our family by adopting him ourselves. In this final article, I’ll talk about the types of companion animals you might foster, whether to foster or adopt, and share more insights from local pet fosters.
WHO ARE THE ANIMALS YOU MIGHT FOSTER?
The stigma associated with fostered animals is that they are laden with behavior problems, poor health, and other issues. Similarly, owners who relinquish their pets are often viewed in a critical light. As you’ll see from the stories from local pet foster parents in this section and the next, the faces of pet fostering are actually quite varied.
German Shepherd Relinquished by Owner: Julie Zitek started out pet-sitting a German Shepherd. “When Sunday night came, her owner wasn’t ready to pick Mickey up. On Monday, when he picked her up, he talked with me about his money problems and about moving in with his girlfriend. Then Mickey was gone again, and I was left wondering if she’d be back. About a week later he called and said he wanted to live with his girlfriend and he realized that Mickey really enjoyed having a playmate. He needed money for her, though. I told him I would give her a terrific home and agreed to pay him $100. He signed a contract and patted her good-bye.”
Labrador Needing Home While Owner Has Surgery: Pauline Balta, a board member of Lincoln Animal Ambassadors, represented the group at Lincoln’s Project Homeless Connect. “During the event, a gentleman, came to LAA’s table asking if we knew of an available foster home. This gentleman needed back surgery and wanted to find a temporary home for his beloved dog, Melanie Elizabeth, a beautiful black lab blend. He stated he would not have surgery until he knew she was being loved and cared for in a good temporary home…. He described her as loving, happy, able to get along with any dog and liking kitties. Knowing all this, I made the decision to foster Melanie in my home.“
Pregnant Cats and Their Kittens Living at Shelter: Angela Gebhardt, has mostly fostered for the Capital Humane Society, but has also taken in cats that owners have kicked out and never let back in. The biggest foster she accepted was two moms with nine babies between them. “I took them all home with me and set up a room for them with dividers so they could care for their own litters. These mamas were obviously bonded and they truly shared mothering duties! So I took down the divider and made one big box with towels for them to co-parent their babies. The nine little ones had barely opened their eyes so I knew I was going to have them for at least a couple of months until they got up to two pounds. I had a scale and used a bowl to put each of them in each day and weigh them to be sure they were staying steady or gaining an ounce or two a day. It was SO fun watching these mom’s mother together and the kittens doing all their firsts: opening their eyes, learning to crawl, learning to walk, sucking on their ‘thumbs’. That was SUCH a joy but I also needed a SUPER long break after that one. :-)”
SHOULD YOU ADOPT?
In my previous articles I have touched on the issue that for many foster parents, the single biggest concern is the pain of parting with your foster pets The research I found addresses both sides of this issue. Some sources pose the question: If the worst that happens is that you fall in love with your foster pet and end up with a new family member, is that really so bad? Other sources will point out that while the feeling is admirable, it’s not necessarily for the best. If you adopt a pet that you’re fostering, you might reach your limit of household pets and not be able to adopt others. That’s one less foster home for the rescue group or shelter to rely on.
Adopt: Dina Barta, who has fostered and offered free photography services to various rescue groups, is an example of a foster fail. She told me about Nala: “I decided she needed an extra blanket the first night at my house. She was laying quietly in her kennel and I crawled in to give her the blanket. She reached up with a leg, wrapped the leg around my neck and pulled me into the sweetest hug I have ever had. She held me tight for a few minutes and then let go. I could not let her go after that and she hugs me every night now. She hugs me before I leave for work every day. I never knew a dog could hug like that. I had to foster fail with Nala.”
Foster: At the same time, Dina also recently posted an adoption celebration notice. In it, she wrote, “Kaya has been adopted! Time for a big thank you to Kaywin Sohl, who has fostered numerous dogs! She opens her home to these giant dogs, loves them, trains them and makes sure they look good for their photo session. Thank you, Kaywin, from all of the fosters you have helped to find loving homes.” Kaywin has fostered about eighty dogs for Big Dogs Huge Paws.
The bottom line is when you foster a companion animal, whether your home becomes their forever home or whether you let them go to another forever home, you have saved a life. Jen Schurman, who fosters with Big Dogs Huge Paws and for Nebraska Great Pyrenees Rescue, offers this suggestion: “Set clear limits as to how long you will foster before you will become a failure. I have 50% failure rate. Prepare to fail!”
HOW CAN FOSTERING CHANGE YOU?
With companion animals being in such crisis due to overpopulation, a frequently-heard plea is for pet foster parents. Anyone who loves animals finds that emotional cry hard to resist. Not only do I applaud that response, but I myself tend to encourage pet lovers to foster. Yet one of my reasons for wanting to thoroughly explore this topic is having heard ones tell of a first negative experience and then swear they’ll never pet foster again. For those who take the time to make an informed and realistic decision, I think the exact opposite will be true. Fostering will change not only the lives of each pet you bring into your home, but it’ll also dramatically improve your own life for the better.
Fostering can teach you to open up your heart: Janet shared that fostering eased her pain of losing a beloved pet. To her, “If these animals can learn to love again, so can I.”
Fostering can make you more patient: Kaywin explained, “Has fostering changed me? Heck yes! I realize that I do have patience and it is the best feeling in the world to watch a foster change from a timid, scared dog to a flowering gentle giant who can’t wait to go for a car ride or be included in family activities or lay their head on your lap at bedtime and wait for you to pet their head.”
Amanda Brokaw, a volunteer with Big Dogs Hugs Paws and Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue, seconded the thought, “I am much more patient. I had one dog that loved any type of attention. Even if I was telling her I didn’t like something, she thought that attention meant she was doing something right. It just happened to be she was jumping on my back and pulling my hair. I had to learn to ignore her and be patient. Once she stopped, I could praise her and then she learned that I was happiest when she did what I wanted.” Amanda also added that patience helped in her how, “ I treat all the people in my life. I also think that I am a much happier person than I used to be.”
Fostering can give you hope: Jen said, “Every dog that I’ve fostered has given me more than I’ve given it. They’re full of hope. They show you the world can be a terrible place, but they also show you it can be a world of hope. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hospice dog or a puppy. It’ll show you things about hope that you never expected. I’m so much of a better because of the dogs.”
Fostering can educate you of the need: When I asked Janet if there was one foster story that stood out, she didn’t feel able to pick just one. Instead she wrote that, “One thing that has opened my eyes is the need for foster homes. There are so many animals that need rescue and there are not enough fosters out there. I have learned that there are people that look at animals as things that that can neglect, abuse, or dump when they tire of them. The public needs to know the truth about pet overpopulation and how to part of the solution and not part of the problem. We need more people opening their homes to save lives of companion animals.”
Fostering can change your future: For Jen, who grew up always being involved in rescue, she’s an example of how fostering can result in even more pronounced changes. It can change lifetime goals. First, she switched from being a cat to a dog person. More importantly, she found a way of life that gives her purpose. Through fostering, Jen feels she has learned to not be afraid of death. Fostering has enabled to pursue and handle hospice work. She refers to fostering as, “touching a small piece of heaven”.
WHAT IF FOSTERING ISN’T FOR YOU?
A thorough response to the question, “What if fostering isn’t for you?” is beyond the scope of this article but, needless to say, animal shelters and rescue groups are always looking for volunteers in other capacities. Shelters can use your help cleaning cages, walking dogs, or simply answering phones. Rescues can use your help coordinating fosters, transporting animals, or raising funds.
There’s virtually no limit to how you can help pets in need. If you love companion animals, but are unable to foster, call a local animal welfare group today and find out where you can meet a need. At the end of each of my four articles on pet foster parents, I’ve listed links to all the groups represented by the series. Start with those and/or seek out other local groups, of which there are many reputable ones.
A SPECIAL TRIBUTE
When I began my research for this series of articles on pet foster parenting way back in April, our dog Gizmo had begun to have bi-weekly attacks of pancreatisis. I knew at the time that I wanted to dedicate this series to him, although not that we would lose Gizmo on May 23. What follows is the tribute to Gizmo that my husband posted on Facebook.
When Gizmo’s owner had to move into an assisted living facility a few years ago, that could have been the end of the road for him. He could have been brought to a shelter without a no-kill policy, deemed unadoptable, and euthanized. Instead he was brought to Nebraska No Kill, who placed him with Allison and me.
The first time we said goodbye to Gizmo was in June of 2013. We started fostering him the previous December with the understanding that we would only be able to keep him until the end of May, when we would leave for our annual trip to visit Allison’s family. But surely someone would adopt him before then! Well, no, it turns out no one really wants an elderly dog with Cushing’s. And so on his last full day with us, we took him and Barnaby for a romp at Pioneer Park, which concluded with ice cream for everyone. The next day he was picked up at our house to be taken to his new foster family. As he was being carried away, he looked back at us with the saddest eyes. And that’s how we ended up taking him back after our trip and adopting him the following January.
Gizmo was a happy-go-lucky dog. He was full of energy, even in his senior years. He loved to rip toys apart. He loved Barnaby and hated our cat. When there was nothing to do, he would sit and wobble like an excited R2-D2. But shortly after we began fostering him the second time, he injured his back. Although his back legs were completely paralyzed for a while, he eventually regained the ability to walk. Not once did he lose his zest for life.
Only in the past few months had we begun to worry that the second goodbye might be near. Gizmo’s back legs had been growing weaker and weaker, and eventually he lost the ability to walk on his own. His already bad eyesight and bad hearing had gotten worse. He got pancreatitis, and got it again, and again, and again. His zest for life was waning. Finally, he stopped eating entirely. When we started fostering him, he had weighed over twelve pounds. Now he was down to eight. We had talked about spoiling Gizmo when we knew the end was near. But when that time actually came, spoiling him was no longer possible. He couldn’t go on walks. He had almost no energy. He wouldn’t eat anything, no matter how tempting.
But—There had been that first goodbye! We’d spoiled him then! He’d received the goodbye he deserved! How great to have gotten that chance. And how great that the first goodbye didn’t stick.
On his last day, we sat with Gizmo in the backyard. We pet him and held him and told him how much he was loved. It shows how poorly he felt that this dog, who was never a lap dog, laid peacefully in my lap as I read – the first and last time he ever did so.
This second goodbye has hurt so much more than the first. This one is going to stick.
AN EXTRA THANKS
An extra special thanks goes to two ladies, without whose help this series wouldn’t exist.
- Dina Barta has fostered through Paws Up Nebraska, Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue, and Revolution Rescue. She also combines her love of animals and photography at DogDB, a free service, to increase the chance of pets at finding homes. After Dina posted my request for foster stories on her DogBone Facebook page, my first respondent, Kaywin Sohl wrote me.
- Kaywin Sohl has fostered around 80 dogs with Big Dogs Huge Paws who. She was the first pet foster parent to respond to my request for stories. Moreover, she put me in contact with several other pet foster parents.
I also wish to thank everyone else who took time to contribute their stories and insights: Pauline Balta, Amanda Brokaw, Angela Gerhardt, Jen Shurman, Janet Wilkerson (and Kerri Kelly of Dolly’s Legacy Animal Rescue) who put me touch with Janet), and Julie Zitek. A couple of them have even agreed to serve as a future contact for me regards my own questions about being a foster, an adventure which will continue.
Local Animal Groups