By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
If you're an animal lover who's thought about fostering a cat or dog, but at the same time have questions about the responsibilities and possible pitfalls and feel slightly hesitant about the unknowns, here's some pertinent information designed to put your mind at ease.
As reported by Paw Culture, veteran pet foster parents Karen Winkler, a volunteer with the Bucks County SPCA and the Animal Care & Control Team of Philadelphia, along with Stasia Thompson, a volunteer with Almost Home Dog Rescue and Poor Paws Rescue, both have successful track records of fostering pets without homes, in need of a place to lay their heads and be fed and loved until a forever family — or individual — comes along.1
Their advice is "road tested" and may pave the way for a successful pairing with a beloved dog or cat — or both — so that you'll find it to be fun and rewarding for everyone involved.
1. Find a shelter that fits
Thompson has had the privilege of sharing her home with more than 25 foster dogs over the past six years, and every one of them has been adopted, so she's familiar with the ins and outs of a successful partnership with a quality rescue organization that is trustworthy enough to recommend to others.
She advises people interested in fostering to become familiar with a number of different rescue organizations before committing to one, because it's a potential partnership that can be long term and not just mutually beneficial, but a go-to source for anyone looking to actually adopt a dog or cat. Ways to identify a great fit with an animal rescue group have to do with how they treat their animals and how they interact with the volunteers they work with. Paw Culture explains:
"Finding a good fit with the rescue organization is important because you want to be sure that the group has the animals' best interests at heart and that they truly value the hard work of their volunteers.
Some organizations are very involved every step of the way, from helping to find adopters to providing on-site veterinary care, while others rely more heavily on the dedication and creativity of their foster parents. With a little research, you'll be sure to find a rescue group that's aligned with you and what you're able to provide."2
2. Ask about the facility
They say if you want to know something, just ask, and that's a reasonable step to take when you're looking at different rescue operations. You may find that some are an actual center with a few, several or many pets they're hoping to help find a home. Then again, there may be one or more in your area based in individual homes.
Facilities with staff members on hand often help fill in the gaps to link potential foster parents with pets, and they may also offer support when a foster situation doesn't work for whatever reason.
Winkler, who's become an experienced pinch-hitter for kittens, especially during "kitten season" when litters are springing up everywhere, has provided a foster home for nine years. She says many rescue organizations just need temporary housing and help with feeding tiny kittens when shelters are full. After the kittens get a little bigger and stronger, they can return to the shelter.
3. Think about short-term pet fostering or other ways you can help
One of the best ways to get your feet wet, so to speak, when you're considering becoming a foster parent to a pet in need is to offer your services for a short-term commitment. It doesn't have to last for months; often, days or just a few weeks is all that's required. Vacation time is one big reason rescue organizations look for people willing to provide short-term fostering, as they need volunteers to fill in while their "regulars" are away.
Plus, there's more than feeding, petting and providing a bed for foster pets. Transportation to and from the veterinarian or to a new adoptive home or foster situation is also a need. Updating the rescue facility's website, cleaning, playing with the animals and helping with fundraising events may also be part of the program, depending on the size of the organization — you could simply offer a helping hand, which would be a big part of helping a rescue operation run more smoothly.
4. While fostering, be fair to your own pets
Even when you have pets of your own who require your love, time and attention, it's easy to get caught up in the needs of a new kitten or puppy. When your entire household becomes part of the solution, you may be surprised how easily everything fits together. But never stretch yourself so thin you can't take care of your main responsibility.
A good example comes from Thompson's situation, which includes her own three dogs and two adult cats. She's found that the older pets are a great environment for puppies under a year old because her dogs actually help. Thompson notes:
"In my home, puppies work well, as my dogs mother them and show them the ropes on how to be a good dog. Athena, Nola and Rue are very welcoming and love to play with their foster friends."3
In addition, once you find out the quirks and adorable foibles of your foster charges, as well as potential adopting families, you'll be able to better help place them with families looking for the perfect pup or kitten to take home.
5. Don't stress about how much it will cost
Rescue organizations often take the edge off the costs when homes open their doors to foster dogs and cats. Food, litter, toys and even veterinary care is often at least a part of what is offered if you open your door and heart to a pet in need. Sometimes rescue centers are struggling for support, just getting started or may be slammed with an influx of too many dogs and cats in need.
Recent flooding, fires and other disasters are a good example of what can happen when devastating events bring in more homeless or lost animals than there are homes to take them in, even temporarily.
For that reason, there are items that foster parents may be asked to help with, such as crates and carriers, food and water bowls, collars, leashes, treats and other items that not only help the animals but takes the strain off the center financially. It's also one reason why donations to pet rescue operations are so necessary. Winkler adds:
"Homeowners who purchase items for their fosters can write them off as tax deductible donations to the rescue organization, which is a great way to put your donation dollars to work."4
6. Provide a foster home for needy pets as often as you want
Possibly the most often-asked question about fostering a puppy or kitty is "What if I never find a home for her?" Never fear, you're not the only one who will be putting out "feelers" to find a forever home for your adorable temporary pet. Besides the rescue group where you may have found your foster pet, you can get in on the action yourself through social media and even real-live social interaction.
When you take your pup on a walk, for instance, there may be people who ask about your foster pet, which gives you the perfect opportunity to share the animal's needs and attributes. You can also post sweet, winsome or funny photos of the cat you're fostering showing a little about his personality and include a few details about how eager to learn or well behaved he is. PawCulture adds:
"The more creative and diligent you are about spreading the word, the quicker your foster will find his or her family … (and) Thompson has had success walking her fosters around town wearing a bright yellow 'Adopt Me' vest."5
7. It's OK to fall in love with your foster pet
Many people hesitate to foster pets in need because they're afraid they'll fall in love with a small ball of fur or a big pair of liquid eyes just begging to be adored. But that's one of the risks of loving and providing things that are rare commodities in the world — helping hands and an open heart. Even if your heart hurts a little when you hand your foster pet over to a new family for adoption, you'll be smiling through your tears.
Winkler says she knows the feeling. She's done it many times, and contends that if she can do it, anyone can. In addition, she goes in knowing that it's a temporary arrangement and that her job is to take good care of the animal until the day she's able to recognize a love match made between a foster pet and an excited adopting family.
"There is an amazing rush and deep sense of relief when you hear from the person who adopted your foster and you know the people found their true love in your foster. They know I helped save them. You can see it in their eyes."6
8. When you're the one wanting to turn a foster pet into a family member
It does happen sometimes; foster parents discover that the dog or cat who came into their home supposedly for a while happened to fit in perfectly, and no one can imagine living without them. While it's been called a "foster failure," it's anything but. Any time an animal with no home finds one filled with love and caring, even if it's their so-called temporary foster placement, it's a success. Whether it's a cat or a dog, pet parents know when the animal they love is forever. There's no better "fail" than that.
Find Your Niche as a Foster Parent for a Needy Pet
Online organization such as PAWS7 may be able to help if you have questions about filling in as a foster home for animals temporarily. Petfinder8 is another source to find a rescue center near you, and you can tailor your temporary pet to fit your needs or what you're able to provide. Petfinder.com, for instance, notes that you can request certain breeds, and you can assess the organization's greatest needs at any given time.
They may have too many large dogs, for instance, or too many orphaned puppies and kitties. You can tell the people in charge you'd like to focus on senior dogs if that's your passion. Animals in need of a foster home may also have prerequisites. A dog who's been through trauma, for instance, may not do well in a home with small children or too much noise, and a mama cat might come with babies who also need at least a temporary home.
A good animal rescue organization will take such situations into consideration. Your own home might be just the one that's needed for an interim period so a pet can later be placed in just the right situation.