By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
One way to make a huge difference in the lives of homeless pets is to become a foster parent. Living in a home with a family better prepares pets for adoption than institutional living. It's also much less stressful for the animal. Fostered pets are much less likely to develop fear or anxiety-related behavior problems than animals who spend time in a shelter environment.
In addition, foster families are better able to assess a pet's true temperament because they can observe the animal extensively in a home environment. Brief visits with an anxious or fearful shelter resident are often not adequate to learn the pet's true nature. Also, many foster parents spend time working with their furry charges to help overcome physical or emotional challenges or training deficits — for example, house soiling.
Fostering in a home in which there are children and other pets provides an animal the chance to be socialized to a wider range of family configurations. This opens up his possibilities for adoption to a greater number of families. Or, if the foster pet can't be adequately socialized to small children, for example, the shelter or rescue will know this particular animal must be adopted to a family with no young kids.
If an animal has been rescued from an abusive situation, her foster family can build a bridge from her past (where humans were scary), to a hopeful future with people who are caring and loving.
What to Expect From Your Fostering Experience
This will depend a great deal on what type of pet you agree to foster, and the circumstances of the animal's life up to that point. General pet rules apply, of course. Dogs require more time and energy than cats. Puppies need more attention than almost any other type of pet.
If your foster cat is recuperating from an illness or injury, she might need nursing care or extra TLC. If the dog you took in has no manners, he'll need your help to learn basic obedience commands like sit, stay and down. A healthy kitten will need appropriate nutrition, a litterbox, a few toys, lots of gentle handling and your watchful eye to keep him from getting into anything around your home that might harm him.
By contrast, a large breed adult dog who has lived up till now banished to a backyard and ignored, will need all the basics including daily walks and exercise. Plus she'll need to be house trained, leash trained, obedience trained, socialized — and there may also be behavior problems to address. Obviously, many more people can conveniently take in a healthy kitten or cat than a large, untrained adult dog.
Both situations will be rewarding for the foster families who help these animals. But if you have the time and resources necessary to turn a rather unmanageable, large breed shelter dog into a balanced, mostly well-behaved pet, not only will you feel tremendous gratification, but you will also very likely save the life of that dog by dramatically improving the likelihood she'll be adopted.
So both the effort and reward of fostering depends on the type of pet you agree to help. Let's say you decide to dive into the deep end of the fostering pool and take on a puppy. Here are some tips for ensuring the little guy stays healthy and gets some of the tools he'll need to help him find his forever home.
4 Recommendations for Fostering a Puppy
These tips are offered by veterinarian Dr. Amanda Dykstra, writing for veterinary journal dvm360:1
• Manners minded means more adoptable!
The most critical time period for socialization in puppies is from ages 7 to 14 weeks, when the part of their brain that senses fear is forming. Your foster puppy needs to have lots of positive experiences during this time. I believe continuing to socialize puppies daily until they're a year of age is important, but this timeframe is critical.
Follow the rule of seven: Try to have your puppy experience seven new textures, tastes, people, sounds or surfaces every day, and make sure each experience is filled with treats and praise. Be sure to include all sorts of experiences and people: tall, short, children, people in wheelchairs and so on. The more you can get your puppy out, the braver he or she will feel in the face of new experiences.
Another way to ensure that your foster does not fail is to engage in basic training. A puppy that knows how to sit, stay, come, refrain from jumping on people and walk nicely on a leash is much more likely to get a furr-ever home, so take your foster to puppy class and work with him at home.
• Avoid creepy crawlies
Sometimes foster dogs can come with some unwanted visitors. Mites, fleas, ticks, fungus, bacteria, parasites and other critters can hitch a ride on a shelter dog. Watch for signs of infestation such as red, itchy skin; hair loss; soft stool; runny nose or coughing and general lethargy. If you see these signs, call your veterinarian or the shelter.
• When to worry
Fostering a puppy can be overwhelming and scary if you don't know what to look for. While a veterinarian is always available to help and give advice, there are some situations that are urgent but not emergent that can wait till the next day, while some are true emergencies.
Parvovirus, which causes bloody diarrhea, fever, lack of energy, loss of appetite and vomiting, is an emergency. Go immediately to the veterinarian. Fading puppy syndrome — which causes low birth weight, failure to gain weight, diarrhea, continual crying, painful abdomen, paddling, vomiting, salivation or difficulty breathing — is an emergency.
• An ounce of prevention
Most infectious diseases that used to cause death and severe illness in puppies can now be prevented by one or two well-timed immunizations. My vaccine protocol for puppies is to administer a first round of distemper, parvo and adenovirus before 12 weeks of age, usually around 9 to 10 weeks. I give the second round between 15 and 16 weeks. Two weeks after the second round, I titer to insure the dog has been immunized and not just vaccinated. Never vaccinate an unwell puppy.
When it comes to rabies, I prefer to give the first vaccine at 6 months, and then as required by law, a booster one year later and every three years thereafter. Until immunity is established through titering at the two- to four-week mark after the pup's second round of shots, use extreme care if you take her to places where other dogs congregate, including:
- Pet stores
- Dog parks
- Puppy or obedience classes
- Doggy daycare or boarding facilities
- Grooming shops
Also, don't let your foster pup come in contact with the poop of other dogs or wild animals, and properly dispose of his poop as well. If he's vomiting or has diarrhea or has been exposed to an ill dog, keep him away from any area where he might come in contact with other dogs or wild animals.
Unvaccinated dogs should not be exposed to ill dogs or those with questionable health or immunization histories. And if you are in contact with a sick dog, avoid contact with other dogs until you've washed your hands thoroughly and changed clothes, if necessary.
Falling for Your Foster
A huge benefit of fostering is the positive domino effect it creates. The more people willing to open their homes to foster pets, the more pets local shelters can accommodate, and for longer periods. This gives each precious pet the best shot at finding a new home.
But sometimes, foster parents discover that the pet who came into their home for a temporary stay turns out to be a perfect fit for their family, and they decide to keep him or her. This is called a "foster failure," but it's really anything but! One final thought on fostering: be sure to be fair to your own pets while hosting a foster. Try never to stretch yourself so thin with fosters that you neglect your own furry family members.