COVID-19's Silver Lining — A Boon for Homeless Pets

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

foster home for pet

Story at-a-glance

  • A bit of good news on the COVID-19 front is that a surprising number of people who are staying home to slow the spread of the virus are signing up to foster shelter pets
  • This is good news for animal shelters that are temporarily closed to the public; adoptions are way down as a result, but pets continue to be dropped off
  • Fostering is a win-win for both pets and humans, especially during a time when so many people are feeling isolated; for animals, living in a home environment is less stressful and more enriching than shelter life
  • If you’re considering fostering a pet, it’s important to know what to expect, which will depend on the type of animal you agree to care (e.g., cat or kitten, dog or puppy, age, sex, health or behavioral issues, history, etc.)

If you’re in search of some good news to lighten your mood during these difficult times, check this out: A shelter system in New York City, the Animal Care Centers (ACC), put out a call recently for 200 foster homes and received 2,000 applications in response!

It seems a lot of pet lovers in NYC go without animal companions because under normal circumstances, they’re rarely home and don’t feel it’s fair to leave a furry family member alone for long hours every day. If it’s possible for the coronavirus pandemic to have a silver lining, perhaps it’s that people facing the reality of being stuck inside for several weeks are opening their hearts and homes to foster pets.

“I think it is a combination of feeling lonely and having the time,” Katy Hansen, spokesperson for the ACC told The New York Times.1

It’s important to note that there is no clear evidence at this time that dogs and cats can become sick from COVID-19 or that they can transmit the virus to humans. You can learn more about pets and the disease, including common sense precautions for homes with dogs and cats in this article: COVID-19 and Your Pet — What You Need to Know.

Shelters Need Help and People Are Stepping Up in a Big Way

As a result of coronavirus-related shutdowns, many shelters have closed or will soon close to the public and cancel adoption events, which means many fewer pets will find forever homes in the near future. However, animals continue to be brought in. The goal of many shelters right now is to move as many pets as possible into foster homes as a hedge against employees and volunteers becoming ill or needing to self-quarantine.

According to a March 15th article in HuffPost, animal shelters across the U.S. are in need of foster homes for pets, including shelters in New York City; Phoenix; St. Louis; Memphis, Tennessee; Norfolk, Virginia; and Austin, Texas.2 And people are answering the call.

A shelter in Kansas City, Missouri, the KC Pet Project, received 250 requests to foster pets over a 5-day period, which is well beyond a good day in which 10 pets are placed with foster families. In Texas, the Dallas Animal Services shelter placed over 100 pets in foster homes in just a few days, whereas last year during the same period, just 6 dogs and 11 cats were placed.3 Hansen says fostering a pet is sort of like dating someone:

“You are bringing a pet into your home and there is not a long-term commitment,” she told the Times. “You are seeing how it would work.”

Fostering Can Be a Win-Win for Both People and Pets

While a pet can provide companionship for a person adjusting to being homebound as the “new normal,” it can also be a tremendously beneficial experience for the animal being fostered.

“From a sheltering perspective, what fostering does for an animal is immeasurable, because when they are sheltered they are stressed, tired, and we don’t really know their true personality,” Eileen Hanavan, director of the foster and engagement program at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) told the Times.

“When you get them into a home, when they can sleep through the night, their true personality really comes out.”4

As Hanavan points out, shelter environments are stressful for pets. Living in a home with a family better prepares then for adoption than institutional living, and it’s also much less stressful. Fostered pets are also 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.

Having a furry friend around who is dependent on you for food, water, cuddles, potty walks (or litterbox scooping) and other needs can help bring structure and a sense of purpose to your day, especially for people living alone.

“For people that are by themselves, having another heartbeat in the house makes it feel less lonely,” says Hansen. “It’s a win-win.”

What to Expect as a Foster Pet Parent

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 pet parents 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. If you’re interested in fostering a pet, contact your local animal shelter.

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, if you have any, while hosting a foster. Try never to stretch yourself so thin with fosters that you neglect your own furry family members.


+ Sources and References