What, exactly, is fostering?
Most animal shelters, rescues, and humane societies have a foster program. Foster homes virtually expand the walls of the shelter, allowing them to take in far more animals than they can accommodate within the confines of the shelter. Here’s how it works:
There are a variety of reasons an animal might end up in a shelter. They may be surrendered by their owner; they may be transferred from another shelter who does not have the resources to care for them; or they may be a homeless stray.
Some animals, after a medical check-up, are ready for the adoption floor. But others could use some time in foster care. These might include:
- animals who are too young to be spayed or neutered
- moms with nursing litters
- sick animals
- animals who are stressed and/or under-socialized
When these situations occur, the shelter has a list of volunteers who have been trained to care for these animals in their own home.
Shelters are amazing, but most will admit that they’re aren’t the best place for vulnerable animals. Just imagine: Rather than staying in a cage at a busy shelter, a mommy cat can raise her kittens in a warm, quiet, loving foster home. Or, an elderly dog can recover from surgery or illness in a room of their own with a family to watch over him. Or, a shy animal can become used to the sounds and smells of a household, while learning that people are nice and trustworthy, and that good food is served at regular intervals.
And THAT, my friend, is what foster families do.
How do animals benefit from being in foster care?
Sometimes I wonder who benefits more: me, or the pregnant/nursing mommy cats I care for.
I’ve never fostered dogs, so you’ll have to draw your own conclusions there. But here’s what I’ve witnessed when it comes to kittens raised in a foster home:
- They are less skittish. They’ve heard doorbells and dogs barking and off-key singing and traffic and dishwashers and conversation and laughter since the day they were born. Kittens raised in this environment have the confidence to be brave and curious, and can adapt quickly to their new homes and families once they’re adopted.
- They are healthier. A mother cat’s immunities are passed via colostrum to her newborn kittens. But a kitten will only receive immunity to diseases the mother has been vaccinated against or exposed to. And, kittens are only able to absorb antibodies for the first 18 hours or so of life. With an immature immune system, kittens are susceptible to disease until they reach the four-week mark and can begin receiving their own vaccines. A foster home keeps kittens away from potential viruses, bacteria and fungi (think ringworm) that can threaten their lives.
- They are cuddly. If the mommy cat allows, I begin touching, holding, weighing and licking (kidding) newborn kittens on their
actual Birth Day. They get a lot of attention and socializing from my family because we are super bad at keeping our hands to ourselves. As kittens mature (and after they’ve received their first vaccines), I invite (gentle) people of different ages and genders to interact and play with them. Kittens from foster homes are generally used to being handled, and are good at making new friends. And also I love being the home that attracts all the neighborhood kids because I might be an actual witch.
What kind of animals can I foster?
Well, that depends on what your shelter offers.
Most animal rescues have at least dogs and cats. Others have critters like rabbits, guinea pigs, and mice!
In Washington state, there’s even a Ferret Rescue where you can volunteer. How fun is that?!
You can also set limits on what you can handle. I *can* do bottle-fed kittens, but only during certain times of the year when I have time and help for around-the-clock feedings. I mostly take in pregnant mommy cats, or cats with nursing kittens. Some people prefer puppies, or older kittens without moms. Some people do quick, two-week foster commitments to give an older animal a break from busy shelter life. Lots of options, lots of animals.
What about supplies like food and litter? And who provides vaccines and spay/neuter surgery?
Most shelters provide all the equipment and supplies you will need to foster. However, it’s pretty fun to buy extra nice things for your fosters to enjoy. You can pretend that you’re a rich grandma, showering love and materialism on your orphaned grandchildren. Wear pearls and heels while shopping for them on-line. No one will know.
With the advent of social media, providing goodies for your fosters is even easier. Consider setting up an Amazon Wishlist; people love sending food, blankets and toys to your fosters, and will then get to see them being used and enjoyed on your feed.
Some people are allergic to animals, or they travel, and can’t volunteer themselves. So they help by sending supplies to foster homes. Win/win!
Many animal rescues have vets on staff who will provide the medical care your foster may need. And you never have to worry about any symptoms your foster displays: any questions or concerns about your foster’s health can be answered via an email or text to your shelter. One of the shelters where I foster has foster homes all over Puget Sound, so they keep a credit card on file with emergency vets in case one of us has problems after hours. I love that I don’t have to make hard decisions about my fosters: I just do what the smart people tell me to do.
Your shelter will likely also handle all vaccines, viral-testing, and any medication your foster may need. The foster staff where I volunteer has taught me so much: giving pills, syringe-feeding, eye drops, ear ointments, taking temperatures, they know EVERYTHING and are the smartest people I know.
Again, all shelters are different. Some do require you to provide food as part of your fostering commitment …. not a big deal, as long as you know up-front what your obligations are.
Chances are you’ll have to provide your own pearls, though.
Do you get paid to foster?
Fostering is a volunteer position. So, you get paid in purrs and snuggles and smiles and being the neighborhood’s favorite house, but not in actual money.
Can I work full-time and still foster?
Absolutely! Chat with your shelter and let them know your time constraints. Some foster animals need more around-the-clock care than others: some may need mid-day medication, or regular visits to the vet; kittens without a mom will need to be bottle-fed around the clock. But most foster situations do not require you to be home all the time. Consider fostering an older animal who just needs a vacation away from busy shelter life, or an animal who needs a quiet place to recover from surgery. They’ll be grateful for the peace and comfort of your home.
What if I have my own animals at home?
Every shelter will have its own rules, but in general, it’s best to keep your resident pets separate from your fosters. This isn’t always possible, so it’s important to have a talk with your local rescue and see what they recommend.
It’s also good to chat with your vet, and make sure your own pets are up to date on their vaccines. When I told my vet that I was fostering, she had an idea of what my own cats could be exposed to, and had specific recommendations for their vaccines.
Since my own pets are up to date on vaccines, once my foster kittens have been vaccinated and viral-tested, I do allow them to interact. Orphaned kittens, especially, benefit from being cuddled and groomed by my resident cats. Plus, it’s adorable.
Fostering sounds fun! How can I sign-up to foster?
YOU SHOULD!! Most animal shelters and humane societies have foster programs where you can volunteer. Check with your local shelters. Most of the time, they have volunteer forms and orientation times listed on their website. Fostering is fun, and there is almost always a need for more volunteers.
Even if you only have a small space for a foster animal, it’s better than them living in a cage inside of a shelter.
At least give it a try!
Fostering won’t work for me. How else can I help?
SO many ways!
Well, there’s the usual go-to-the-shelter-and-play-with-animals gig. Or clean cages, sort supplies, answer phones, etc. But I’m simply amazed at the creative ways people help at animal shelters.
Did you know that some shelters let you take a shelter dog on an adventure for the day? Best. Day. Ever.
Many animal shelters have space inside pet stores to increase visibility of adoptable pets. Is there one in your neighborhood where you can volunteer as an adoption counselor?
If you run for fun, why? But also, see if you can take a shelter dog with you! They love the exercise.
You can help deliver pet food and supplies to people who are less-mobile, or disabled. You can also help low-income senior citizens keep their animal companion by assisting with vet visits.
So many fun ways! Get on your local humane society’s website, and see how you can help.
Will I become attached to my fosters?
Yes. That’s how you know you’re good at it.
But don’t worry. It’s better to cry when you say good-bye than to cry knowing you didn’t help when you could.
Is it hard to say good-bye to your foster kittens?
This is probably the number one question I’m asked on a regular basis.
The answer is complicated.
At two or three months old, kittens need their own space. As careful as I am, I can’t keep a close enough watch on a whole litter of kittens to keep them all safe, but it isn’t fair to keep them confined to one or two rooms. They are also emotionally ready to separate from each other and form close friendships with people.
If I kept my foster kittens, I wouldn’t be able to foster anymore. Also, once a litter has been adopted, I will get a new litter to work with. I love always having tiny kittens around. It’s incredible how your heart just keeps growing and stretching to accommodate each new batch of kittens.
Kitten adoption day is always sad for me. It’s kind of like having a high school graduate – you love them to pieces, but it would feel wrong to keep them always at home. When the time comes to let them go, it feels right and good. It’s a miserable joy, to be sure, but joy nonetheless.