My family has fostered dogs and cats for at least the last 20 years. We have fostered dogs, cats, and kittens for Open Door Animal Sanctuary and dogs from several other local rescues over the years. There are many ways to approach being a foster for a homeless pet, but here are some tips to get you started.
So many people have questioned me over the years. First of all, they question my sanity for always having a revolving door. They also ask how I can foster and then let them go.
To be perfectly honest, letting them go can be hard. I always approach the process knowing that these are not my babies. My job is to care for them and prepare them to be the best members for the family they just don’t know yet.
Some of my fosters have been “specialty fosters” and others have been a more long-term variety. Here are two of my favorite stories:
THE JOY OF KITTENS
I have a special love for working with pregnant mamas. I help them through the queening process (delivery) and raise and socialize the kittens until they are adopted. This is such a fun and rewarding experience and I can certainly tell you has been full of life lessons for my kids as they’ve grown up.
About five years ago we had a huge influx of pregnant mamas at the sanctuary. We would all brace ourselves when it was kitten season because at times the nursery would have well over a dozen pregnant mamas or mamas with young litters. For some reason I made a crazy decision and took in two mamas with their very young litters at the same time. I knew it would be a little squishy with two large cages in my office, but I figured that in about six weeks the babies would be a lovely playgroup.
We had two very large dog crates next to each other in my office. I would open one and let the mama run around while I cleaned her space and then I would put her back in with her babies and go to the next cage. Mamas can be very protective of their babies and it was not safe to have them too close to each other.
One day when I was done cleaning I couldn’t find the mama to put her back in. I turned around and saw that I hadn’t latched the other kennel correctly and she was in grooming the other mama! I had always known that they were both young mamas and were of similar coloring, but I realized at that point that they were in fact sisters themselves! The rest of their time with me was a blissful combination of two mamas with their litters co-parenting!
BELLA THE FRANKEN-DOG
A memorable long-term foster of mine was Bella. When I first started rescue I worked with small foster-based rescue groups. I was the intake coordinator for one early on for a year. You have to be a bit crazy to do that level of front-line rescue. Rescue volunteers have huge hearts and when faced with the mind-numbing number of homeless pets in kill shelters…we tend to go a little nuts. I would personally drive to Jefferson County Animal Control weekly to see who was on the “chopping block“ and didn’t have any time left. I would temperance test them and load my poor minivan with dogs and puppies. One one memorable trip I had two mamas with seven puppies between them, and four other adult dogs.
It was a full day affair every week. I would head straight from Animal Control to a local Chesterfield veterinarian who pretty much opened his back area for me to process the dogs. That is where my veterinary technician background came in handy! I would heartworm test them, vaccinate them, check their stool for parasites, and get them ready for a quick health check by the veterinarian rabies vaccinations. Then came the work of calling down the list of fosters to see who had one more space available…or even who was willing to squeeze one more in. It was a frenzy every week! My hat and my heart goes to those that still do that every week. It is a labor of love and I have to say it takes a crazy person to do it, but where would we be without them?
Bella was actually the first foster I had with this particular group. I was at a large pet adoption event in Queeny Park when I met a foster for this organization (it doesn’t take much more than that to be “volunteered”). She called me within the next week with a Rottweiler mix who was “super sweet“ and needed a place so she wouldn’t be euthanized. I brought her home to settle in for a “short” time to wait for her veterinary visit to check out her right eye. She had a genetically recessed eye and the eyelids rolled in and caused her pain and irritation.
Guess what? The vet visit also showed she was pregnant! Woo-hoo! We were then responsible for getting heathy babies out of an emaciated and dehydrated mama. We were lucky to safely delivered her babies and we enjoyed raising a litter of puppies. Our one and only. If you have ever done it do you know why I say that. That four to ten week timeframe is adorable but messy!
We had Bella spayed after we found wonderful homes for her puppies and she settled in to our routine. She was a knucklehead. We were pretty sure she was part rottweiler and part boxer by her energy and mannerisms. When we would play in the yard she would run along behind us and try to hook our legs with her front paws. Very boxer-ish.
The next step to get her adoptable was to determine the best plan with her eye. It was decided that it was causing her so much pain it had to be removed. After her surgery we we’re so relieved that she was no longer in pain. At that point she received many additional monikers such as “Franken-dog“ and “Eye-gor“. She was always our sweet but nutty Bella.
As for long-term foster… from start to finish she was with us for 11 months. She was definitely a long-hauler! The main issue was that she did not “present well“ at adoption events. Give these poor dogs and cats some grace when you see them act a bit hyper and anxious at local pet stores or adoption events. They’ve been pulled from their foster homes to these events in the hopes that someone will fall in love. They are out of their environment and under a lot of stress. They will not behave in these scenarios as they would when they settle into your home. See the potential.
WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?
I’ve had many experiences and I wanted to share several tips for you should you decide to join the ranks as a foster parent:
- Make sure you have the lifestyle for it. You don’t have to be home at all times, but being able to provide a stable, consistent environment is important for their security and rehabilitation. We have had several clients over the years who became foster parents along with their own household of dogs. They relied on our Dog Walking service for their own dogs and for foster dogs and puppy care management during the day.
- If you have a longer-term foster care situation (I would say more than a month assignment) understand that dogs will not even begin to settle in until about three weeks. You won’t even know their true personality until they do. This is the same with bringing any new dog in your home. The first three weeks will be your “honeymoon phase“. The dog will be a little bit more unsure and will express themselves in a more guarded way. You will gradually start to see little behaviors come out that will need some training and management. That comes with the territory! Your responsibility will be to ensure a consistent dependable environment with loving limits as you mold them into good family members.
- Make sure you check your regulations for fostering. If you are renting, this is your first hurdle. Make sure that your landlord will allow you to foster. Some will be pet lovers themselves and be happy to support you and others might require a pet deposit or consider them to fall under “pet rent”. You need to additionally check your municipal or county regulations for number of pets in a household, especially if you already have your own pets.
- Make sure you have no issues with your homeowners or renters insurance. This might (unfortunately) come into play with certain breeds.
- Consider the supplies and materials you will need. Most supplies will come from the rescue group but make sure you keep these items in mind: a secure kennel (you will want to keep them kenneled when not under direct observation), food, bowls, flea and tick treatment, heartworm preventative, a bed or some form of bedding, a Kong or some other indestructible toy (until you determine if they consider “death to the squeaker” as their favorite game). Also consider how to “dog proof” your home. Petfinder has a great article How to Prepare Your Home for a Foster Pet.
- If you have other pets you will need to introduce them to your own pets. You will want to do this gradually. Seattle Animal Shelter does a good job preparing their fosters with some of these following suggestions:
~Do be alert and make the reintroductions gradually and calmly. Even if they got along great at the shelter, your dog may be extremely territorial in the home.
~If possible, go for a walk around your neighborhood with both dogs and two handlers.Walk the dogs side by side on leashes and allow them to sniff one another and become familiar with each other.
~Do give your own dog LOTS of love and praise.
~Do leave leashes on the dogs when you are in the home, so that you can get immediate control if needed. You may only need to do this for a short time.
~Do talk normally. Letting the dogs know that you are fine; they are fine; everything is fine!
~Be patient and go slowly with your foster dog as they may have been through a stressful surgery, abusive situation or a lot of recent changes.
~Don’t leave your foster dog unattended with your resident dog. Even if they seem to get along well in your presence, you should separate the dogs when you leave your house. After a while, you may determine that this is no longer necessary, but be sure to always remove all toys, food, chews and start slowly
Fostering a homeless pet is a challenge, but can be so rewarding to know that you have helped save a life and helped shape someone’s new family member! 4-Legged Kids has a mission to Connect and Support pets and people with our Dog Walking and Pet Sitting services and our commitment to local St. Louis Rescue. You can read more on our LOCAL GIVING page. Let us know if we can help you get started on your foster journey!
Janie founded 4-Legged Kids, Inc in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1997 and provides education through her PetBizHIVE podcast and her PetBizMBA membership and courses. She is a Certified Professional Animal Care Operator, Fear Free certified and a Certified Professional Pet Sitter. Learn more about the Founder, Janie Budnick.