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How to Foster a Pet: Everything You Need to Get Started

Fostering a pet

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Shelters across the country are seeing a surge of interest in pet adoption. But even those families who can’t make a full-time commitment to a new furry family member are opening their homes to fostering. 

With many people now working from home due to COVID-19, there is no better time to take in a new, four-legged companion. Simply taking a break to pet or play with a dog or cat will give you a much-needed reprieve during this global health crisis.  

There are wins all around when it comes to fostering. Rescue animals are grateful to have a place to relax, even temporarily, until they find their forever homes. Humans benefit from the joy, stress relief, and companionship of pets. More importantly, fostering frees up space in shelters, so that they can take in more animals in need. 

Here is a detailed guide to fostering a pet, with advice on where to go, what it takes to be approved, and tips on having a wonderful foster pet experience. 

What is Fostering a Pet?

When you foster a pet, you are signing up to care for a homeless animal as your own for a period of time, until she finds her own family. It’s an extremely rewarding experience, especially if you are not yet ready to adopt but want to still want to help pets in need. 

Shelters sometimes encourage fostering when facing natural disasters and unprecedented events, like the coronavirus outbreak, to allow them to make room for animals that will inevitably come through their doors as families become displaced or can’t care for their pets due to financial distress.   

While fostering a pet, you are responsible for its well-being. Giving the pet love and affection, housetraining her, socializing her with other humans and pets, and getting to know her personality are some of your key responsibilities. Foster owners should also be comfortable with leash walking, basic obedience training, and giving pets medication—or be willing to learn. 

Under normal pet fostering circumstances, you may also be asked to bring the pet to local adoption events, take her to obedience classes, and speak with the rescue staff and potential adopters about her behavior. This, however, is unlikely during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. 

Brianne Miers, who has cared for 10 foster dogs over the years, says fostering a pet is a commitment that should not be done on a whim.   

“Some of the dogs might be a little scared and out of sorts in the beginning from being passed around so much,” she says. “So you definitely need to be patient and flexible, and give them a lot of love and reassurance.”  

Is Fostering a Pet Free?

Foster dog enjoying the outside

Courtesy Brianne Miers

Yes, in most cases, fostering a pet is free for the foster parent. Shelters and rescue groups provide food, supplies, medicine, veterinary help, and some training for the duration of the pet’s stay in your home.

Washington-based rescue Dog Gone Seattle, which currently has 135 animals in foster care, provides everything foster parents need. “We can provide any supplies needed from crate to food. Fosters shouldn’t have to pay for anything,” says Jenny DB Nordin, founder and president of the rescue. “We also provide support with training virtually and in person with a team of behavioral, knowledgeable case managers.”

Some rescues will ask foster parents to cover part of the expenses, if they can afford it, which helps the rescue save on costs. “We will provide any and all supplies needed, but do ask if the fosters are able and willing to provide their own supplies, as that is a huge expense for us when we run solely on donations and adoption fees,” says Amber Shipley from Maryland’s Saving Grace Animal Rescue, a rescue with 110 animals in their care. 

How Does Fostering a Pet Help?

It allows pets to rest in a home environment. Shelters can be stressful places for companion animals. The constant barking and noise, the coming and going of staff and volunteers, and the lack of play time are all stressors that homeless pets deal with on a daily basis. In city shelters at capacity, not all dogs get walked or get adequate training, and some cats don’t get the socialization they need. It’s important to note that animals in shelters have already been through a lot before landing in the shelter or with a rescue group. 

When you foster a pet, you are giving her a peaceful place to rest and recover. You are also providing a valuable opportunity for the dog or cat to interact with humans (and other pets) and learn good behavior, so that they have a better chance of getting adopted. 

Fostering teaches pets good behaviors and socialization. In some instances, animals that are timid or have special needs (including disabilities, behavioral issues, chronic medical conditions, seizures, etc.) can’t receive proper care at a busy shelter. Making a commitment to care for such an animal, by giving medication, making trips to the vet, and showering her with attention, can make a world of difference. 

It helps make room in shelters. Fostering also plays a vital role in the smooth running of shelters and rescues. There are rescue groups who are entirely foster-based and pull adoptable pets from overrun municipal shelters to help dogs and cats avoid euthanasia. Without these rescues and families opening their hearts and homes to these animals, overburdened shelters cannot make room for unwanted, homeless, or abused animals in the community. 

Types of Pet Fostering

Walking a foster dog

Courtesy SASF

There are different ways to foster a pet. You may choose to foster for a set amount of time, through a short-term foster program. Or you may opt for a long-term placement, where you commit to foster until the animal gets adopted—however long it takes. 

The average foster duration is three weeks, but it may vary. It typically takes less time for puppies because they get adopted sooner. 

Shipley says that she expects COVID-19-related fostering to be mostly short-term. “We expect that many of the new fosters we are seeing will be short term, or one and done fosters as their schedules will return to normal in the upcoming weeks,” she explains.

Pet lovers also have the option to foster-to-adopt, where you take in an animal to see if she’s a good fit before making a lifetime commitment. When choosing this option, it’s important for you and your family to give the pet time and support to adjust to her new surroundings, provide her training, and ensure that she is safe and gets along with everyone in your household—including children and other pets. 

Experienced fosters, who have the time and desire, may take on pets that need more care and training than the average animal. If a dog is fearful, has dog/human reactivity, needs behavioral rehabilitation, or is a victim of abuse, a more involved and longer-term commitment is often necessary.  

Cindy Wright, vice president and anti-animal cruelty liaison of Baltimore’s Animal Allies Rescue Foundation (AARF), says her organization leans towards long-term fostering, as they prefer to keep foster pets in a stable, continuous environment. The only exceptions they make for short-term fostering include medical reasons and motherless neonate kittens, who require bottle feeding. AARF focuses on pulling dogs and cats from Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS) that are victims of cruelty. 

“We are fortunate to have fosters who are veterinarians and others in the medical field who specialize in burn wounds, gunshot recovery, etc.,” says Wright. “They will care for abuse cases until they can move along to a regular foster.”   

Whether you are providing a temporary home for a pup until she gets adopted, providing a healing space for a special needs or abused pet, or helping a shelter ride out a storm or an unprecedented pandemic like COVID-19, you are saving lives. 

Where Can You Foster a Pet From?

When you decide to foster a pet, you have a variety of options, including: 

Municipal shelters which are run by the city, county, or township with taxpayer money.

Non-profit 501(c)3 shelters which are dependent on private donations. These typically include your local SPCA and Humane Society shelters

Non-profit animal rescue groups that either have their own facilities or place pets directly into foster homes until permanent homes are found. 

When you foster from a shelter, keep in mind that the animal has to be returned to the shelter after your foster period is up—unless the pet gets adopted. When you work with a foster-based rescue, the animal will most likely go to another home until adopted. Rescue groups are generally better equipped at providing temporary pet parents with more compatible matches, necessary supplies, and training because they are smaller and have the time to dedicate to cultivating strong relationships. 

“Every foster family in our rescue gets as much support as they need with a personal connection to a case manager who is knowledgeable and dedicated,” Nordin says. 

Shipley explains that it’s important to choose a foster program that sets its volunteers up for success. “Rescue groups also have the capability to do a more thorough screening process and hopefully find a better fit for each individual animal,” she says. 

Pet Fostering First Steps

Woman fostering a cat

The process of becoming a foster parent is straightforward. Here are some steps to guide you through the process.

Step 1: Research your options. Each shelter or rescue group has its own guidelines when it comes to fostering, and it’s best to go with one that’s reputable and supportive. Read reviews, check social media pages, and talk to volunteers before applying to be a foster with a specific organization. 

Step 2: Fill out an application (typically online), where you share your general information. Pet foster applications typically ask for:

  • Your type of dwelling
  • Whether you rent or own your home
  • The number of family members and other pets (past and present)
  • Your reason for wanting to foster
  • Breed/size/age restrictions for pets
  • References
  •  Veterinary details (if you have other pets) 

Step 3: Once your foster application is approved, the shelter or rescue may conduct a home check, especially if you are new to fostering with them. This typically involves a staff member or volunteer coming to your home to see if it’s safe for the animal.

If you are fostering a dog, the rescue or shelter staff may also confirm whether you have a fenced-in yard without any escape routes. If you live in an apartment, they may inquire about nearby parks for adequate exercise. More importantly, the home visit is critical to ensure that all members of the family are excited about the new addition. Keep in mind that not all rescues conduct home checks, opting instead to see the property when dropping off the animal.  

Home visits may be waived or may be done virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation (SASF), on Long Island, New York, has developed a Roadside Adoptions & Fosters program to help their pets find homes in a social-distance-friendly manner. 

“We will still be implementing interactions for adopters/fosters who already own dogs—all of which can be done outside in a large area in order to limit social interactions and gathering between us humans,” says Katie McEntee, director of adoptions at SASF. 

Check in with the shelter or rescue group for specifics about their policies.

Step 4: Following a home visit or an approved application, you may browse through pet profiles online, check social media pages, or pay a visit to the shelter to find the right match. Sometimes, the shelter/rescue will do the matching based on your experience level.   

Step 5: Once you find a pet to foster or the shelter matches you with a pet, it’s important to coordinate drop-off or pick-up procedures. Be ready to ask your foster case manager any specific questions about your foster pet to ensure she gets the best care in your home. 

Do You Need Experience to Foster a Pet?

Another crucial element of becoming eligible for fostering involves prior experience. While some shelters are open to new foster parents, others require that you have basic dog training knowledge to be able to handle their rescues. All of this is done to reduce the percentage of animals being returned before they are adopted. 

“In recent weeks, we have denied foster applications from people who do not have dog experience, as we do not have the resources to provide as much support as we usually do,” Nordin says.

Don’t lose hope, however, if you don’t have prior fostering experience. Everyone has to start somewhere. Shelters and rescues are often willing to work with new fosters, especially if the animal has no medical or behavioral issues and can be easily adopted. 

How to Prepare Your Home for a Foster Pet 

It’s exciting to bring home a foster pet—to see the joy in her eyes when she plays with new toys, gives you her belly for a rub, and settles in for a nap on her comfy bed. But, before bringing her home, there are few things to do to prepare for success. 

Pet-proof your home. Do a sweep of your home environment and remove potential dangers including sharp objects, toxic materials and plants, and dangling wires. Ensure that she doesn’t have access to the medicine cabinet or any other areas where she could get into trouble. 

Check your supplies. Coordinate with the shelter or rescue organization to make sure you have the proper food, toys, bedding, and medication (if necessary).

Cordon off some space. Especially for puppies, cordon off a designated area with a baby gate or a pen, either in the kitchen or living room, where you can easily clean and disinfect any messes. 

Foster Pet Precautions

Couple fostering a dog

Courtesy SASF

If your household contains young children or other pets, be careful when introducing them to your new foster pet. Introduce children slowly and always supervise their interactions, while keeping a keen eye on the pet to see how she reacts. 

Before bringing your foster dog or cat home, bring your own furry friends to the shelter or another neutral place outside, to see how they get along. If their tails and faces are relaxed, you know you’ve found a compatible match. 

As your foster pet settles into your home, watch out for any issues with food or toy guarding. 

When bringing home a pup or a kitten, make sure that your other animals are up to date on their vaccinations as well. 

The End Goal: A Forever Home

There’s nothing better than seeing the pet you’ve nurtured grow into a thriving dog or cat, who is ready for adoption. If you get your foster pet to the point where she finds her forever home, you’ve done your job.

Although it may be hard to part after you’ve bonded over weeks or months, giving your foster pet up to the right family will allow you to make room for another pet in need, and continue the wonderful cycle of fostering to make a difference.

*Featured image courtesy of SASF.