As more and more people became cooped up at home due to the spread of COVID-19, animal shelters throughout the country began reporting a higher number of foster applications than usual. Not only is fostering a pet a great way to help your local animal shelter, it's also a way for many people to alleviate some of the loneliness they may feel while social distancing. If you're considering fostering a cat or dog for the first time, here are seven helpful tips to keep in mind.
Spend some time researching the foster organization you’d like to work with. You want to make sure you've found a safe, reputable organization. Once you've made your choice, the shelter or foster organization will match you with an animal. As much as it’s important for the organization to feel comfortable with you—they’re trusting you to care for one of their adoptable animals, after all—you should feel comfortable checking in with them and asking any questions you may need answered. Most organizations will make themselves available for any emergencies or to answer any questions, and they’ll also typically handle veterinary services.
Every animal has its own individual personality. As such, each foster pet will have its own needs. “Animals are in foster programs for a variety of reasons,” Joanne Yohannan, senior vice president of operations at New York's North Shore Animal League America, tells Mental Floss in an email. “They may be recovering from a surgery, pending a procedure, in need of socialization, or may be too young for adoption.” If possible, it’s best to do a “meet and greet” with a prospective pet. This way, you—and the fostering organization—can ensure you’re a good fit. If a meet and greet isn’t possible, let your new animal warm up to you slowly. Staying calm, being patient, and using positive reinforcement will help them adjust to their new home.
Try to set up a special area for your new foster pet. Providing a quiet space will help them ease into their new situation gently. If you can, keep them confined to one small room at first. For tiny animals like kittens, you can even start out by having them stay in your bathroom (just make sure you don't leave the toilet lid up).
If you already have a pet, it may be tempting to want them and your new foster to become best buds right away. But don’t rush. Once your new foster pet has gotten used to its designated part of the house, introduce it to any other animals you have slowly. “Try letting them sniff each other through the door,” Carly Gove, volunteer coordinator and marketing assistant at Philadelphia's Morris Animal Refuge, says. Then, if they seem comfortable, after seeing each other, let the animals have supervised play dates. Make sure you keep their initial time together short, using positive reinforcement to reward positive interactions. It’s also important to ensure all animals are appropriately vaccinated—the last thing you want is for one animal to accidentally get the other one sick. Most animals in a foster care program have already been vaccinated. But if you’re fostering a kitten or puppy that’s too young to have been inoculated, you’ll need to keep them isolated. You should also make sure your existing pets are caught up on their vaccines.
Most foster organizations will provide you with everything you’ll need to care for your new animal. Make sure you’re prepared with pet food, cat litter, and toys. You’ll also need bedding, a carrier, and it’s a good idea to have a crate, especially if you’re fostering kittens or a dog. If you’re using a dog crate, the enclosure needs to be large enough that the dog can comfortably stand and move around.
If you’re fostering a pet while quarantined, make sure you’re still keeping your usual routine in mind. “Think about what your schedule will be like in one, two, or six months,” Gove says. Fostering a kitten or puppy can be a lot of work, so you need to make sure you can still care for them once you resume your typical, non-social distancing schedule. And it’s a good idea to prepare your foster pet for the day when people start leaving the house more. Puppies in particular can get separation anxiety, so you may want to have them spend some time in separate parts of the house so that they get used to not having a human around 24/7.
In theory, fostering a pet is meant to be a temporary situation. But that doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier. To keep your expectations in check, remind yourself that you’re fulfilling an important role in the animal’s socialization, which will eventually help them find their forever home. “Think of it like you’re giving them a vacation from the shelter, or babysitting,” Gove suggests. And, if you do wind up growing attached to your foster pet, there’s no shame in becoming a “foster failure” and adopting your furry friend. “Sometimes foster parents end up choosing to adopt their foster pet,” Yohannan says, “a real win/win.”