Adopting a pet, especially as a prospective first-time owner, can be daunting. This is why fostering a pet is a practical solution. It allows you time to take care of and live with a rescued animal and whether you can devote enough resources to their well-being—but the process isn’t easy.
If you want to foster an animal for the first time, get ready to lose all sense of personal space and free time — and also have the rewarding experience of caring for an animal in need. (And try not to cry when they do get adopted, something that’s happened to me several times.)
Ask yourself if you can make the commitment necessary
Before you foster an animal, it’s important to ask yourself a few essential questions about the level of commitment you’re able to make. For one, depending on the shelter, you may be expected to absorb all costs as a foster parent, including those for food, bedding and a walker, if necessary. (In some cases, a shelter or rescue may offer to pay for these costs. At the very least, they may cover costs for any vet visits.) If this feels like an expensive responsibility, it might be worth reconsidering fostering altogether.
As Elisabeth Geier writes for the Dog People, you also have to consider the time commitment. A shelter may expect you to foster for days or months with no foreseeable end date. If you work a traditional 9-5, you also have to consider whether the animal can be left home alone for most of the day. (A shelter may decide whether you can foster based on your availability outside of work.)
You should also consider the time commitment shelters may expect of you for things like transporting pets to and from adoption events and meeting with potential adopters. If you work from home or your office allows pets, then great! If it’s a cat, even better. But if you work long hours or travel often, fostering might not work with your schedule.
Here are other things you should consider:
Do you live with others? You should consult them about the idea of fostering, as it would be a decision that affects the whole household.
Do you have young children or already have pets? Check with a shelter and inform them before choosing to foster a pet.
Do you have enough space to take care of an animal? If you’re living in a studio with no access to a yard, a shelter may not allow you to foster, anyway. (It probably won’t be comfortable for you and a 45kg pooch, either.)
Is this your first time fostering or caring for a pet? It might be better to opt for a dog or cat that doesn’t have health or behavioural problems that you may not be suited to handle (and one that’s already housetrained).
Do you have a certain pet in mind? Depending on the shelter, you may not be guaranteed the choice to foster a particular pet you have in mind. As we’ve written before, you should adopt a pet and not a breed. The same goes for fostering. A rescue may choose a pet for you to foster based on time-sensitivity, not necessarily considering your preferences. A responsible shelter should, however, factor in your lifestyle and whether the pet might be a good fit.
Petfinder lists a few other questions on its website you should ask yourself if you choose to foster a dog with medical or behavioural issues. If you’re planning to foster a cat, these questions are just as important, though it’s less likely you’ll have to worry about pulling on a leash or barking unless you have a very special cat:
What kind of behaviour problems are you comfortable dealing with – counter surfing, pulling on leash, jumping when greeting, inappropriate elimination, separation anxiety, barking, reactivity? Don’t accept a foster with behaviour problems beyond your experience and knowledge, unless you are willing to consult with a qualified trainer.
What kind of health problems are you willing to deal with? Medicating the dog frequently? Incontinence? Digestive disorders? Special dietary needs? What about a dog with a wheelchair?
Research local rescues or shelters
Once you’re settled on fostering, your first step should involve doing an online search for nearby shelters or rescues and researching their requirements to foster. Depending on the shelter, generally, it might require a completed application, at least one or more references from friends or family, a letter from your landlord or management company that states that animals are allowed in your apartment (if necessary), and either an in-person or Skype call to vet your home or an in-person orientation.
You might find that when a shelter is desperate for foster parents, they may let you skip some of these steps in the interest of time.
Be sure to properly vet the organisation or shelter you’d foster from, too. Earlier this month, a former volunteer at San Jose, California-based animal rescue revealed that their animals were living in unsanitary conditions and cages without sufficient room to move.
“Animal shelters are funded by a variety of sources, both private and public,” the Animal Legal Defence Fund writes on its website. “Less-than-desirable conditions at a shelter may very well be due to the lack of appropriate funding, rather than the lack of compassion.”
Look for any reviews of the shelter on Facebook or Google. Alternatively, reach out to anyone who has fostered through the program and ask about the process. If you know anyone who has adopted or fostered a pet, ask them for recommendations of shelters or rescues, too.
Communicate with the rescue before and during your foster experience
Once you’ve agreed on fostering a particular pet, communication throughout your experience with the rescue is key. A rescue should provide you with details as to what you should expect from your foster dog or cat. If the shelter doesn’t provide enough details to make you feel 100 per cent comfortable, as we’ve mentioned above, ask if the animal has any behavioural or medical problems you should be aware of.
Also, ask about the pet’s weight, feeding schedule, and how much to feed them. A shelter may also provide you with whom to contact in case of an emergency like a nearby vet. (If not, ask for it.)
Of course, depending on the animal, you should prepare your home in advance of the pet’s first day. For a dog, the Humane Society recommends purchasing a collar and leash, food and water bowls, food, a bed and toys. You could also purchase a crate (or section off some part of your home specifically for the dog).
You should ask the rescue or shelter if this is necessary, however. For a cat, similarly, purchase bowls, wet or dry food, and a litter box. You can take a look at the Animal Humane’s Society’s website for details on how to properly cat-proof your home.
Again, and because it needs reiterating, ask your shelter or rescue for any other items that might make the pet feel more comfortable in your home. If you panic for any reason, call or text them. When I first fostered a dog, I texted the rescue’s owner (likely much to her annoyance) with every question and update, mostly for unnecessary reassurance.
During the weeks or months that you foster, a shelter will likely continue to seek potential adopters for the pet, which may involve you taking to prospective owners’ homes. But if you can’t cope with the idea of losing your foster animal — which happens to the best of us — ask the rescue about their adoption process. (Many shelters also offer foster-to-adopt programs, meaning they’ll allow you to take care of a pet to see if it’s the right fit. If it is, they may give you priority over other applicants.)
Depending on the shelter, it may require another application and paying an adoption fee, but it’s a very small cost to save the life of an animal.