Considering Fostering a Dog or Cat? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Fostering a pet is one of the most rewarding things an animal lover can do. Most foster animals have led difficult lives. Or, they've had their wonderful lives traumatically interrupted. They need time and love to heal so they can be ready to move on to their perfect fur-ever home.

But what’s involved with fostering? And, how can you be a great pet foster parent?

Here’s everything you need to know about fostering a dog or cat.

Why Fostering Is Important

Fostering is the best way to ease a dog or cat out of the traumatic experience of being neglected, abandoned or in a shelter before placing him or her in a permanent home.

Many dogs and cats need time to unwind after these experiences. Being with a foster family gives them the time they need to heal. Both medically (if needed) and emotionally.

Fostering also gives animals who may never have been socialized a chance to learn how to interact with people. And, potentially, other animals.

“There are many reasons why animals end up in shelters,” says Dr. Jonathan Roberts, a small animal veterinarian in Cape Town, South Africa and remote veterinarian for “Many of these animals do not come from the best homes. Some are abused, neglected or have never had the chance to live in a loving home. When animals first arrive at shelters, they may be fearful, shy, unsocialized, and possibly not house trained… Fostering helps prepare these animals for their forever homes.”

Foster homes allow these animals the opportunity to overcome some of their fears and express their natural personalities, he adds.

“It is a ‘halfway’ house that bridges the gap between shelters and permanent homes and reduces the chances of animals being returned to shelters due to behavioral issues or extreme stress from a change in environments.”

Fostering Lets You Get to Know the “Real” Dog or Cat

As foster animals unwind and relax into their new, more comfortable, and loving home, their true personalities emerge. A previously fearful dog may actually have the heart of a playful puppy. The cat too terrified to come out from under the couch may love curling up in someone’s lap.

But without the extra time, those qualities might have remained hidden. The more you know about each individual animal, the easier it is to place them in the right home.

Fostering “allows rescue organizations to better understand their personality, likes, and dislikes,” says Jamie Ruden, founder of Dog Spotted. “When a dog or cat is brought to a shelter it is more difficult to make these determinations about their disposition as they won’t receive the same one-on-one attention a foster can provide.”

Foster Homes Are Healthy Homes

Being in a foster home is also a healthier environment than a shelter. Dog fosterers will generally treat their foster pup as if he were their own. That means regular walks and daily playtime, something most shelter dogs never get.

And dogs and cats in fosters are exposed to fewer animals, reducing their chances of getting sick from contagious diseases.

Fostering Saves More Lives

One of the best things about fostering is that you’re saving more than the life of the dog or cat you’ve taken in. Every animal that goes into a foster home from a shelter (or instead of a shelter) gives that shelter more room to take in other dogs or cats. Reducing overcrowding in a shelter can also give the animals already there more time to be adopted.

“Many urban rescues lack space to house dogs and cats before matching them with an appropriate forever home,” Ruden says. “Having foster homes on the ready to take in dogs or cats provides a smooth transition for these animals. It allows the rescue organization to take in more dogs or cats from unsuitable situations.”

Fostering Can Lead to Adoption

So-called foster “fails” are not uncommon. It can be hard to give up foster pets after spending time getting to know and love them. For people who have never had a pet, fostering is a great way to see if they’re ready for the full-time commitment of being a pet owner.

Fostering Requirements

The main requirement for anyone interested in fostering a dog or a cat is the commitment to give it their all. You don’t need loads of free time or advanced training skills. But you do have to put in the time.

If you’re fostering a dog, you’ll need time to go for walks and play. You’ll need less time with a cat. But the entire point of fostering is to teach the animal people are ok to be around. And that living in a home is a safe and happy thing. That might mean sitting quietly in the same room as a cat so she gets used to your presence. Or playing with a wand toy to coax her out of her shell.

To ensure your foster experience is enjoyable and successful, know your limits ahead of time. Do you have time to shuttle a dog or cat to and from a vet? If not, let the organization you want to work with know that you can’t take an animal with serious medical needs.

Do you want to avoid house training? Let them know you need an older dog that already knows how to do his business.

Additionally, let the foster organization know how much time you can commit to. Are you going away on vacation in two weeks? That’s usually the least amount of time a foster pet needs. Often, it’s longer, so make sure your calendar is free and agree on a time period beforehand.

How Much Does Fostering Cost?

Fostering isn’t entirely free. While you pay nothing to foster a dog or a cat, and the foster organization will pay for all veterinary costs, there are daily expenses that aren’t always covered. Food, for instance, may or may not be provided by the foster organization.

For dogs, you may need to buy your own leash and dog poo bags. Cat fosterers will likely need to buy their own litter box and litter. For both, you’ll need to provide plenty of toys.

Foster Tips

Start Slow

Because foster pets come from a variety of backgrounds, their needs vary widely. But most will need time to acclimate to their new, temporary home. They might not trust you at first. They might be afraid to eat in your presence. They might be terrified of walking in a new neighborhood.

“Start very slowly. New homes, people, and pets can be very stressful for a newly introduced animal,” Dr. Roberts says. “Avoid going for walks during the first days. And allow little ‘human traffic’ through your house for the first two weeks.”

Starting slow can also mean literally. You may need to keep your movements slow so as not to startle a foster dog or cat. Keeping your voice low may also be necessary. The last thing a frightened animal needs is someone yelling, even if they’re not yelling at him.

Don’t Assume

It’s easy to assume that every adult dog is house trained or knows how to walk on a leash. But some foster dogs come from such neglectful situations that they never learned either one.

Be ready for anything and always practice patience. You may need to treat an adult dog like a puppy. And that means, no scolding. And heap praise on them for correct behavior as much as possible.

Keep Separate

When bringing a foster dog or cat into a home with resident pets, start off by keeping the animals separate. This allows the foster animal to get comfortable in a new environment without the stress of having to interact with an unfamiliar dog or cat. It also protects your pets from any illness (kennel cough, worms, etc.) the foster animal may have.

This also gives the resident pet and foster pet a chance to become familiar with each other through scent before ever actually meeting.

(Learn more about introducing new pets to each other.)

Be Prepared to Let Go

It can be hard to say goodbye when it’s time for foster pets to go to their new home. It’s why there are so many foster “fails.” And, truly there’s nothing wrong with adopting a foster pet. But a consequence of adopting your foster pet can be taking yourself out of the foster network. And that means fewer animals can be saved.

Try to remember, foster pets are temporary pets. You’re helping save their lives and preparing them for their happily ever after … with someone else.

And while it may be hard to say goodbye, there’s always another sweet, loving pet waiting for their chance at a better future just around the corner.