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what does it mean to foster a cat or dog
Twenty20

If your heart leaps every time your neighbor gushes about her rescue dog, consider fostering an animal (or several, if you fall in love with the process). Fostering dogs and cats is a great way to test out your pet parent skills, do your local shelter a solid and save lives. It can also be stressful, time-consuming and frustrating. Not sure if you’re ready for this commitment or have no idea what to expect? Here’s what it really means to foster an animal.

Why exactly do shelters need foster volunteers?
According to the Human Society of the United States, 2.7 million animals are euthanized every year because shelters fill up and families choose breeders or puppy mills over adoption. Fostering animals helps prevent euthanization because it frees up space in crowded shelters for new animals and prepares dogs and cats for adoption.

Shelters typically spay, neuter and vaccinate animals, though sometimes, new arrivals are too young or small for surgery. Foster parents often house teeny, tiny baby kittens (yes, please) until they are a few months old and big enough to be spayed or neutered.

In some cases, rescue animals need surgery or treatment for illnesses and require recuperation time before they can hop back into shelter life. Shelters rely on foster homes for these recovering animals, so no additional harm comes to them in the chaotic environment of the shelter.

Finally, some dogs and cats have literally never lived with humans before and need to learn how to adjust to adopted life. Foster families help socialize these animals to make them more adoptable (and to ensure greater success once they are adopted later on). 

So what’s the first step in fostering?
Every shelter is different, but most ask you to fill out an application. Some places require foster parents to be 18 years of age, while others say 21 or older. You may have to go through a background check or other interviews, as you would if you were actually adopting an animal.

And…what kind of time commitment are we talking?
Foster care can last anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on the shelter’s and the animal’s needs. Some places ask you to sign a contract, though being flexible is highly recommended, especially if you’re fostering an animal recovering from an illness. Vets can predict how long rehabilitation might take, but anyone who’s ever had a dog in a cone knows sometimes the healing process takes longer than you (and the dog) would like.

On a daily basis, foster pets require tons of affection, attention and socialization. Remember, many animals stay in foster homes to learn how to interact with humans (and other animals, which we’ll get to in greater detail below). Taking foster dogs on walks, teaching them to sit and coaxing them out from underneath the bed could all fall within your responsibilities as a foster parent. 

Some organizations ask that you keep veterinary staff up to speed on the animal’s behavior and progress. There are often adoption events you are required to attend to help expedite the process of finding a pet’s forever home. Your relationship with your foster pet has a huge impact on the animal’s future, so devoting plenty of time, energy and love is necessary.

Being upfront about how many weeks, months and hours you can dedicate to an animal is crucial! There’s no shame in offering up just a few days. The shelter will match you up with an animal that works best for you.

OK, so what kind of supplies would I need?
Often, shelters provide you with the medical care, supplies and training you need to successfully foster an animal. This can include crates, leashes, toys, food, litter boxes and more. Some rescue groups, however, don’t have the resources or funding and rely on foster volunteers to provide their own supplies.

This means making sure your foster pet has food, water, toys, leashes, a comfy bed and a safe space to call its own. If you do end up purchasing new items for your foster pet, save your receipts. If the shelter is a nonprofit, your expenses may be tax deductible (cha-ching!).

Many organizations also require foster parents to have reliable transportation (aka a car, not just the L train) in case they need to take a cat to the vet late at night or attend puppy training classes.

What if I’m already a pet owner?
If you already have pets, you’ll definitely need a space in your home you can dedicate solely to your foster dog or cat. Your current animals must be up to date on their vaccines and should be spayed or neutered. This might mean getting your pet the distemper vaccine, which isn’t always mandatory, but can help prevent the spread of disease from one animal to another.

Letting your foster dog play with your own pup can be a great way to help socialize your visitor before adoption. However, make sure an introduction is made (preferably outdoors or in a neutral territory) before tossing the new dog into your home. Even if the two get along while you’re around, separating them when you are out is a good idea, in case tensions escalate.

Anything else I should know?
Though a foster pet might be calm in the first week at your home, behavior issues can arise as he gets more comfortable—or vice versa. Being available to spot these changes and knowing how to adapt and deal with them is important.

Rescue dogs and cats probably have higher anxiety levels because they’ve been through and are continuing to experience lots of transition. Having patience and genuinely caring about the outcome of these animals’ lives is crucial to a successful foster period. 

Finally, beware of getting emotionally attached to your foster pet! If things go well, you can definitely fill out an adoption application, but if someone else is already in line, you’ve got to be ready to give up the animal you’ve spent so much time caring for. Lucky for you, you’ve helped save its life, which is pretty cool.

RELATED: 7 Things Your Vet Wants You to Stop Doing

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