How to Foster a Dog or Cat, No Matter Where You Live

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You’ve made your decision: You’re ready to add a pet to the family roster…well, you think you’re ready. OK, you’re not so sure. Isn’t there a way to test drive these things?

Actually, there is. You can foster a dog or a cat. It’s different from adopting because it’s meant to be temporary. Whether it’s a few days or a few months, a foster parent provides a home and care for an animal before it officially gets adopted. Not only does this give you a chance to get to know an animal and see if you work well together (who knows? Maybe you’ll be the one to adopt Sparky), but it also helps out shelters in need of volunteers and resources. And of course, it gives the animals a loving home (albeit for a set period of time).

Long story short, if you love animals, fostering is a good deed with a lot of reward in the form of companionship. Still, don’t be fooled; it’s way more responsibility than, say, simply taking a car for a test drive. So, before you learn how to foster a pet, you should decide if you’re prepared in the first place.

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Are you ready to foster a dog or a cat?

If you woke up this morning and just decided today was the day you wanted to foster a dog without any experience or second thought, then…yeah, bringing home a semi-permanent resident isn’t the best idea. Here’s what would mean you’re ready to foster a pet:

1. You’re actually home

Do you travel a lot? Do you work all day and then go to events in the evening? Then fostering is probably not ideal for you. Animals need consistent care from a human who is actually around. While that doesn’t mean you can’t leave for the office, it does mean you should be home for early walks, evening walks and lots of cuddling and training time.

2. Your home is safe is for animals

Do you live in a knife-throwing studio? Grow poisonous plants? Have young children that will antagonize a vulnerable animal? Yeah, you should reconsider. You might even find that your home is safe for certain foster animals but not others. For instance, you know you can provide a safe home for well-adjusted animals, but not animals who’ve shown aggression. And most importantly, your home should be (or can easily become) pet-proof:

  • Baby gates can be installed to give your foster a safe space
  • You have a crate large enough for a dog
  • You keep the washer and dryer lids closed and check before running
  • Anything poisonous—cleaning materials, medications, potted plants—are out of reach or protected by childproof latches
  • Electrical cords are out of reach or safely covered to prevent chewing
  • Sharp objects—nails, staples, clippers, etc.—are safely stored away

3. You can be financially responsible for food, toys, vet visits or anything the shelter may not be able to cover

While foster parents are usually never paid, most shelters will provide volunteers with flea, tick and heartworm prevention and reimburse them for any vet bills. Some shelters ask volunteers to pay for food costs while others don’t. Either way, a foster parent should be prepared for anything. So, if you’re not sure you can cover the basics, this might not be the best time to foster.

4. You’re willing to help your foster pet became home-ready

Are you prepared to housetrain a dog or teach a cat to use a litter box? It’s a feat, but someone’s gotta do it! If a dog or cat is housetrained during a foster period, it’s easier for them to find a forever home, which is the end goal.

5. You’re able to walk and exercise your pet

Do you have the time to take your dog for the regular walks he needs or to play with your cat until she tires out? Exercise and engagement are just as important as feeding them.

6. You’re available to communicate and participate with the shelter

Is Rosco not eating? Did Tiger vomit? Your shelter might require you to check in with updates about your animal, so being accessible is key. Your shelter might also host adoption events or fundraisers that require foster parents to be present and possibly to transport your pet to and from. Do you have the time in your schedule to join in the community aspects?

Of course, there is no “perfect” scenario. If you don’t have experience with an animal, many shelters will provide training and would never put you in the care of an animal with behavior issues or special needs, if you’re not equipped for it. Be upfront and communicative about your experience and your concerns, and shelters will most likely lend you a guiding, helpful hand.

OK, so How do I foster a dog or cat?

Still in the game? Great! Now’s the time for you to do some research. There are countless shelters and rescue organizations around the country and probably even where you live. So, where do you even begin?

1. Search rescue databases

Sites like PetFinder or ASPCA make it easy to find shelters and rescue organizations near where you live.

2. Research the organizations near you

Not every shelter will be the right fit. Maybe one specializes in more difficult animals with urgent needs, another in senior animals and another in puppies and kittens. See if there are reviews online and look for a strong social presence that has formed a positive community. The shelter or rescue organization and its network will be a major source of support, so you want to make sure they’re the real deal.

3. Reach out to the shelter or organization

Be patient: Shelters and rescue groups are largely run by volunteers who are juggling a lot.

When you do get in touch, inquire about every single question you have and make sure you have a solid understanding of their expectations for foster parents. It’s OK to back out if it’s not the right fit. Rescue groups do not want to place animals in situations that are not ideal for them. If it does feel right, though…

4. Fill out an application

Does this seem like fit? Most shelters will have foster applications to make sure you’re ready and up for the challenges (and rewards) of becoming a foster parent. Here’s an example of a foster application from Rescue Dog Rocks and here’s one from Badass Brooklyn. Be ready to provide in-depth details about your living situation, experience with animals, your lifestyle and personal references.

5. Prepare to bring home a foster cat or dog

It’s been a journey, but you did it! Once you’re approved and assigned an animal, it’s important you have the basics to make your new roommate happy and healthy.

Things you need to foster a cat

After a few weeks, you might find that you absolutely need to get you foster kitten a scratching post. But first, start with the basics.

1. Cat Carrier

While you may not necessarily need one for a dog, you will need a carrier to transport a cat to and from vet appointments or events.

2. Litter Box

You can go the price-savvy route (like this one), or you can research other options with specialty features (self-cleaning litter box, anyone?).

3. Litter

What is a litter box without litter?! This unscented, clumping corn cat litter traps odor (huge) and is environmentally friendly (win-win).

4. Dry Cat Food

This bag of Meow Mix is the most reviewed, highest-rated dry food on Chewy. But before you buy all 22 pounds, talk to your shelter or rescue organization about any special dietary needs Whiskers might have.

5. Wet Cat Food

Of course cats demand two types of food. Same thing, though: Talk to your shelter before picking out wet food.

6. Food And Water Bowls

You gotta put the food somewhere. And it’s always important to have a water bowl filled with clean water.

Things you need to foster a dog

We haven’t met a dog who doesn’t love their interactive toys, but here are the basic products for bringing a foster dog home.

1. Crate

There are lots of reasons to have a crate for your dog. But the most important one is safety…closely followed by crate training. Consult your shelter about what size crate is right for your foster.

2. Collar And/or Harness

Your dog might arrive with a collar and harness already, but if he doesn’t, it’s an absolute must for walking.

3. Leash

Because if your foster runs away, you might never forgive yourself. This nylon version is a basic, but it’s also strong.

4. Food

Don’t be dismayed by the picture on the bag, this is the highest-rated, most-reviewed dry food on Chewy. But keep in mind that your foster dog’s dietary needs will come from the shelter or rescue group.

5. Food And Water Bowls

Choose the appropriate bowls depending on your foster dog’s size.

6. Dog Bed

OK, not absolutely essential…but if you don’t want Milo on your couch, this is a must.


Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...