How many lives can pet fostering save? “I don’t have an exact number, but I can tell you that almost all of the pets we are able to put in foster care are saved from euthanasia,” says Michelle Fox, foster program coordinator with Friends of the Animal Shelter (FOTAS), a nonprofit organization that supports the Jackson County Animal Shelter.
“We foster animals for a variety of reasons,” says Fox, who has fulfilled many roles at the shelter, including that of foster parent. “Some of the animals we take in need extra time to mature, extra medical care or just don’t adjust well to shelter life.”
Overcrowded shelters don’t always have the additional time and resources some animals need to improve their adoptability. Foster parents, Fox explains, can provide temporary homes for these special needs animals and greatly improve the pets’ chances for finding a forever home.
Feline foster care
The shelter places an adult cat into a foster home when the animal has a medical condition or is extremely scared or stressed in the shelter environment, Fox says. These are the easiest to foster, so FOTAS generally has around 145 volunteer homes for cats. But the majority of fostering involves kittens.
“Up until 8 weeks of age, young kittens can’t thrive in a shelter environment,” she says. “Their immune systems are undeveloped, and they are very vulnerable to what they might be exposed to. We like to foster kittens to around 8 weeks old or until they weigh 2 pounds. At that point they can be spayed or neutered and be eligible for adoption. The neonatal babies, newborns to 4 weeks old, require round-the-clock care, which includes bottle feeding.”
Volunteer foster mom Kristen Haffner says she has fostered animals since she was a child. Her first experience involved raccoon babies. “The neighbor’s dog injured the mama, and we fostered the babies until we could get them to a wildlife center.” The Grants Pass resident now fosters exclusively for the Rogue Valley Humane Society. “The staff is amazing,” Haffner says, “and their support is incredible. We are provided with everything. You just need to provide the space and the time.”
As one of 40 volunteers who are specially trained to nurture young and neonatal kittens, these tiny ones are Haffner’s specialty. “We have had up to eight, which is a lot of work, especially if they are very young and need to be fed around the clock,” she says. “But we usually have between two and four babies at a time.”
At 5-6 weeks-old, Haffner starts posting pictures, so a lot of her kittens are pre-adopted. She will bring her kittens to the shelter for people to meet. “Even if they are not pre-adopted, once they are ready to go, they usually don’t last more than a week or two before they get homes. So far, we have fostered 49 kittens all the way to their forever homes.”
Even after all these years, Haffner admits, “I find fostering to be incredibly rewarding. Sometimes it’s sad, because you do get attached after watching them grow and develop personalities, but it’s also wonderful seeing them go to their forever families. The shelter is incredible at finding the right home for the right kitty, so that makes it easier to give them up.”
Rogue Valley Humane found a foster for Bella before she was adopted.
Canine foster care
FOTAS fostered 48 puppies last year, though Fox says they come in sporadically since there isn’t a season for them like there is with cats. When they do arrive, they are often with a nursing mom so they go into foster care together until the pups can be weaned and placed.
For adult dogs, Fox explains, foster care might involve a medical issue that needs attention or behavioral issues caused from the stress of being in a shelter environment.
“Every animal reacts individually to finding itself in a shelter,” she notes. “Some settle in when they realize they are going to be fed routinely and they become more used to the atmosphere, while others, if they aren’t adopted within two or three weeks, can become either lethargic or hyperactive. These dogs can even bite someone, not because they are aggressive, but because they get so stressed out, they just don’t know what to do with that level of fear and uncertainty. Those extreme behaviors make them less appealing to prospective adoptive parents, even though they don’t always represent who that dog really is. When we can place that dog in a foster situation, the dog can relax and become more calm, loving and playful again.”
Currently, FOTAS has 40 dog foster volunteers who keep their charges between three and six weeks on average. But, Fox says, that all depends on both physical and mental health issues and how quickly they resolve.
Foster parent responsibilities
The expectation is that foster parents will spend time with the animal and get to know its personality because that information is important when it comes to making a good match with adoptive parents.
“I want to provide as much information to prospective adoptive parents as possible,” Fox says. “I want to know everything about this animal; its quirks, fears and energy levels, what it likes or doesn’t like. Does it get along with other animals, is it housebroken, how is it with children?”
Ideally, the foster situation will provide opportunities for socialization, says Fox. “There may also be special situations where the dog has been mistreated or handled roughly in some way, and we work with the foster parents to overcome these conditions. With kittens, we want them to get used to being handled.”
The shelter provides veterinary needs like spaying and neutering, vaccinations and medications. Foster pet parents may need to provide basic, supervised medical treatment, but, Fox says, “We stay in close contact with fosters who are dealing with any medical issues and provide the additional vet visits as needed. The technicians at the shelter administer medications, de-worming and vaccinations. Injuries and advanced illnesses are always handled by the vets.”
Fox adds, “We keep close track of all our fosters on a daily basis, which animals they have and what the situation is. We provide manuals and guidelines and have mentors who help with support and follow-up needs for health or training issues. Our volunteer organization provides many of the necessary supplies, so the financial burden is not placed on the foster parent.”
Foster volunteers really are saving lives, says Fox. “With their help, these animals are cared for in home environments and nursed back to physical or mental health. If that were not to happen, these animals would probably have to be euthanized.”