Christina Pratt, Union, had never heard of the need for pet foster parents when the picture of a dog who had been picked up by animal control in Jefferson County popped up into her Facebook feed. He had some medical needs so if a rescue group didn’t take him, the dog was going to be euthanized.
4 Paws 4 Rescue was willing to take the dog, but needed a foster home to make it possible, said Pratt, explaining the St. Louis-based group does not have a shelter facility. It relies on volunteer foster homes.
Pratt called to find out how she could become this little dog’s foster parent.
“I saw his picture, and I saw the 4 Paws contact asking for someone to foster him. That’s when I knew this is something I wanted to do,” she said. “I applied, met with (4 Paws) and went to save him.”
That was 2 1/2 years ago. In that time, Pratt has fostered around 25 dogs waiting for adoption.
“It’s been such a rewarding, life-changing thing for me. I’m just so grateful that it happened,” she remarked.
Terry and Dr. Julianne Matt, Labadie, who with their two teenage daughters, Abby and Sarah, have fostered more than 50 pets (mostly large dogs) for the Franklin County Humane Society in Union, agree wholeheartedly.
“When you foster a pet for a shelter, you are actually saving two animals because you’re allowing that kennel to be open for another animal,” said Terry Matt.
The Matts are currently fostering Sadie, a white, 50-pound female who was found in a shed with her puppies. They were brought to the Franklin County Humane Society by the Union police, and already one of Sadie’s puppies has been adopted.
Sadie was recently spayed and is now cleared for adoption. Until that happens, she will be living with the Matts and learning more about how to be a family pet.
Sadie socializes with the Matts’ two dogs and their cat. The family takes her for walks to teach her how to walk on a leash, and they are working with her on some basic obedience skills.
It’s all to make Sadie a better, more adoptable pet, said Terry Matt.
It requires a fair amount of time and energy on the family’s part — and it is a family commitment, said Terry — but they all feel passionate about doing it.
“We’re excited about helping the homeless pets of Franklin County, and we do enjoy having dogs around,” he said, noting the family has had some foster dogs that were such a good fit with their family that they considered adopting them.
But they knew that would limit their ability to help other homeless dogs.
“Our shelter is habitually full, so we’ll go pull another one right away. We’re always looking to the next one,” said Matt. “It goes back to saving lives, and both of us working in medicine (he is a firefighter/paramedic and she is a pediatrician), saving lives, that’s kind of our general calling. We are just transferring that from humans to dogs.”
‘Match’ Pets to Foster Parents
Many people, even animal lovers, don’t realize that pet foster care is an option, said Cindy Faltemier, founder of Dog Saver rescue group in Washington, but it serves a vital need for most animal rescue groups and they never seem to have enough.
Prospective pet foster parents begin by filling out an application for the group they want to work with, before sitting down for a face-to-face interview with the director or staff. Some of the shelters will do home checks.
The rescue group wants to know a little about all of the people and other pets living in the home and also about the home environment to select the right pet for the right foster home, said Karen Neely, with Almost Home Rescue and Rehabilitation in Washington.
The foster parents have a say in what types of animals they are willing and able to take in — for example, many fosters are only able to manage small dogs. That’s why foster parents who are willing and able to take large dogs — who take up more space in the shelter and also are more difficult to find homes for simply because they are larger — are so in demand.
“You match them to each other,” said Mary Lovern, a volunteer with the Franklin County Humane Society.
For fostering dogs, having a fence is not necessarily a requirement, as long as the family is willing and able to take a dog out on a leash and get it the necessary daily exercise.
Training Experience Not Required
Foster parents do not have to have any experience in dog training, rescue groups say. You just need a desire and willingness to learn; it’s about taking that first step.
“You just treat them as your own pet, like you are bringing a new dog home,” said Karen Siess, a volunteer and foster parent for Dog Saver.
The Matt family only had the experience of owning and training their own dogs before they began taking in foster pets. They have learned a great deal more over the years as they have cared for dozens of foster dogs.
“When we bring them home, it’s like bringing home a new baby — they’ll whine in their crate, sometimes those are long nights those first few nights,” said Terry Matt. “But there are no special skills you need, just a desire to learn. We use the internet a lot, looking up behavioral problems.”
They did consult with a professional trainer for one particular dog, and they watch a lot of famous dog behaviorist Cesar Millan, known as the “Dog Whisperer,” on TV.
There isn’t any list of criteria for what makes an ideal pet foster parent, rescue workers said. The No. 1 thing a person has to be willing to do as a foster is provide love and a safe home.
“I think anyone can foster if they’re interested, if they are serious and devoted,” Neely said, noting it doesn’t matter if the person is single or married, young or old.
Being a pet foster parent can be ideal for someone who is looking for companionship or someone who doesn’t want the commitment of owning a pet for five, 10 years or longer, said Neely. Maybe they already own a pet or two, or maybe they love to travel and want the freedom to not be tied down all of the time.
Rescue groups work with pet foster parents to provide anything they may need to make the situation successful.
There is no way to know how long a foster pet could be with its foster parent or family. It could be a matter of days or weeks, months or even a year.
The Matts said the longest they have had a single foster dog before it was adopted was a year. It was a great dog and one they actually considered keeping as their own pet, but then she was adopted.
The information about rescue animals kept in foster care is posted online at places like PetFinder.com, and they also are taken to adoption events.
Foster Care Needed for Variety of Reasons
Pets are placed in foster care for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is simply because there is no more room at the shelter, and other times it is because the animal is recovery from a medical issue/procedure or perhaps that the animal needs a more calm environment than the typical shelter provides.
“Sometimes dogs will exhibit behaviors in a kennel situation that they won’t exhibit if they’re in a home,” said Lovern. “It comes from stress. You take an animal that maybe is a lost pet and you put them in a shelter, and it is overwhelming with the noise and people coming and going, just everything going on.”
That’s also why pet foster parents are so crucial in that pet’s eventual adoption, said Blatt. They provide information on what the dog or cat was like in a real home setting.
Siess says she keeps notes on all of the pets she has fosters. “I want to be able to tell a new owner what they can really expect behavior-wise,” she said.
Some shelters go so far as to have the pet foster parents at the adoption to talk to the new parents about the pet. Others ask the foster parents to write out a description or any useful information about the pet for the new parents.
Always Another Pet to Save
One of the concerns rescue groups hear regarding becoming a pet foster parent is that it would be too hard to let a pet that they cared for and lived in their home go to live with someone else.
And that is a very real drawback of the experience, they all said. But there is a silver lining.
“People ask ‘How can you foster? Doesn’t it break your heart?’ Yes, I am a sobbing child every time someone adopts one of the dogs I’ve fostered,” said Siess, but it’s only because that pet was adopted that she is able to foster more and save more dogs.
“If I didn’t let them go, I wouldn’t be able to help any more,” said Siess. “You have to love them enough to let them go so you can save the next one.”
“This isn’t easy and it’s not for the faint of heart,” added Renee Shetley, founder of Almost Home Rescue and Rehabilitation. “It’s very, very hard, very emotional. It takes a toll on people.”
Large Dogs, Litters of Kittens
Along with large dogs, there is a big need, especially this time of year, for pet foster parents who are willing to take litters of kittens.
This can be quite demanding, admits Blatt.
“Sometimes we have tiny kittens come in and they may not have their mother, and they have to bottle fed every two hours,” she said.
That is not something very many foster parents would be willing or able to take on, she knows. Again, that’s where matching the right foster parent with the right foster pet is important.
The Matts, who have fostered litters of kittens before, said it is a big commitment, but it’s also extremely rewarding.
“How often do you get to take care of kittens from a day to 8 weeks old?” said Terry Matt.
‘Root of the Problem’
The root of the problem, however, is the same as it always is for animal rescue groups and shelters — the need for all cats and dogs to be spayed/neutered.
“None of us wants to do this,” said Neely. “We have a passion for animals, but we all wish that every dog and animal and person is treated with respect and has a nice, warm home.”
“We’d like to put ourselves out of business,” added Blatt. “Or have people on a waiting list looking for pets, rather than having pets on a waiting list looking for homes.”
To encourage everyone to spay/neuter their pet, the Franklin County Humane Society has a program that provides the service for free, although currently the funds are depleted, said Blatt.
“We always have low-income vouchers, but the free program makes a big difference,” said Blatt, explaining there are some owners who can afford to have their pets spayed/neutered, but don’t want to spend the money on it. They will have it done if the service is provided to them for free.
“That’s the root of the problem,” said Blatt.
For more information on how to become a pet foster parent, people should contact the rescue groups and shelters to ask about an application:
Franklin County Humane Society
636-667-0295 or 636-582-0738
Almost Home Rescue and Rehabilitation
4 Paws 4 Rescue