The idea of fostering was born in response to a problem: Overcrowded animal shelters.
Puppies and kittens entering animal shelters under 8 weeks of age used to be (and in some communities, still are) routinely killed because they were too young to be adopted. Shelters lacked the staff or adequate space to give these fragile infants the time and care they needed to get them to an adoptable age. The solution: A short term foster home to provide a healthy, germ-free environment and lots of tender, loving care. When the animal reached 8 weeks, it could be returned to the shelter for placement.
Many shelters, like Roice-Hurst Humane Society, have expanded this idea to include fostering for animals in other situations. They may foster cats and dogs recovering from medical conditions (e.g., a broken leg) who just need a few weeks in a loving home to mend. She may have stopped eating due to the stress of a shelter environment and need the security of a home situation to get back on her feed. The dog may have a minor behavior problem (jumping up, mouthiness) that a foster family can work on to make the animal more appealing to adopters. Or the shelter may simply have a space crunch and want to find a short-term housing alternative for some of their charges.
Short of adding on an expensive shelter addition, the best way to save more lives of homeless pets is a good foster home program. Like other shelters, we have a limit on how many animals we can take at any given time. Currently, we have 36 dog kennels and 4 open cat rooms that can house about 30 to 40 cats. When we are full, as we usually are, we put relinquishment requests from local pet owners on a waiting list to be called when we have an open space.
We also take urgent requests from other shelters, where a pet may be in imminent danger of euthanasia. These pets are naturally given a high priority. For example, we recently took in three adult female dogs (two with newborn puppies and one expecting any day) from an out-of-state shelter that simply had no more room. Both mothers and puppies were scheduled for euthanization the day we rescued them and brought them to our shelter.
Life in the shelter (even in the best ones) is difficult for all animals, and it is particularly stressful for new mothers and puppies and kittens. The noise and activity levels of cleaning and showing other pets is extremely difficult to control, and the stress can be harmful to the point of causing illness in pets who are very young or already under stress from giving birth or suffering from previous neglect or abuse.
It's a proven fact that foster programs are beneficial to the homeless pets, but what are the benefits to those good people who do the fostering? One of our current foster moms put it very well when she said, "The dogs that go into foster are so thankful for your love' it's just really gratifying to be able to help them. But you can get attached. The most common question people ask me is, 'After spending so much time with these dogs, how do you give them up?' I always say, if I don't let them go, I can't help anyone else."
Yes, it's always difficult to let a foster pet go, but this is far outweighed by the benefits and rewards of fostering. The addition of a dog brings immeasurable richness and joy to the household. Foster dogs will repay you for your patience and love by giving back 10 times more love of their own. And when the dog goes off to a loving new home for life, your heart will swell with joy. What could possibly be more gratifying than to save a life and create a "happy ever after" ending?
Judy Bowes is the shelter manager at Roice-Hurst Humane Society.