Foster care is flourishing, but the need is always great

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Animal lovers in the Northwest demonstrate remarkable passion and generosity for animal rescue and adoption.  In some cases, a forever home is found only after months of rehabilitative care and nurturing.  Dedicated foster families take in many animals, young and old, healthy and ill, and provide them respite from shelter life, as well as an opportunity to become more adoptable.

Many area shelters and rescues are often bursting at the seams with previously unwanted and neglected animals, and most rely on foster care in order for the system to work.  While there are no hard statistics available on the number of animals currently in foster care, organizations such as the Willamette Humane Society (WHS) in Salem report that they have some 75-100 animals in foster homes in any given month.  Oregon Dog Rescue (ODR) of Greater Portland says they regularly place more than 40 dogs in foster care monthly, while Sherwood’s Cat Adoption Team (CAT) foster families provide homes for more than 1500 cats and kittens each year.

Following is an exploration of how pet foster care works and what makes an ideal foster parent.  It is this writer’s hope to inspire and inform those with little or no experience to consider fostering . . . who perhaps will find the experience not only a great fit, but an extraordinary experience that enriches times two:  their lives, and their fosters’.

Most understand the basic idea of pet foster care:  an individual or family provides temporary care for a companion or farm animal until that animal is adopted.  Here we’ll go a little deeper, looking at the time and cost commitment, the support systems, and what makes a suitable foster.

First let’s look at the vital role of foster families.  Kathy Covey of CAT sums it up this way:  “We would not be able to save as many cats as we do if we didn’t have these great foster volunteers.”  Fostering frees up space in area shelters, allowing rescue organizations to take in more animals rather than turn them away.

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The Pet Foster Network, a North Carolina-based foster resource organization, explains that, “Not only do foster parents maximize the number of animals rescued, they also help care for animals that would be difficult to care for in a shelter or kennel environment:  puppies or kittens with immune systems not strong enough to fight germs; orphaned or feral kittens; animals recovering from major surgeries; or dogs needing one-on-one behavioral rehabilitation or a break from the shelter.”

Besides socialization, love and nurturing the animals receive from foster parents, fostering also provides prospective adopters with a great deal of information about an animal that’s often not possible to compile in a shelter situation.  The time foster parents spend with their charges gives them insights into the animal's personality, behavioral tics and emotional needs — all vitally important to making a successful match. 

That kind of one-on-one time is rarely possible in a shelter setting.  Additionally, an animal in shelter is more likely to become stressed, anxious or depressed, distorting the way his or her true personally presents to potential adoptive families.

Michelle Blake has fostered animals through both WHS and the Salem Chapter of Fences For Fido.  Blake has opened her Salem home to small exotics such as hedgehogs, and has taken on the more challenging task of caring for dogs who have been chained their entire lives so have virtually no training or socialization with animals or people.

Blake has found that while these types of dogs provide a “unique set of challenges,” the rewards more than make up for the effort.  “You know, we would all love to foster a dog who is housebroken, great with kids and other pets . . . the perfect house guest — better than out-of-town relatives!”  Blake laughs.  

“But people need to understand that these are few and far between.  They are probably going to need some house training, be tested and supervised around other animals, and will probably need a bit of management.  But it always feels like a Cinderella story when they have such challenges.  The more challenging the dog, the more you have a sense that this needs to get done.  Then you see them get their second chance and go on to their forever family, and hear from those people that he is living like a normal dog — which is the most important thing.”

That’s not to say that every foster requires this kind of special attention, and certainly potential foster families should seriously consider what they can realistically provide.  Perhaps your home is quiet and better suited to an older, less rambunctious dog who needs a relaxing environment with little stimulation.  Or maybe you work from home and can provide the extra care and attention needed by a litter of kittens.  Some foster parents alter the type of animal they take from time to time to vary the experience.

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Kim HarneyKim Harney often opens her home to fosters through ODR, regularly taking on litters of puppies, housebreaking them and getting them strong for their future families.  For a change of pace she recently began fostering a docile, even-tempered 6-year old dog named Annie.  “This is the first time I've taken an older dog, and boy is she easy,” Harney laughs.  “Fostering can be really hard, but it’s so rewarding when you see them go into good homes . . . it’s all worth it.”

That kind of success comes from doing the work to ensure the right fosterling for the right family.  Many local organizations rely on a thorough application and screening process to ensure a good match.

WHS has had foster families since its beginnings in 1965, always appreciating the volunteers who open their homes to animals with special needs.  “Expanding our housing and caring for underage animals that can't be adopted yet is critical,” says Susan Carey, WHS Communications Director.  While she hasn't seen the profile of the foster family change in the 10 years she’s been at WHS, Carey says she has seen a variety of people who fit the mold of ideal foster parent.

“We have a whole range of people who do fostering for us,” says Carey, “from families with little kids who like animals to seniors who don't necessarily want to commit to an animal for an indefinite period, but like to have them for four to eight weeks at a time.”  

WHS’s application process allows potential foster parents to specify the type of animal best suited for their home, and whether they are willing to take on challenges such as sick or injured animals, “bottle babies,” or puppies or kittens.  “We never have enough people willing to take on the bottle babies!” Carey says.

Carey also notes that WHS has a dedicated foster coordinator who works with the families as well as an in-home orientation program that helps equip families for the experience.  She stresses that this support is crucial to the overall success of the placement, and that it takes work to create an ongoing relationship with a foster family.  Other organizations, such as CAT and Fences For Fido, also provide in-home assessments, mentoring, and access to behavior specialists when needed.

To this end, organizations may provide a laundry list of factors that families should consider before applying to foster.  These may include determining the length of time you can realistically provide care (sometimes adoption is months away), how you would handle an additional dog in a home with an existing pack, and how your family will cope when your foster finds his forever home.


Foster parents also need to check in and get clear on what medical costs are covered, who supplies food, and the protocols when an animal gets sick.  Knowing how things work creates clear, realistic expectations on both sides of the foster relationship, hopefully creating a situation where a family can regularly take in fosters, filling a constant, ongoing need.

CAT’s Foster Program Manager Kristi Brooks says, “We tell people all the time that they are saving two lives with every kitten they foster.  As you send them off to a new home you are free to take in another group and save even more lives.”

Perhaps your home can provide a respite to one of the countless animals in area shelters who need to experience the comfort and stability of a home while they wait for their forever families to find them. 

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Nikki Jardin is a Portland-based freelance writer who loves to write about people dedicated to making the world a better place for all beings. When she’s not writing, she’s either exploring the great outdoors, traveling, or volunteering with Fences For Fido, a local nonprofit dedicated to giving dogs freedom from a previously chained life.