"Betsy was like a blank slate," says Mary Anne, who lives in Etobicoke, Ont. "She walked through our backyard with her tail right down between her legs, taking everything in – the butterflies, flowers, grass. It was all new to her. But by the end of the day, she was more relaxed, and by the end of the second day she was prancing around with her tail up in the air. To see that transformation was just so rewarding."
What is pet fostering?
Mary Anne is one of an army of committed volunteers who provide temporary homes (usually for anywhere from a week to a few months) to animals in need. Pet foster parents help raise kittens and puppies until the animals are old enough to be adopted. They look after sick, injured or mistreated animals and teach problem animals how to behave, so they will be ready for adoption.
"They give the animals the time they need to find 'forever homes,'" says Tara Jackson, communications manager at the Ottawa Humane Society. Her organization has 260 foster families on its roster – including Prime Minister Stephen Harper's family, who foster abandoned kittens. "Mrs. Harper has helped raise awareness of the need for pet fostering across the country," says Jackson. "A lot of people think an animal comes to us and is immediately placed for adoption, but that’s not always the case."
You don't need Sussex Drive digs to foster a pet; a love for animals is what really counts. Darcie McGruther of Spruce Grove, Alta., has that in spades. McGruther, who works at the Edmonton Humane Society, is currently fostering a litter of orphaned kittens as well as caring for her own large menagerie of pets: eight cats, one dog, two chinchillas and a hamster.
Page 1 of 4 -- Is a foster pet right for you? On page 2, meet Canadians who say fostering a pet is the perfect scenario for them
No matter how good an animal shelter may be, it's not the ideal place for a mother to raise her litter, or for an injured or ill animal to recover, says McGruther. The littlest animals may lack a strong enough immune system to fight off many of the diseases and illnesses that are so common in shelters, so something as basic as a cat cold can endanger their health. "It's so sad to see them in the shelter when I know they'd do so much better in a home environment."
Although foster homes are sometimes in short supply, shelter staff still do their best to find the right fit. "We try to look at each case on an individual basis," says Jackson. "Some people want only kittens, some dogs, some guinea pigs or other small animals." If a family has young children, the shelter will try to match them up with an animal that is good with children, and they'll take into account other animals in the house.
A new responsibility
For Michelle Evans's family, bunnies were a match made in heaven. "They make awesome pets," she enthuses. "They entertain you with big bunny hops, and they're affectionate and love to be petted." She and her husband, Jim, and their six-year-old son, Shawn, fostered their first rabbit in 2005 through Rabbit Rescue Inc. in Milton, Ont., and have had a house full of them ever since.
Michelle says fostering can be a great way to see how your family copes with the responsibility of caring for a pet and can help you decide if you're ready for a long-term commitment. "As cute and comical as bunnies are, a lot of people don't realize what's involved with caring for them," she says. "They can have chewing issues and you have to bunny-proof your house. And you may discover you have allergies."
Fostering a pet can be a real eye-opener, agrees Jackson. "People think, oh, a little kitten in the house, won't that be great? Then, when they get that cute kitten home, it's climbing up the curtains and pulling the stuffing out of the sofa, and it's more than they bargained for."
Page 2 of 4 – Saying goodbye to a foster pet can be difficult -- our foster-families share their tips for staying positive while a pet is leaving their home on page 3
After five years of pet fostering, Erin Richards has found that adult cats are the perfect fit for her busy lifestyle. "That's where my comfort level is," says the 27-year-old university student from Ottawa, who is currently nursing one-year-old Minnie through an upper respiratory tract illness. "They're a little more settled and manageable than kittens."
Erin has a separate room set aside for her foster cats and she often heads in with her laptop or work to spend time with them. Her husband is a big fan of pet fostering, too. "I'll come home and he'll be in the room reading his book with Minnie," says Erin, laughing.
How to say goodbye to a foster pet
Parting is never easy, no matter how many times you do it, says Mary Anne. "There are always tears, but it's in the best interest of the animal to find a forever home. You have to look at the big picture. By letting one go, you can help another." Michelle says she makes it very clear to her young son that the bunnies they foster are just temporary houseguests: "I draw a very clear line; we're just helping the bunny and giving him a place to stay for a while. Sure, he's a little sad when they leave, but he feels good about helping, too."
For McGruther, the shelter's home-sweet-home bulletin board makes it easier to let go. Many adoptive families send pictures and letters to let foster parents know how well their ex-charges are doing. "I put them up on the board so everyone can read the happily-ever-after stories," says McGruther.
One story with a happy ending is that of Parker, a little, blind Yorkie whose foster home became his forever home. "We knew Parker was going to be difficult to place," says Mary Anne. "He'd been adopted and returned once already because he was a bit aggressive. He just found his way into our hearts, so we kept him."
Similarly, Michelle's family kept their foster bunnies Mickey and Tiny, and McGruther kept her foster cat, Timbit. Sometimes, says McGruther, it's just meant to be. "The animals can't speak, but I know they love it."
Related: Click here to find out how to deal with the death of a pet
Page 3 of 4 -- Ready to be a foster-family for a dog, cat or rabbit? Find out how to get started on page 4
How to become a foster-family
The first step is to get in touch with the organization of your choice, such as your local humane society or the SPCA in your province. Many programs pay for all veterinary care and provide supplies such as food, litter and even toys and blankets.
If a foster family has young children, for example, only animals who do well with young children are placed there. Some require that you have a separate room in your home in which to house the foster animals if they are ill or have other special needs, and if you have pets of your own that their shots are up to date and they are kept separated from the new arrivals.
But the main requirements of people who want to foster is that they are willing to provide a safe, loving environment, says Mary Anne Marcuz, a pet foster parent and volunteer at Adopt-a-Dog/Save-a-Life Inc. in Toronto.
If it turns out that the fit isn't a good one – and that does happen, says Tara Jackson, communications manager at the Ottawa Humane Society – another foster family will be found. And don't worry, it won't in any way affect your ability to foster another, more compatible, pet.
This story was originally titled "How to Foster a Pet," in the March 2008 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!
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