What do I need to know before fostering a rescue cat?
Oh, so you want to become a foster? Great Idea! I, myself, was rescued by a local TNR group and found my forever home in the face of my foster, who later on became my caring and loving human mom, Sherry. There are a lot more of us out there that need a temporary place to stay, while the perfect owner arrives!
The idea of saving a furry feline and giving it a warm home for a couple of weeks/months might seem quite appealing and noble. It does have a huge amount of perks - you get to spend quality time with a cat in need, but there are a few more aspects that you need to consider before becoming a foster.
1. Enough Space
As cats, we love it whenever a foster already has a friendly pet that we can interact and snuggle with, but we need our private space in the home upon arriving. Before volunteering to become a foster, make sure your home is spacious enough and can give us a separate room in the beginning.
Most of us rescues need some time to get used to the new environment and feel safe and secure. The potential foster cat might be an injured feline or a newborn kitten, so they would need to be separated from your pets, if you currently have any. If you already own a cat or a dog, you know that we can get quite teritorial, especially if a new member is joining the family.
A place to hide, a little bed area, a litter box and a feeding corner for the rescue should be available all the time. Make sure your other cats or pets have no access to them - at least for the first few weeks - until the “host” animals meet and socialize with the newcomer during supervised visits. This step is especially important as the lack of privacy can cause even more stress to the fostered cat.2.
2. Consider the responsibility
Before going to the nearest shelter or rescue group and volunteering to be a foster you should research a few topics. Are you familiar with how to introduce the rescue to the rest of the household and any other pets? Do you have a basic understanding of the cat's emotional needs when it comes to affection? Do you have enough free time to take care of a rescue? With enough information and preparation everyone who has a big heart can become a great foster - but simply loving the furry friends is not enough. You can ask the rescue group or the shelter for more details - and they surely will provide you with it!
3. Socializing the rescues
Since you will be our first human parent, it is important to know that you will be accountable for the way we interact with humans later on. A very important part of your “job” as a foster is to prepare the kittens and juvenile cats for adoption. This means that you would have the responsibility to set ground rules and to build a trust between you and the feline. Mind that you need to act patiently, gently but firmly with the new family member.
Consider the youngest of us just as “inexperienced” as newborn humans or toddlers - we might be able to walk and feed on our own, but you would need to teach us what the litter box is and how to use it. We might lack manners and knowledge of what living in a loving home with humans is, so you really need to dedicate your time to “raise” us. Playtime and cuddle-time would also have to be part of your daily schedule, in order to “soften” the sharp nails and character for some of us.
We are not all the same, and although most of the senior cats have already encountered human interactions before, they might have been unpleasant ones. The key to transforming a stressed rescue to a purring ball of fur ready for adoption is socializing, and it is right in your hands!
4. The emotional side of fostering
Before signing up to be foster, you should prepare yourself for possible emotional pain. Sometimes the rescued cats are in a bad physical condition, and this can complicate the situation. If you take in a newborn or an injured pet, the risk of them not surviving or recovering from the trauma is significant. Losing a foster kitty might be a tough moment for the whole household, especially if you have kids or family members who easily get attached to animals.
Of course this is not part of the scenario and the initial plan when saving a furry friend, but it is a part of the whole experience, and it might happen even if you are the best foster ever! It is important to understand beforehand how easily you and your family can "fall in love" with the cat and losing it might cause emotional pain, similar to losing a relative.
5. Special needs cats and senior cats
Some of the rescued felines might be suffering some kind of disease, injury, or might need special physical/emotional attention - are you prepared and willing to take care of such a rescue? This would be not only a big responsibility to add to your current day-to-day tasks, but if you take neonatal kittens or a mom with newborns, you would need to feed and care for them on an hourly basis.
We urge you to take enough time to consider which option is the best one for you - to assist with special needs cats, or you prefer to stick with purr-fectly healthy ones. There is nothing wrong with choosing "the easier" way and going with the healthy cats. In fact, we prefer to stay a bit longer at the shelter or rescue and wait for the right foster to arrive, than to just get to a home where we can not fully recover.
Needless to say, even the healthiest feline would need more affection and attention in the beginning - you would still have the “duty” to make them feel comfortable and "at home".
If you do not have enough time or resources to care for those of us who suffered injury or trauma, that is completely fine, and you should always be 100 purr-cent honest - both with the rescue groups and yourself.
6. Asking the important questions of the shelter or rescue group
As we already mentioned - it is important to be well-informed and prepared for the emotional and physical part of being a foster. Once you decide to take a rescue home there are a few things to ask beforehand.
If you are taking in an injured or an ill cat, the first thing to discuss would be if you will have the responsibility of administering medication. Some cats might need to be given a pill on a daily basis, which although it sounds easy, might be a challenge. Others might need more serious medical attention or help, so make sure to check with the shelter and ask for advice/ impromptu training if this is your case.
Do not forget to ask if the rescued cat has been tested for FIV/FELV, and as horrible and insensitive it might sound - check what is the procedure in case they get sick, in critical condition or worse - die while staying with you. You should be prepared for both the good, and the bad.
Last but not least - get information from the shelter about the cost and expenses for the fostered cat - so you can decide for yourself if you can cover any of those, in case you need to.
Generally speaking most rescues and shelters will provide food and litter and cover the vet bills of the foster animal. The animal is the responsibility of the rescue group and by law belongs to the group. Foster volunteers are proving a warm loving home and socializing, care, etc until that animal’s furr-ever family is found but they do not own the animal unless they choose to adopt it.
However if the foster home can provide some of the expenses, it is a big help to the rescue groups who are always cash-strapped. Those questions might sound odd or hard to ask - but need to be well understood by both parties so there is no confusion going in.
7. Looking for a forever home
Yes, finding an adopter is the ultimate goal when fostering a cat, but understand that this should not be rushed and that there is protocol to follow. Have a conversation with the shelter or rescue group about how they would like to proceed with searching for a potential adopter.
Have in mind that most of the shelters have a strict application process when it comes to adopting a cat, so respect their rules and try to assist as much as possible. That can include you helping them by transporting the cat to the adoption events and cooperating in such.
It would be great if you want to start searching for a forever family for the furry feline, and ask the group for some copies of their applications to give out to interested adopters.
8. Time to say goodbye
Being a foster means that you will be our short-term home and at one point, once our dream owner appears, you will have to give us up, no matter how attached you’ve gotten. Any cat would be happy to turn the fosters into their furr-ever family, but you should make the decision of whether you are keeping the cat before someone else does.
If you are definite that your current household can not support another pet in the long-term, then be prepared to send us off to the future owner. This again can be an emotional roller-coaster! Us cats can be very charming and after a purr or two, we can make you adore us. Once the time for adoption comes you might experience very intense feelings such as grief, and you might even feel lonely and sad.
Every foster story has a happy ending that concludes with a "goodbye" so have that in mind. Fostering will give you the opportunity to meet and help a lot of cats in need, but in the end, you might experience the bitter-sweet taste of it. Do not forget - being a foster is temporary unless you decide to adopt the cat.
9. What if it doesn't work?
What if you take the cat with you, try your best but it still doesn't work out for some reason - would that make you a bad foster? As long as you are 100% sure that you want to go on this journey with a furry sidekick, and give it all of your best efforts, you will be fine. If you change your mind in the process or an unexpected obstacle appears and you feel that you are incapable to dedicate enough time and attention to the newcomer - don't feel ashamed to seek help from the shelter.
Life often does not follow our plans, so make sure you think about what is best for the cat, even if that means bringing it back to the rescue or shelter. Foster fails can happen to anybody - no matter how hard you try, it might not work out which is neither your nor their fault.
Actually, this happened to me before I got adopted by my next foster and current mom. My “semi-friendly” character was a deal-breaker for my previous foster, which caused me to be returned to the shelter. Although that was stressful at the time, I am more than grateful for being a “foster fail”, since this was part of my journey to my true furr-ever home!
I hope those bits of advice did not scare you or change your mind about becoming a foster, because we would really love to find someone loving and caring for the rescues! After reading this article, fostering might sound like a lot of work - and it might be, but I can assure you - it's the most rewarding "job" you would ever have.
**Special shout-out to Courtney Conaway of Steel City Adventure Cats who helped us create this set of guidelines for anyone considering becoming a foster to rescue cats. Courtney and her fiance Ryan have accomplished so much for the sake of our most vulnerable felines since they launched their official fostering group in Pittsburgh, PA a year or two ago. Every day we are in awe of them and grateful that the TNR and foster world has them as cat rescue advocates.
Follow them @steelcityadventurecats to learn more about their amazing foster work and consider donating to them to help with their fosters’ needs. Info in their bio.