You don’t have to offer a fur-ever home. Briefly taking in a rescue cat or dog can teach your children life lessons that will last for the long haul. Here's how to do it in a way that's right for your family.

By Danielle Braff
October 09, 2020
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Credit: Liz Sallee Bauer/Offset

Fostering an animal is like a practice run for pet ownership and the good feels it entails—and not just for the humans. A study last year found that shelter dogs’ stress levels dropped as soon as they stepped into temporary homes. While pandemic pets have been all the rage, there’s also growing concern that owners facing financial hardship due to COVID-19 could give up animals in large numbers. That’s one reason shelters may need to lean on foster homes more than ever.

But beyond what a family can do for a pet, foster homes can also benefit the kids in them, teaching empathy, trust, and more. Read on for expert tips on making fostering work for your family, plus more about the perks of loving a fostered animal.

Put safety first. 

Prepare kids upfront not to expect snuggles from a foster right away. When an animal arrives, it’ll need space to decompress, explains Paula Fasseas, founder and executive chair of PAWS Chicago, a no-kill shelter in Chicago. So let a dog explore the house leashed, and, conversely, keep a cat in one room so as not to overwhelm it. Warn kids, too, not to put their face near an animal’s, initially, and teach them basic pet body language; for example, be wary of a cat whose ears are back. If a pet appears aggressive (growling, hissing), it may not be a fit.

Emphasize patience with new pets. 

Many rescue pets have had a rough past; they may have been sick, abandoned, or abused. By offering love, humans can help them start to feel comfortable and content. In fact, socializing animals to make them more adoptable is one big way interim families help. “I like seeing how dogs get more friendly and happy as the weeks go by,” says Bella Jade Newton, a 7-year-old in Columbus, Ohio, whose family fosters. Going slowly and offering treats, she says, helps build trust. Such patience during this adjustment period is crucial for rescues, experts say. “Some pets may need training and consistent routines to thrive,” says Ragen McGowan, Ph.D., a pet-behavior scientist at Purina. 

Balance the chores with the snuggles. 

“Fostering is a great way for families to bond and experience the responsibility of having a pet,” Fasseas says. There are literal warm-and-fuzzy moments, yes, but there are daily chores too. Roshni Ricchetti, who fosters kittens in River Forest, Illinois, admits that pet care is not always an easy task, even with help from her 8-year-old. A recent foster of three kittens has meant “a lot of litterbox cleaning, and the kittens had health issues that required medication, vet visits, and extra care,” she recalls. That said, her daughter, Aria, feels that kitty kisses make up for litter-box duties: “I like playing and cuddling with them, especially if I’m angry or need space or quiet time,” she says. 

Make a difference how you can. 

The sad truth is there will always be tons of pets in need of homes. “You learn that you can’t keep every animal that shows up on your doorstep,” says Sandy Hogan, who writes for the blog Critters Aplenty, in Stamford, Connecticut. “If you do the best you can for them while you have them, you can hand them over to a new family with a happy heart knowing they are going to people who will love them,” she says. 

Prepare everyone for letting go. 

It’s important to clearly communicate from the start that the arrangement is temporary and your family’s job is to help the pet get ready for a new home, Dr. McGowan says. The experience can teach a child a great deal of empathy. After all, they care for a pet in need, then give it up to help another family. Loulie Scharf, an animal activist and artist in Wilmington, North Carolina, has noticed one profound effect fostering has had on her kids.

“They’ve learned to stand up and care for those without a voice,” she says. Still, parents may worry about the emotional toll of saying goodbye. “Fostering is an extremely valuable lesson in love, letting go, and understanding what’s involved in helping an animal,” says Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. That’s been the case for Anna Verlotta, a 10-year-old in Duluth, Georgia, who has helped foster dogs since 2018. “It’s always sad to see them leave, but it’s kind of happy because you know they’re going to get a home.” 

Fostering 101 

In general, here’s how to get started and what’s involved:

  • Choose a reputable shelter. The organization should display its nonprofit status and tax info, and the fostering procedure should be clearly detailed on its website.
  • Be prepared for a virtual interview. Reference checks may also include a call to your vet, if you have one. The adoption group will do their best to find a pet that suits your family’s needs.
  • Determine your time commitment. Foster stays can vary from days to three months, depending on your availability, the breed, the animal’s age, and the length of time it takes the pet to be socialized and adjust.
  • Plan to separate it from your other pets when you bring it home. Keep dogs leashed. Give them space and time to get to know each other, but always be cautious.
  • Be available to meet potential adopters. Expect your foster coordinator to check in regularly.
  • Don't forget about finances. Typically, you won’t be responsible for paying the animal’s food or vet bills, but check the financial details with each specific shelter.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's November 2020 issue as “Foster a Pet, Nurture Your Kids.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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