Have you ever considered fostering pets from your local animal shelter, but something held you back? Maybe it was the fear of becoming too attached. Perhaps you felt worried you might not have enough experience, especially when taking care of a very young kitten or puppy. But for many people, one of the biggest things holding them back from fostering is the uncertainty about how to keep their own pets safe when bringing a temporary shelter pet into their home.
It’s a valid concern. Bringing home a foster pet can not only potentially expose your own pets to communicable diseases, it can also cause varying degrees of stress for them. But with a little preparation, fostering pets can not only be safe, it can also be one of the most impactful and fulfilling experiences of your life!
Why Fostering Pets Is Such A Wonderful Thing To Do
According to Best Friends Animal Society, more than 4,100 cats and dogs are killed in America’s shelters every day. By fostering just one shelter pet, you’re making a huge impact in the world of animal rescue! You’re not just saving the life of that one animal, you’re also freeing up space in the shelter for another pet who needs a home. Foster homes are vital to the success of the movement to make shelter systems worldwide completely no-kill over the next several years.
Fostering pets also has many other important benefits for these animals:
- Taking in a foster pet gets them out of the shelter environment, which greatly decreases their stress and limits their exposure to infectious diseases.
- For many animals, foster homes provide a safe environment for them to learn how to comfortably live in a home and trust humans.
- Foster parents can help socialize and provide basic training for the foster pet, making them much more likely to get adopted quickly. If the foster parent has other pets, those pets can help teach the foster pet how to get along and interact with other dogs and cats.
- Pets in foster homes generally get more exercise on a daily basis than those in shelters, as well as more individualized attention and affection.
- Foster homes are especially ideal for pets with special needs, such as seniors, pets who are sick, and those who are recovering from surgery, have some type of disability, or are pregnant or nursing.
Safeguarding Your Pets While Fostering
At least several weeks before bringing home a foster pet, first schedule your own pets for a check up to make sure everyone is healthy and up-to-date on their vaccinations. Since the American Veterinary Medical Association has revised its guidelines to state that vaccines do not need to be given every year, instead of automatically vaccinating, consider having your vet run a blood test on your pets called a “titer” test that ensures your pets have enough circulating antibodies against the most common dangerous infectious viruses.
Dogs should have sufficient antibodies against parvovirus and distemper. They should also be on some type of regular parasite control that protects them against intestinal parasites like roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms. Most monthly heartworm preventatives also provide protection against the most common intestinal parasites.
Cats should also be vaccinated against, or have test results indicating they have immunity against, feline panleukopenia, calici, and feline viral rhinotracheitis viruses. If your cat has never been tested for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), you’ll want to test them now. Cats who are positive for FeLV should never share space with cats who haven’t been vaccinated for the FeLV virus, as the virus is contagious and transmitted through shared food and water bowls, litter boxes, and mutual grooming.
Once your own pets are given the all clear, make sure the foster pet is examined by a veterinarian before they come to stay with you. Once the foster pet arrives, keep them completely separated from your own pets for at least 2 weeks. Since most infectious diseases have an incubation period of 3 to 14 days, the foster pet may look and act completely healthy, but still be contagious while they’re incubating a disease.
Cats are, by nature, territorial creatures, so if you have a cat at home and will be fostering another cat or kitten, you may want to consider keeping them separated for the entire length of time you’re fostering to reduce the risk of fighting and increased stress in your own cat. For dogs and puppies, the opposite is true; once the 2-week quarantine has passed, a foster puppy can actually benefit quite a bit from spending time with an older dog, provided the family dog does not stress about it and has the opportunity to get away from the puppy when he or she needs to.
If you have any other pets at home like fish, hamsters, guinea pigs, reptiles, etc., be sure to secure their aquariums and cages to keep them safe from curious, prying paws.
If your pets at home are younger (under the age of 2), they could be at greater risk of contracting an infectious disease from a foster pet than if they are older. If you have a puppy or kitten at home, you may wish to wait until they are at least 2 years of age or older before you decide to foster.
Reducing The Risk Of Infection
It’s just a fact that foster animals come with an increased risk of carrying and transmitting infectious viruses, intestinal bacteria, parasites, and fungal infections like ringworm. So even if your own pets are healthy and up to date on their vaccinations, you’ll want to further reduce any risks of disease transmission by 1) being very diligent about the 2-week quarantine period, which means NO contact between the foster pet and your own pets during that time, and 2) being extremely conscientious about disinfection.
You’ll want to clean and disinfect your home BEFORE the foster pet arrives to protect them too. Then once the foster pet is home with you, follow the disinfection schedule recommended by the shelter.
You can keep both your own pets and the foster pet safer by following these tips to reduce the risk of infection:
- During the quarantine period, keep the foster pet in a room with surfaces that are easy to disinfect, like a large bathroom. The room should have as little furniture as possible, since everything in the quarantine room will need to be disinfected. Avoid rooms with carpeting or hardwood floors; rooms with tile, vinyl, or linoleum flooring are best.
- Clean first with soap and water to remove dirt and debris, then disinfect the area, which kills infectious viruses, bacteria, and fungus.
- Diluted bleach is the safest disinfectant. It destroys even the hardiest viruses on surfaces, and it also kills fungus like ringworm. Clorox bleach is usually recommended by shelters since it has the strongest concentration of the chemical sodium hypochlorite. The recommended dilution to kill viruses is 1:32, which means use ½ cup bleach diluted in 1 gallon of water. Keep the diluted bleach solution on surfaces for a full 10 minutes to kill the strongest viruses (now you can see why you don’t want furniture or carpeting in your quarantine room!) Remember to mix the solution in a well-ventilated area to avoid fumes, for the safety of both you and your pets.
After the 2-week quarantine period is over and your pets are sharing space together, continue to be diligent about disinfection! This means:
- All surfaces must be cleaned regularly – floors, walls, bedding, crates, toys, food and water bowls, and litter boxes.
- Choose toys and supplies for the foster pet that are easy to disinfect. Stainless steel and ceramic food and water bowls are better for disinfection than plastic, which can harbor bacteria and viruses.
- For cats and kittens, consider using disposable litter boxes that can be thrown away.
- If you have carpeting, vacuum often.
- Wash fabric items in the hottest water possible, and use bleach.
- Whenever possible, have separate toys for your foster pet and your family pets, and don’t let them play with each others’ toys.
- Be very diligent about washing your hands.
When fostering puppies, don’t let them potty in your yard if the yard is grass, dirt, or rocks. Parvovirus can live in soil, rocks and grass for years. Instead, use a concrete area that you can scrub down, or use disposable puppy pads.
If fostering cats or kittens, make sure the foster kitties have their own litter boxes, water, and food bowls. If the foster kitties are positive for either the FeLV or FIV viruses, always keep them separated from your family cats to be safe.
Safely Introducing Your Pets To A Foster Pet
Lastly, you’ll want to make the fostering experience positive by keeping your family pets from experiencing stress as much as possible.
If you have a cat and will be fostering a dog, always ask the shelter to cat-test the foster dog at the shelter before bringing them home. If the dog is aggressive toward cats, it’s best to not bring that particular dog into your home; there are other shelter dogs who may be better candidates. Once the foster dog arrives, let them settle in and get comfortable for a few days in a separate area before introducing your cat. Always have the dog on a leash when you bring in the cat, and at the first sign of stress (in either animal), separate them and try again at a later time. Whenever they’re together, supervise them closely until you’re sure there will be no issues.
If you have a dog and will be fostering another dog, take your own dog to the shelter and introduce the dogs there. Since the shelter is neutral territory, it will make it much easier for them to connect and establish a relationship. Once you bring the foster dog home (and the quarantine period is over), keep both dogs on-leash whenever they’re together until you see how they interact. Always take things slowly and supervise them until they are completely comfortable with each other.
If you have a cat and will be fostering another cat or kitten, consider keeping them separated during the entire time the foster kitty is in your home. Cats are very territorial, get stressed easily, and typically don’t welcome changes to their routine. However, if your cat is very relaxed and mellow, and the foster pet is a kitten, it may be possible to successfully introduce them if it’s done slowly. Keep them separated by a door, letting them smell each other under the door first. After a few days, try cracking the door so they can see each other, while offering them treats so they associate each other with good things. You can also feed them on either side of the door. If they can eat on either side of the door while it’s ajar, you can try letting them interact directly with each other – but if either kitty becomes fearful or aggressive, separate them and go back one step. If they continue to not do well while in direct contact, for their own comfort and happiness, consider just keeping them separated for the duration of the foster experience.
Fostering Pets: A Life-Changing Experience
Fostering pets doesn’t just save and improve the lives of the shelter pets you’re taking into your home; it directly saves additional lives by making more room in crowded shelters for other animals to be rescued.
There are great foster programs available that have excellent resources to help teach you not only how to care for foster pets who may need a little more time and attention, but also how to best care for your own pets during the foster experience. Although there’s no guarantee that your family pets won’t be exposed to a potential infection during a fostering situation, by taking the steps outlined above, you can greatly reduce the risks to your own pets.
That being said, in rare cases, there are just some circumstances that don’t safely lend themselves to fostering. If you have a pet with a chronic illness that stresses their immune system (such as diabetes), is being treated with high doses of steroids, or has cancer, rather than fostering, you may wish to help your local shelter in other ways. Read about additional ways you can help save animals on the Best Friends Animal Society website here.
And remember…fostering pets plays a crucial role in helping every shelter around the world to one day reach the goal of no-kill status. And THAT is a beautiful thing. 🙂
Have you ever fostered a shelter pet? Please share your story with us in the comments below!
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