Foster Care for Pets When Owners Are Away

Ask Gladys Van Name about her little dog, Foxy, and she will tell you he is one of the best-trained dogs she's ever had: The long-haired chihuahua weighs 6-1/4 pounds and used to entertain folks in nursing homes by dancing on his hind legs and "singing songs."

"He's been a blessing to me," says Ms. Van Name, a resident of Vero Beach, Fla. "I'm alone, all my family is gone. He's such a comfort."

Last year, when Van Name spent some time in the hospital, she didn't have to worry about Foxy because the Humane Society of Vero Beach arranged for foster care. "I always know he will be well cared for," says Van Name.

Pet foster care generally means that a volunteer temporarily cares for the pet of someone in a crisis. The pet owners may be ill, or abused, or may have been evicted from their home and can't afford to send their pet to a kennel. Animal shelters, local humane societies, and even pet stores and some veterinarians offer or arrange for care.

"What we're seeing nationwide is a real effort to reach out to communities and help people," says Joan Carlson, executive director of the Humane Society of Vero Beach. "If you help pets, you help people."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, for example, scores of volunteers fostered pets, providing comfort to countless families, Ms. Carlson notes.

At the Potter League for Animals in Middletown, R.I., Holly Rice, volunteer coordinator, plays with Panther. The cat's owner is a woman who just entered a "safe house" for victims of domestic abuse. "I won't cry because I know he is safe," Panther's owner told Ms. Rice when the cat was taken in.

Some victims of domestic abuse are afraid to leave their pets with their abusers and therefore afraid to leave their abusers, Rice explains. And women's shelters often don't allow animals.

Foster care is an underrecognized part of what some animal organizations do, says Christie Smith, executive director here. "If you're a community resource, you identify problems and ask, 'where can we help' and 'how can we help.' " Some shelters and animal organizations, however, don't have that luxury in terms of space, staffing, and networking, she points out.

In a community like Vero Beach, with a sizable senior population, the need for fostering is acute. A pet is a central figure in many lives. "Many of these people are very isolated ... maybe their friends and family have passed," says Ms. Carlson. Foster care is a safety net. If seniors are in a situation where they can't care for a pet, she says, they may become afraid they'll lose it.

If the pet owner is receiving health care, "we try and explain to them so they don't need to worry about their pet, they can concentrate on getting well," says Carlson. Sometimes foster parents take pets to visit owners in nursing homes or rehabilitation centers.

If you want to volunteer to be a foster pet parent, check with your local animal shelter, humane society, or veterinarian. Volunteers generally undergo rigorous screening. Some questions to ask yourself before fostering a pet:

* Are all family members in agreement with introducing a new pet in the home, even temporarily?

* How will current pets react?

* Can you afford it? Sometimes the sponsoring animal organization will provide food and medical care for the pet.

* If you're a renter, do you have the landlord's permission to bring in a pet. Are there condominium association rules that forbid pets?

Home situations are taken into account as well as motives. One woman, for example, was turned down by the Potter League because she wanted a foster dog so her own dog wouldn't be lonely during the day.

In addition to taking in pets temporarily for owners, some foster-care programs also place homeless kittens and puppies into volunteer homes to help "socialize" them, thereby making them more adoptable.

To be sure, pet care is a growing challenge in a country where the feral cat population has exploded and unwanted, abandoned, and abused pets continue to be problems. Sometime humane societies will place a homeless pregnant cat or dog in a foster home, to provide a quiet place to give birth.

"I love it," says Ms. Rice, who is a fosterparent for animals several times a year. "I have a room I call 'the nursery.' " Rice has three cats of her own and often fosters mother cats and their litters.

Is she ever tempted to keep a kitten. "Oh yes," she sighs. "Sometimes it's hard to separate, but you know up front it's a temporary situation."

If adoption becomes an option, the foster parent can apply. In that sense, the trial-period is beneficial. If not, foster parents of pets sometimes are the best sources of leads to interested adopters in their neighborhoods.

"It warms your heart," sums up Van Name. "I would recommend it to anybody." She should know. Before she became Foxy's owner, she was his fosterparent.

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