Rescuing as addiction? Preventing foster animal burn-out

May 19 2014 | Guest post by Ava Strange
Dolly (who got adopted) sez: "Don't get foster burnout!"

Helping rescue animals is addictive. It's not too hard to figure out why. Seeing an animal go from frightened and abused, to happy and well-loved is an incredible high. When you think about how many animals there are that still need help, and how few there are of you, it's easy to start over-extending yourself. And as well-intentioned as this may be, you're no good to anybody if you run yourself ragged.

Consider this post your guide to avoiding dogaholics/cataholics anonymous and ending up on Animal Hoarders.

Time: The more animals you take in, the more time it takes up

Walking, cleaning, grooming, playing, training, vet visits and more, can take up a LOT of your time. If your circle of friends starts to fade away, or you find yourself neglecting other important duties, consider scaling back the number of animals in your house at one time. Consider also that you have to divide your attention between all these animals as well as yourself.

Ask yourself: is everybody getting all the one-on-one time they need to be well-socialized and emotionally healthy? How about your lover/roommate/kids? If somebody comes to you asking for cuddles or other attention, are you able to accommodate them?

Money: Mo' animals, mo problems

If you lose your house or can't pay the rent, where will the poor little dears stay? Make sure you're not donating so much of your money that you have none left to sustain a reasonable lifestyle for yourself.

If you haven't yet used up all of your free time, consider organizing a fundraiser instead. This is something you can do with friends and family too, which is great because chances are they might kind of miss you by now.

Sanitation: So much poop!:

Are the animal beds laundered, the floors washed and vacuumed, and the yard clean, or is the whole thing starting to become a smelly poo-filled mess? Sanitation is extremely important for both you and your critters, so if things are starting to get out of hand you need to take a step back and get things back under control. Nobody wants to get rescued from one filthy house only to end up in another.

Clean that shit or scale back your rescue efforts.

Emotions: Sometimes you just need a bit of a break, and that's okay

Yes, it's an amazing feeling when your foster pet finds their loving forever home. But it can be a painful one, too. Consider it your heart's growing pains. If you're not careful it could break. Your animals want you to be happy just as much as you want them to be, so make sure you're able to keep yourself in a positive state of mind, for their sake and yours.

For anyone devoted to helping animals in need, you are amazing and I thank you. Let's support each other by making sure we'll be able to continue doing so for as long as possible.

  1. I fail at fostering! In the States, we had two cats and a dog — all of whom now live with my wonderful mother-in-law. After we moved to Indonesia, we had serious animal withdrawals. I thought that fostering through JAAN (Jakarta Animal Aid Network — an awesome organization that rescues and rehabilitates all sorts of Indonesian critters) would be the perfect answer: all of the animal snugglies with none of the commitment! We decided to keep our first foster, Vincent, after about two weeks. When JAAN asked us if we could foster another dog, Lucy, we *swore* it would be fostering only. After two HOURS we decided to keep her. Shortly after that, a kitten came along and joined the herd. And… I've drawn the line. No more fostering for us — I'd love to help more animals, but I don't have the discipline and/or willpower to give them back, so we'll have to help out in ways that don't involve bringing more fur babies into the house.

    5 agree
  2. I'm on my sixth foster dog.
    Here's what I've done to prevent burn out:
    I limit myself to fostering one at a time. No more!
    If I give up a dog I really like, I ask for another one immediately. In my rescue, we're a two breed rescue – collies and shelties. I'm primarily a collie foster (I grew up with them and love them), but we get less collies than we do shelties. Getting a sheltie immediately after giving up a collie to their forever home really helps. It fills my need for another dog, and I find it harder to attach to them emotionally than I do the collies.
    I'm involved in a rescue that pays vet expenses and for food. Usually, I'll buy another bag of food if needed myself, but I limit myself to that. Instead, I have a lot of time – so I devote time to managing the rescue facebook page and webste instead.
    And I always know that I get first pick for adoption of the dog – but I tell myself that I can't continue to save more doggie lives if I adopt and exceed my pet limit.

    4 agree
  3. We are fostering a kitten, our second foster. Our first fosters were 3 sibling kittens. I loved them all dearly and cried when they went to their new homes, but I knew it was for the best. I think it helps we already have our own two dogs, a cat, and 3 cockatiels. Our animal rescue organization pays for the vet bills and food of the foster animals so it is easy to think about wanting to keep the fuzzy babies until you realize you would then be providing for yet another animal.

    I agree most with the last point about taking a break. After our first 3 foster kittens were adopted out we took a 2 month break to have things return to normal. About 2 weeks ago we got our new foster kitten and she is already spoiled rotten. =)

    Also if you want to work directly with animals without fostering and have a Petsmart with a kitty room/adoption center inside see which rescue organizations placed their cats in there – the room is volunteer staffed and is always needing people to take care of the kitties, in our area it is only a 3 hour shift and you get to play with kitties without much emotional turmoil!

    4 agree
    • I had three baby stinkers from 4weeks to 8weeks and it was SO hard to give them up! But I just kept focusing on the hundreds of dollars I did not want to spend on adopting them and caring for them after the foster period, and while I still miss them, I'm glad I got to raise them during that very important time in their development.

      1 agrees
      • I just read Cat Sense, and I had no idea that there was a critical period socialization period for cats like there is for dogs. It makes total sense, though, and helps to explain why my in laws' s cat is a demented little creature that you must love from afar.

  4. I've found it also helps set emotional boundaries if you specifically ask to foster animals you're less likely to *want* to keep. My husband and I usually only take pregnant/nursing moms or orphaned kittens. When we first started fostering we were doing older cats who just needed to get healthy for their spay/neuter. These guys had all grown into their little, loveable personalities and they loved us back SO MUCH for being among the first people who ever cared for them. Seeing these guys go was heartbreaking. On the other hand, kittens are super cute but they don't give a fuck about anyone. They'd much rather be chasing their brother than be held hostage on your lap. It's almost like watching someone else's kid: they're cute and everything but when it's time for them to go to their forever homes you are ready for them to GO.

    14 agree
    • Not relating to your post at all, but I am Cyla from above you and I was very confused by your post because my real life name is Alix and I thought I posted twice or something because ALix is not a common spelling of the name. =P

    • I fostered some ferrets a couple years ago, and this is exactly how I felt about them. They were adorable, and they were exhausting, and I loved them but I was SO glad to see them go on to good forever homes.

      2 agree
  5. I love this article. As a fosterer and foster failer a number of times, this is totally great advice. Another is to really know yourself and your boundaries… are you truly able to give animals what they need most?

    Remember too that if you can't always (or ever) foster, you can always donate items time money and networking help to animal organizations in need.

    2 agree
  6. This is a great article with great points. Thanks for writing it!

    We aren't able to foster cats at my house anymore, because my husband, Crazy Cat Man, can't let them go. And I would be the same way with dogs, so no dog fostering either. We help our local shelter in other ways, which makes us feel good and helps animals without us ending up on Animal Hoarders. On days when we volunteer, we have the conversation in the car on the way there about how we have no more room, money or time for any more animals in our home. We have six cats (!!!!) and two dogs of our own, so we're pretty much full if we want to give all our animals good care and adequate attention. I was tempted by the potbellied piglets at the shelter a few weeks ago, but we're not allowed to have them within the city limits so I had to restrain myself, and they all went off to nice new homes where they don' t have to spend their backyard time in a dog costume to fool the neighbors. đŸ™‚

    It is important to remember that you are not the only person in the world who can help animals. Me taking the pigs would have been a not great situation for me and for them, no matter how adorable they were and how much I would have loved them. Me being able to restrain myself from taking them allowed them to be free to go to better situations. This is difficult for lots of people I know within the rescue community, not just us. There is a fine line between "animal rescuer" and "animal hoarder", and sometimes when your intentions are good it is difficult to see that line. It is important to be realistic about your own limitations as far as time, money, and ability to clean up massive quantities of poo.

    5 agree
  7. I was so excited to see this article. As a foster myself, I find it helpful to remember they are going to a great forever home when they leave me. Don't get me wrong, sometimes I cry when I find out they have been adopted but after a few days, I have rebounded and know that they were taken in by a good family.
    The other day I almost had my first failure, the family who adopted one of my favorite fosters (who spent almost 6 weeks with me after coming in to the program after being attacked) returned him. As soon as I saw that he was looking for a place to stay I chimed in asking what had happened, there was no way he was back because he was perfect. Turns out before his new foster could come get him he was adopted again by a new family. And so far he hasn't been returned.
    It also helps me to know that the place I foster for chips all their dogs so that if they end up in a shelter the adoption agency will be notified and can be returned.
    I hope anyone who is considering fostering, that has the means and the time actually goes though wit it. I have found it to be an amazing experience that is extremly rewarding although sometimes sad.

    3 agree
  8. I've fostered many kittens over the years. I've had either ones so tiny that they needed bottle feeding, or older ones that were half feral and just needed socializing. The tiny ones were easy; I had them right up until they reached the annoying climbing-your-pant-legs stage, and then they were ready to go get adopted. The feral ones are harder….Here's this terrified animal that I've patiently befriended and encouraged to flourish through trust, and now it's going to go back to the scary shelter to start over again in a new scary home with new scary people. But, in the end it still works out.

    I have a foster feral kitten right now. He's just in a crate in a corner of our dining room/kitchen so that he gets used to being around normal household sights and sounds. We're at the stage where he readily comes to you when you open the cage to pet him, and he almost never hisses anymore.

    2 agree
  9. Bookmarking this for future reference… I'm a little afraid for when I don't have a restriction on the number of animals I can have in my residence!

    1 agrees
  10. Thanks for the post! We've been fostering for 18 months and only failed on one: the diva-esque ex-mom cat who has 5 minutes of nice a day but is curious and funny. My boyfriend failed hard, and then I realized he loves her because she's a lot like me đŸ˜‰ We try to limit ourselves to one cat/floor of the house, which seems like a good rule so everyone can have their own get away space.

    One thing some full-to-the-brim foster parents I know do is offer to pay for food/litter/toys/etc. for fosterers who have room but limited funds. Or they take the animals that have an adopter but need a temp place to stay to get well, or wait for their spay/neuter surgery, or offer themselves as pet sitters for other foster parents. It's amazing the creative ways people can help out!

    3 agree
  11. My gorgeous mate fosters pregga mummy cats, orphaned kittens and feral feline packs from horders homes. She has a heart of gold that makes her want to KEEP ALL THE KITTIES! Her hubby found that in order to keep theirs lives in balance and their own numerous, adored furbabies happy there is one simple rule: They can keep a foster…but then their home is no longer open to care for anymore ever again.
    It has been heartbreaking for them to give up the special ones but they know its for the best. By finding a new forever home for that little hairball they can they bring more fuzzbuckets into their happy house to love, boost the confidence, then gift to a new family.
    My mates rock, just like you wonderful people who care for the critters who need the lovin đŸ™‚

    3 agree
  12. I just returned my first set of foster kittens this morning to the shelter. Oh my gosh, it had to be the hardest thing that I have ever done. I mean, we have had them for a few weeks now and it's pretty impossible to not fall in love with the little guys.

    At the same time though, I trust that they will find awesome homes. They're young and totally adorable, so adopting them out should be easy. Plus, after returning them, the foster rep brought me back into the cat room. Seeing all of the little ones there that hasn't had the chance to live in a normal home yet kinda brought me back to reality. If I were to keep any of these cats, then that would lead to one less home for the shelter. So by loving on them short term and giving them back, I can help out more animals without becoming a crazy cat lady.

    So needless to say, I'm fostering another set now. This time, two older cats that need love and socialization. <3

    1 agrees
  13. I am a foster failure. I have either been unable to keep up with the kittens (a new litter of four who tracked so much crap from their litter box all over the room that I was consistently late for work just cleaning up after them) to two litters who were either not socialized or sick. With my job and my own three cats (one who is in fragile health and requires constant medication), I just can't do it. It breaks my heart to see all the cats in need of fosters, but I just don't have what it takes.

    1 agrees
  14. Great post. My husband and I have fostered 12 dogs over the years and have only failed twice. We try to not foster anymore since our last fail is dog aggressive. With that said, we currently are helping a Rottie that was chained in a yard and not fed. He is in training(thank you fundraiser) , but will be back with us soon if I cannot find him a place.

    1 agrees
  15. I believe in rescue and I know there are a lot of great rescues out there with amazing people. The flip side of this is that there are some rescues- I know of a rescue called S.A.I.N.T.S for example that is a perfect example of rescue gone wrong-
    This rescue is run by a woman who hoards animals- she takes in more than can be adequately cared for- I do not mean that she starves them by any means- or beats them- I mean that they are not handled with affection or given any attention- She has some great volunteers- but there is not enough time in the day- the feeding and the cleaning is all there is time to do. She refuses to rehome any of the animals- A Veterinarian wanted to adopt the two horses she has living with her and the woman refused- She refused to allow these animals a chance at a home with a woman who not only had way more room for them to run, but would have spent time handling and training them, and as a vet , all of their health concerns would have been addressed. It would not have been possible to find a more suitable home for these two horses and yet she was refused. The woman who runs this place is possibly unbalanced- A real rescue should always consist of re-homing/adoption. without adoption as a goal it is just a hoarding situation- This is really selfish- and is its own kind of animal cruelty- there should be regulations and laws about this- this particular rescue is in Mission B.C. My own Auntie who is the biggest animal lover I have ever known was denied the adoption of a pair of senior dogs- one of whom was blind. My auntie would have taken them both as they were quite close and came to the rescue together, as my aunt volunteered there every day she became quite close to these dogs- who were kept in a separate room in the house,. alone. their only company was at feeding time for a few moments- and the time my aunt would spend with them daily- This woman refused to let my auntie adopt them. How could anyone believe that being in a cramped house that is filled to the rafters with birds, rabbits, dogs and cats, with all of that noise- would be an ideal situation for an animal who is blind. The woman insisted that this blind dog is more comfortable in this environment than she would have been as my aunts family pet- doted on all day- taken for walks daily- fresh meals prepared daily- my aunt babies her pets- they are family. That anyone would deny this creature this opportunity to be loved and cared for and given a proper home- and then have the nerve to call themselves rescue= this is a crime. Rescue should not be a safe place for sick people to meet their sick needs – this woman may have originally started with good intentions- but she has allowed her own issues to come before the animals she claims to be helping- It is unethical to have as many animals as she has taken in- with no plans of adoption for any of them,. This should be illegal.

    • If you suspect a rescue has turned into a hoarding situation and you have evidence the animals are suffering from lack of care, it is illegal and should be reported—both she and her animals need help. Hoarding is a mental illness—the sufferer hoards objects or animals in an effort to fill a painful need in his or her life. It's just awful that living things have to suffer in the process.

  16. For me, the sanity-saver is reminding myself that I want the maximum number of animals I can still take the very best possible care of, at any particular point in my life…and not one critter more than that. Right now, living in a small apartment, that means just one cat (well, I have a horse, but I keep him at my parents' place, so that's solely an economical factor). Someday, in a roomier place, I'd like to have 2-3 cats (plus, I'm hoping to have enough property to have a couple of rescue donkeys and goats apiece), but that's the max I can ever see my budget, time, and energy allowing for. Even though it breaks my heart that there are SO many animals out there needing help, it's my responsibility to take the best care I can of the ones I can handle, not to half-assedly take care of a hundred.

  17. My heart goes out to you, Rob. It's hard to think of something as noble as rescue as an addiction, but it sure sounds like your wife is in that situation.

    The main tenet that applies to coping with addiction in a spouse or family member is that you cannot control other people, but you can control yourself. Look into marriage counseling – if she won't go, go yourself. Examine what you are willing to put up with. If regaining some peace of mind means moving yourself and the kids out of the dog boarding facility and into your own place, do that. If you decide you need a divorce, you can do that with a clear conscience. Just remember, above all, to treat your kids, and yourself, kindly.

  18. I am the husband of a rescuer/foster who I believe fostering has become an addiction for. We are on the currently brink of divorce because of it and sadly, "the brink" has been an oft-visited place since she started fostering almost three years ago. My wife has dedicated her free time to rescuing dogs and currently serves as a director of a reputable non-profit rescue group. She is not a hoarder by any description set forth by any state or federal laws and the dogs are very well taken care of; everything from medical needs to full vetting, good quality food and even attention from the entire family.
    However, to give you some perspective of how I have arrived at the realization that my wife is addicted…we have had approximately 540 dogs that have been fostered and adopted through our home since March of 2014. Now, while some of those estimated 540 dogs were only here overnight or for just a few days, many of them were here for an average of ten days to two weeks. I would also say that 20% to 30% of them were also puppies born from pregnant mothers that we fostered and those pups were here for a minimum of eight weeks. She just returned from a trip to Las Vegas where she met one of her foster/transporters and she returned with 24 dogs. All of which are here at our home. Four of those are 6-week old puppies that were rescued from a trash can, and they probably here more than a week, but they are currently in a playpen setup in our living room.
    On top of the constant stream of foster dogs, we have six of our own dogs and two cats (who have their own outdoor enclosure). We also have three children and my wife works a full time job as the practice administrator for one of our state's top neurosurgeon.
    75% of the time, I think my wife is an absolute superhero. The other 25% of the time, I feel that she is an addict and her addiction is ruining our marriage and her relationship with her children, who get zero attention from her because when she is not tending to the foster dogs, she is on her phone or computer posting adoption ads on Facebook and Craigslist. Hell, the first thing my wife does when she gets into bed at night is hop on to Facebook and check messages. Same thing when she wakes up….straight to her phone. Most recently, I've awoken to her on her phone at all hours of the morning like 2, 3 and5 a.m.

    To better accommodate these fosters, we converted our finished two-car garage into a professional-level kennel with an epoxy floor, professional crating systems, storage, feeding systems and a large connected dog run. We also built a complete puppy nursery in our basement for new moms and pups…any veterinarian would be proud of our setup. The garage and our home are mopped daily…sometimes twice a day. Crates and bedding are washed every day…sometimes our washer/dryer runs 12 hours a day.
    But even taking that into account, my kids and I feel like we all live in a boarding facility. We clean up after the dogs daily and our children are burnt out of dogs. They still enjoy the puppies, but absolutely detest having to assist with their mom's addiction.
    This has been going on for 18 months or so. And I simply cannot take it any more. This morning, I told my wife that I want a divorce. Our kids overheard our argument and our son went to school and was visibly upset enough that the teacher asked him why he wasn't his normal cheerful self. She said that he teared up and told her that his mom and dad were fighting about dogs and getting a divorce.
    I have asked my wife time and time and time again to please reduce the number of foster dogs in our home. She always has an excuse…always. She does not make any effort to scale back on the number of fosters. Hell, we even had two different mom and pup combos in our MASTER BATHROOM over the space of eight weeks while we had a mom and her pups in the living play pen! No matter how often we wash, mow and disinfect the outdoor dog run, it smells like dog crap and urine…and forget about the trash cans! We bleach those every two weeks and they still smell.
    I'm tired of living like this. I feel like white trash and that neither our marriage or our children matter to her over the dogs. It is exactly like being married to an alcoholic or drug addict…only worse, because it comes wrapped in the pretty package of saving dogs and doing something good for the world.
    I am lost, hurt, angry and desperate. If anyone here has gone through this, I could use your advise.

    Thank you,

    – Dogged out in Denver

    1 agrees

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