Why fostering animals is worth the emotional pain

Updated Feb 28 2020
Guest post by Ava Strange
Little Lulu.
Little Lulu.

We adopted our dog Lulu from the Manitoba Pug Rescue, and she had been in foster care for a very long time. The girl was an already mature papillion and seriously emotionally damaged from having lived her entire life as a breeder dog in a Missouri puppy mill. She was simply not a normal dog, and would freak out at the slightest noise, or the possibility of being pet. She spent her whole first visit with us shaking like a leaf with her tail between her legs.

But I have a soft spot for the underdogs, and I couldn't deny her a chance at a loving family. She wasn't perfect but that's why we had to take her. We would just have to be very patient. She still shits on the kitchen floor and cowers when we try to pick her up, but now she plays and smiles, and there are moments you would almost think she was normal. There's a light in her eyes now that wasn't there before.

We decided to look into fostering another dog, because who better to help teach Lulu how to be a dog than a little dog friend? She needed the company, because she didn't seem to be finding all that much comfort in us. I can't imagine what that would be like, surrounded by nobody but the "enemy" and cats.

So we took in Blaze, a puggle. Blaze was awesome from the start. He was fully-trained, never once peeing in the house, extremely obedient, and because he's part beagle he talked, just like Snoopy. He loved snuggling under blankets and didn't care much what he was doing, as long as it was next to me. He was the perfect dog, so we found it strange that nobody snatched him up right away. In fact, it took about two months. What the hell? And the longer it took, the more attached we got.

People told us all the time that they would love to foster, but they just couldn't give them up. And let me tell you, it's not that foster parents are any stronger or less emotional about it. It still hurts like hell. But it's that we want to help SO much that we're willing to be a little sad about it. It's worth it. The sadness in a way is what we're giving of ourselves to help.

But here's the thing: It's not even just about being sad. You expect that. It's about how willingly saying goodbye to someone you love, knowing you could have held on to them, goes so far against nature and every instinct you ever had. That's the worst part. And it makes you almost doubt your sanity.

I was in complete terror of losing him forever. Sad, knowing it had to be done. Confused, wondering if it really did need to be done. Guilty, both for letting him go and considering keeping him, which would reduce the number of available foster homes for other animals by one. Afraid, that no dog would ever be as awesome as him and we will have missed our chance. And, in yet more fear, that his new family somehow wouldn't love or appreciate him as much as we did (how could they not?). Guilty again, that he would think we abandoned him. And finally, excited that he would find a forever home and we could then help another dog. This shit can fuck you up. Say, where are my pills?

blaze and lulu

They say the first one is the hardest. I hope that's true. Not that it stopped us from doing it again anyway.

What I found helped enormously was the day Blaze returned from the last adoption event, being told how much he fell in love with this prospective couple, and hearing about our next foster dog. To me this was incredibly important, and helped me to move forward and be reminded of why we were doing this. I would highly suggest anyone going through this to do that — go check out the other animals that need your care. It's one thing to know there's a need, another to put a furry (or in our case, balding) little face to that need.

Focus on the positive aspects of letting that fur-baby go instead of on how much you'll miss them. Need more words of encouragement?…

  • It's almost impossible to fear this animal will think you're rejecting them. Dogs in particular love easily and live in the moment. They look to the future far more than the past.
  • Your foster pet is going to LOVE their new home. Really, they'll be okay.
  • There ARE animals just as cool as this one. You just haven't met them yet. How are you ever going to know if you can't move on to the next one?
  • There is always a need for more adoptive parents, but FAR more need for more foster parents. By keeping this one, there might be one less space in your home for more — meaning one less foster home where animals in need can stay. This can also mean less money (through adoption fees) for the rescue, money they very much need to continue the good work they do and to provide medical care for the animals they're currently supporting.

Are you hesitant to foster because you don't want to go through the heartbreak? Now here's some encouragement for you…

  • It's SO worth it. Totally serious.
  • It's a great way to experience the joys of a pet on a temporary basis. Maybe you travel for part of the year and a pet of your own is too much of a commitment. Fostering is a great idea! Maybe you think you want to adopt but aren't really sure if it will work out in your home or what kind of pet would suit you. Well, what better way to try it out?
  • Want a pet but can't afford one? When you foster, all the expenses related to caring for the animal are covered through the rescue. Food, toys, vet, everything.
  • Ever go through a shelter and say "I wish I could take them all"? Well, fostering is the closest you can get to that. Where adopting allows you to care for a limited number of animals, fostering multiplies that number like crazy without turning you into an animal hoarder. Some people can help hundreds.
  • Love puppies and kittens, but hate that moment when the little bastards grow up? You could have puppies and kittens in your house all the time!
  • Does your current pet need a buddy? Ours did. Fostering can give temporary company to a pet who might be a little lonely and need someone to play with, or as in our case, be a real confidence booster for a pet with emotional issues. After hosting Blaze and others, Lulu is a changed little woman. (And we've changed too.)
  • If you don't want any/more kids, but your hormones are plenty active, it's a great outlet for your need to nurture. Especially since so many foster pets need a little extra TLC. Go nuts and put a dress on that four-legged little girl. I won't judge.

dress on a dog

So we bit the bullet and said goodbye to Blaze. I handled it much better than I expected I would, and I bet Blaze handled it even better. The very next day we picked up Fabio, a surrendered Boston/beagle mix with a skin infection and a broken foot, and he could not have been sweeter. I've loved every dog we've cared for, and I'm really grateful for the opportunity, even if it's just for a little while.

Fostering will break your heart. But it will also make it swell up so much. This is a really great thing that you can do that won't cost you anything and will barely take any of your time. Everybody benefits. If the only downside is you cry a little because you got to experience all the love this animal could give for just a little while, you're still coming up way on top. Besides, half those tears will be tears of joy.

  1. We foster puppies about twice a year! We usually have them for about 2 weeks so they can grow big enough to get spayed/neutered before getting put up for adoption. This model works well; I find it fairly easy to give them up because there are always 2 at a time, so a) there is smelly mess everywhere for the 2 weeks we have them and you're ready to reclaim your house, b) having 2 at a time makes them play/sleep with each other, needing you WAY less and c) everyone wants a puppy, we know they'll get adopted right away. I love fostering but also recognize that I have it pretty sweet. I loved this post and I absolutely commend you! I do get sad sometimes, but it's so worth it for many of the reasons you mentioned. It's the best thing I can do for myself to snap out of a funk and live in the moment.

    For those thinking about it, look into your local shelter's model so you know what you're getting into! For the Humane Society of Missouri, ours is a free, no commitment puppy party for 2 weeks and it. is. awesome.

  2. Thank you for this awesome post!

    I've been thinking for bringing in another, but younger cat into our house. I have two cats already (2 years old), but I really miss the kitten stage. It's been awhile and kittens are so adorkably cute. So fostering might be the way to go.

    Thing is, would the fostering be hard on our two cats already in the home? I'm not sure how they would react to another version of them running around for a foster period. Does anyone have any experience with this?

    • I've fostered kitties for 5+ years now, and have 6 of my own adult kitties. Each adult acts their own way. One of mine just ignores them and pretends they are not there. One sniffs them for hours then bops them on their head and is cool with them. Another pounces on them and gives them baths until they surrender to him. Each is a little different so their is no way to know how exactly yours will act.

      However introducing adult cats to kittens is WAY easier then then doing adult to adult. Most adults figure out these are kittens and will be more accepting to new little ones, and kittens are typically like whatever, another cat cool.

      What ever organization you foster through ill have other tips on how to introduce your adults to the kittens, or you can do a simple google search for it.
      The biggest thing I can recommend is having a dedicated space for your foster kittens. This is where you can keep the kittens separated to give your kitties breaks (and you) from kitten antics. This has been a life saver! Just make sure it's not a spare bedroom with carpet or your carpet WILL get shredded by kittens trying to get out. Bathrooms work great to, just make sure they can't turn the water on or pull a drawer out and block the door (both of these have happened to me!)

      Also typically you'll foster kittens for a very short time. Most kittens, once they're adoptable (fixed and healthy in my organization) will only be up for adoption for 1-4 weeks, before getting adopted. So if your kitties hate it, you'll only have a short time that everyone will have to deal with it. And if its a complete disasaster the foster organization should work with you in placing them in another foster home.

    • When we first started our cats were a bit taken aback by the new dogs in the house, but they actually got used to it fairly quickly. Now they don't look twice where before they were terrified. I wonder if it would be the same with kittens, I don't see why not.

  3. Amen! I have been fostering for years. It's an amazing experience and I encourage everyone to give it a shot. Im do dedicated that I even got it tattooed on me lol. Even if you foster one and you're done, that's still one more life saved. Especially for kittens, all you need is a bedroom! Keep up the great work!

  4. While fostering isn't really possible for me right now (two dogs, two cats and a toddler…we can't handle more insanity or bodily fluids), I think it's something that I definitely want to do at some point. I think it would actually be really good for me because I totally get animal fever, which is how I ended up with four animals, and I think it would be better for me to just have a dog for a few weeks and then get another one when the previous one finds a home. I'd be helping out an animal in need and feeding my own need to have new, cute animals around me at all times.

  5. I just want to say thank you for being such a wonderful person with such a big heart.
    The world needs more people like you 🙂

  6. Oh, man, the paragraph about your conflicting emotions is exactly what I'm going through right now. I've always wanted to foster dogs and when the time was right we ended up with a little pit mix. She's not the kind of dog I would look twice at if I were looking to adopt, so I thought she'd be a perfect first foster. Turns out she's the sweetest thing in the world and lower maintenance than our two permanent dogs! After five months, I am super attached to her and I'm thinking all the things you said. How could anyone appreciate her like I do?

    But there are so many logical reasons why we shouldn't keep her. My husband and I agree two permanent dogs is our limit. We're having a baby in the summer, which will make three dogs even harder. And I do want to foster again when we can and having a third dog will make that impossible. On the other hand, I love her and keep trying to come up with scenarios in which she can stay.

    I dunno if we can post pictures in comments, but here's a link to little Autumn, who's available in West Tennessee: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30507276@N00/10236971063/

  7. Is this something you can do if you live in an apartment? My complex does allow pets but has some restrictions. Would you need to be available to foster any and all ages/sizes etc available?

    • I think it depends on the rescue group. I've seen some that are super picky and some that just want to save as many dogs as they can and will take whatever help is available.

      My group is super accommodating. They did a home visit and we talked for a while about our lifestyle and what kind of foster would be best for us. We didn't want anyone smaller than our beagle but no one bigger than our lab and they were cool with that. It was all about what was in *everyone's* best interest. And plenty of people have happy dogs in apartments. My group also does short term and weekend fostering, so if someone goes out of town or something, you can take their foster for a few days.

    • Our group I foster with takes any home! We understand that some people can't foster everything. We have people that foster small dogs only, big dogs only, puppies only, sick dogs only, special needs only… And the same for cats.

      I personally only take adult male cats or kittens. I can't do adult females because I have to many of my own and all heck breaks loose when I bring in another adult female.

      So yes, a good organization will be fine with restrictions. Be prepared though to prove that you can have animals in your apartment and that it's approved by your land lord.

    • It depends on the pet guidelines for where you live, the rescue you work with, and your lifestyle. You can foster pretty much any animals, including rabbits and hamsters, so I feel like almost everyone will be able to figure out an arrangement that works for them.

  8. I found that it does get easier to give them back. I fostered cats for a while when I desperately needed animals around but wasn't in a position to own. The first one I had for about three months and I cried buckets when I gave her back – but I later found out that she'd gone to a lovely family who were going to keep the name I'd given her, Stella. After that I never cried as much, because I knew that they'd do everything they could to make sure they got good homes.

    I guess dogs are harder because they try so hard to please you, but I found that while I got fond of those animals, there was always a little place inside me that never gave into the love I have for my own pets. But I still think that, at that time in my life, those cats did far more for me than I did for them.

  9. Great post!
    We are currently at the max for how many pets we can have according to our rental lease. We will have to do some thinking and negotiating when we do buy a house about how many permanent pets we want and when we will start to foster pets. Fostering is definitely in my future, but I know I will have to start small to see how much I can handle. A tiny part of me still wants to not have kids so I can devote all of my nurturing resources to animal rescue and fostering a ridiculous amount of animals…
    Does anyone have any books to recommend on the topic?

  10. Oh man, our second dog started as a foster situation. While I love her to pieces (obviously couldn't get rid of her ass), I feel bad for the fact that we can't foster anymore. Our apartment is a definitely a two dog/one cat space. But the drive to foster is what is pushing me to meet my house-buying goal. A yard means another chance to foster again!

  11. I wish that shelters in my area made fostering so easy! I've looked into it, but here they require you to pay to have the animal fixed, as well as any other medical expenses, so unfortunately it's not an option for me right now.

  12. Has anyone had to deal with your pet catching an illness from the foster? And if so, has that changed your mind about fostering in the future?

    One of our cats had a rough start and is prone to upper respiratory infection, which I know is pretty rampant in shelter cats, so we've been a little wary of fostering.

    • I understand your hesitancy. Keeping anti viral vitamins on hand (GNC makes a cat treat with l-lysine in it) helps my resident cats deal with any flare ups typically. I also keep any new fosters separate in a crate or bathroom for at least two weeks before introducing them. If the new guy isn't sick, this allows them time to adjust to each other – which prevents a stress flare up (viral response to stress in environment). If he is, this allows time for antibiotics to work, new cat to get well, AND again – adjustment time.

      Also, you are not alone. Nearly every cat born anywhere is introduced to germs and viruses early on. Some buildup enough of an immune response to only appear slightly affected… Some are worse off. Ultimately, it's your decision – your the advocate for your resident 'kids'. 🙂

    • Ohhh boy do I have experience with this, and I keep fostering.

      First and for most is the quarantine period. It's very critical and most foster homes who do this for long periods of time have a place in their home for this. But this doesn't always work. This summer the organization I work for pulled a cat from the animal shelter. He was only there for 72 hours but he got something nasty. And even though I kept him well separated and followed my normal quarantine rules which has worked fine in the past, it hit my own personal pets and a couple of fosters I got later. Thankfully only one of my personal cats, but it hit her nasty and we had a couple hundred dollar bill for antibiotics and other follow ups. She actually ended up sicker then the foster! I also was put on a no-foster list for a month to ensure the germs were gone. Right now my house is closed to fosters because I've had about 7 fosters with ringworm in the house in the last couple of months, we have to wait for the ringworm to clear up completely, about a 3 month process…. Last year I had puppies with parvo…. and there have been others.

      If something like this does happen you should be aware of what your organization covers and doesn't cover. They covered all cost for the foster kitties, but I was paid for my own. But if I had really pushed I could have had them pay for my vet bills too, instead we just put them under the organizations code and I got the discount our vet gives. Every group is different though, and every case is different too.

      If your cat is very prone to illness you want to talk to your vet in depth about the risks of fostering. It may be fostering might not be safe for you to do.

      Also you may not want to foster shelter cats, but work with a rescue group. Typically rescue group cats hare healthier and come from homes, vs the stress of being at a shelter. I don't think I've gotten a sick cat that was an owner surrender…. all the sick ones are strays or shelter rescues. I'm sure I've gotten one or two that got sick from stress, but the severity and the chances of getting illness from an owner surrender are a lot lower then then other rescues.

  13. Aww!!! I love this story! We found our dog who had been bred to the point that her teets were dragging the ground (American Staffordshire Terrier mixed with English Bulldog), through being a Foster Home. She's such a great dog, very lovey, friendly, playful…the only down side is she hogs the bed…every night, lol. Being a Foster parent for animals is great for them. It gives them a chance at knowing what love is.

  14. I've been fostering for several organizations since 2008. I've done bottle feeder puppies, bottle feeder kittens, senior cats, adult cats with serious medical issues, "issue free" dogs, hospice cats, and hospice dogs (hospice animals are terminally ill and stay with me until their quality of life suffers and then we let them go).
    I cannot tell you, as a first time mom, how much fostering has helped me ease into this whole 'caring for a human' thing. I don't get ruffled easily by things I see other parents freak out about because – unless someone is actively dying — everything is manageable. My daughter is also growing up in a variable zoo and I can already see how it's benefitting her (and she's not even 6 months old yet). Thank you for this post.

  15. Thank you for fostering! I've fostered several dogs in the past few years, although we are currently taking a break because my oldest dog's health challenges are too great. I'm not sure I'd say the first one is the hardest; I think it depends on the dog. I was probably a little lucky that my first foster was a great dog who got adopted quickly, but was not a good fit for me anyway. She was a hyper one year old, and we're more of a middle-aged-and-old-lazy-snuggle-dog kind of family. The hardest to adopt out for me have been the shy mill rescues that I put a lot of effort into bringing around to living in a house and having a family love them – but when I get happy updates on them from their adopters, it is the best thing ever.

    The only one that absolutely broke my heart was a senior who I had to help pass after only a week with me. That was pretty awful, but, I'll still take seniors when I can – they need someone to love them even if it's just a little while. I like to hope that a week in my house and someone who'd come to love him to hold him in the end was still better than going in the shelter our group pulled him from.

    I did adopt one of my fosters, but only after my husband and I agreed we could have two permanent dogs and still keep a foster spot open. She's amazing with my other old resident dog, and it was really kind of nice to see how well they got along before making the decision to adopt.

    Anyway: It IS hard to say goodbye, for some dogs more than others, but in general, knowing I have room to help the next dog who needs me, combined with happy updates from adopters in love with my past fosters, makes it totally worth it.

  16. Thank you for this article! My boyfriend and I are planning to have a cat and a dog when our living situation allows it, but we're worried about his cat allergies being too bad to deal with for the long-term. It never occurred to me to foster animals, but now I see it'd be a perfect way to test out what he can live with, while also helping out the animal and the shelter. If he turns out to be too allergic to cats then it would only be for a couple months at most, and giving it back would mean it's getting adopted into a new loving home. Instead of intending to get a cat as a permanent pet and then having to give it back unexpectedly–which would stress the system and be extra-upsetting for me because I love cats so much.

    • Also people with cat allergies will find that they are allergic to some and not to others. So this can be a good way to find a cat that works for your household.

      Keep in mind most people are actually allergic to a protein in cats saliva and that protein can take 6 months to break down in your home.

  17. We love our foster homes! I'm a Foster and Adoption Coordinator for a no kill dog rescue and foster's allow us to save more dogs than just the eight kennels we have in our shelter facility. And they are easier to adopt out because they have been living in a home environment. Keep doing what you do and know that the groups you work with appreciate you more than we could ever express!

  18. When my sister and I were younger our family was seemingly constantly fostering kittens who had been abandoned or their parents had been caught by predators (as we lived in a rural area). We were always so sad to see them go, there were almost always tears when my young sister didn't understand why we couldn't just keep 30 cats, but we also learned so much about sacrificial love (especially when, at 17, I was getting up at 5:30AM before school to bottle-feed a litter of kittens I brought home).

  19. Thank you so much for all the comments everybody, I love seeing all the discussion about this! Lulu died suddenly about a month ago, and I submitted this post in her memory. She was the reason we started doing this, and even though she's gone we'll remain foster fur-parents for life. It's my hope that through her, as many animals as possible will get a second chance, just like she did.

  20. I have been searching for ways to let go. I love your article, it is real, it expresses how I am feeling right now, so emotional! I obtained a lil fur ball who will be a year old soon about 3.5 months ago that I have known since brought home as a small baby at the age of 2 months. Unfortunately, the original owners could no longer care for this baby due to behavior special needs. They arranged for a foster to take the lil pup but that fell through. Being the transportation person, I ended up taking this baby home. I searched far and wide for rescues, breed specific rescues and rescues that take special needs dogs. Finally I found one that agreed to take this little guy but I had to agree to foster him. It has been a great combination and experience for pretty much all the same reasons in the article. Potential adopters have come and gone, I have been hoping for them to all be gone, I'd have to keep this pup that I have fallen in love with and we have bonded so deeply even at my attempts to pull myself away somewhat, like that could happen. So recently the rescue presented to me a family, a perfect family, a family who is patient, a family who understands the special behavioral needs, a family who has great plans to love and care for this baby, a family who can meet this baby's mental stimulation and physical activity needs, a family who has kept their pets forever until they cross the rainbow bridge, a family who has offered an open adoption type setting. How can this get any better? So why am I still so emotional about letting go? I know deep in my heart that this is the right family for this ball of love but still I feel this way. I must be grieving like a loss but I know it really is not a loss, its a win win for all involved. This is proving to be harder than having to put down one of my pets due to old age and failing. Your article is helping me, and I will come back to read it until the adoption is final and after. Thank you, I really needed to read this shot of reality, logic and reasoning. I am writing this as this baby sits at my feet and at my side. I love this ball of fur and wonder if a bond can be built with the new family as it has been with me. I will miss the morning hugs, daily playing, personality, facial expressions, napping at my feet while I work at my desk, and snuggles in the evening on the couch as we wind down the day.

  21. Thank you so much for writting this article it absolutely resonates with how I am feeling right now. We have fostered a 10 week old puppy, he's only been in the home for 4 days and I've fallen madly in love with him but he leaves tomorrow. He has the most beautiful temperament but I think he is going to get quite big that's why I haven't adopted him.
    Little did I know just what an emotional roller coaster fostering would be. He is our second foster dog and I have been a wreck with both, having said that I still want to do it and be of service in this way. You are right it is worth the emotional pain, for the unconditional love that dogs bring.

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