Fostering Cats: Why It Saves Lives and Tips for Success!
Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Do you have a bathroom? Then you can foster! With shelters currently all overflowing with cats, we wanted to talk about how fostering can save lives and give you all the tools you need to get started. In this article, we’ll explore:
What is fostering
Limited-admission vs. open-intake shelters
Medical considerations before you get started
How to get started fostering cats
How to build trust with your foster cat
How to introduce a foster to your resident cats
Let’s dive in.
What Is Fostering
Fostering is when a person volunteers to provide a temporary home to an animal in need. Typically, the foster is affiliated with a nonprofit like a shelter or rescue that provides necessary medical care. Some nonprofits also provide the fosters with supplies (food, litter, etc.), while others ask the fosters to be responsible for that. Many fosters use Amazon Wishlists to get materials donated by friends, family, and supporters.
While any animal may end up as a foster, it’s most common with cats and dogs who are:
Recovering from surgery or illness
Too young to be adopted
Have behavioral issues (shy, fearful, aggressive)
Sometimes, there is literally nothing wrong with a cat or dog, but a shelter is full and they simply need more space, so they will ask fosters to take a healthy animal.
The goal in nearly every case is to get the cat adopted. The shelter or rescue will promote the adoptable cat on social media and in adoption listings. They also interview applicants and find the perfect home for the foster animal.
There are two exceptions when the goal is not adoption:
TNR (Trap, Neuter, Return) – Semi-ferals or ferals will be fixed (or have another type of lifesaving surgery) and need to recover in a kennel before being released back to their outdoor home.
Fospice = Foster + Hospice – These are cats that will not be adopted because their condition is terminal. Fosters who take these cats know their time is limited, but many enjoy giving the cat love and care until it’s their time.
Now, let’s take a look at the shelter and rescue system in Philadelphia, so you can understand why fostering is so important.
Limited-Admission vs. Open-Intake Shelters
Nonprofits like PAWS and PSPCA are limited-admission shelters, which means they take in animals on a limited basis, and may refuse to take an animal because of health, behavior, or lack of space. ACCT Philly is Philadelphia’s open intake shelter, and they MUST take every animal surrendered to them regardless of space. That means even when they are full, they can’t refuse to take an animal. ACCT Philly also has limitations medically. They can provide the basics, but if an animal needs more specialized care, the animal needs to go elsewhere.
Volunteer-run rescues are nonprofits run by individuals. Some don’t have a physical space and are run completely out of people’s homes. Others do have physical spaces, like the groups you see in Petsmart and Petco. Rescues play a crucial part in saving animals.
When a shelter like ACCT runs out of space, has medically urgent animals, or bottle babies (kittens without a mother who can’t eat on their own), it needs help from a variety of different people and organizations:
The Public. People can help by adopting available pets. This includes healthy animals, and sometimes sick animals as well.
Fosters. The public can volunteer and go through training to become an ACCT foster. Once completed, they can foster an animal.
Rescues & Limited-Admission Shelters. These groups can “pull” cats and dogs out of ACCT and transfer them into their organization. They have their own fosters who can help these animals, as well as contacts with vets around the city who can provide medical assessment and treatment. They also help cats and dogs that aren’t in the shelter system at all, like strays or pets that need to be rehomed.
Remember, the goal here is to free up cages and space because animals never stop coming into shelters. Fostering even one cat opens a cage, allowing another to be saved.
Nearly every shelter and rescue organization will euthanize an animal that is suffering or can’t be helped in time. Open-intake shelters like ACCT do everything they can to avoid euthanasia, especially for overcrowding. However, with high volume shelters in big cities (like ACCT), it’s an unfortunate reality that animals get euthanized when there isn’t another option. ACCT has limited space, and if any shelter tries to house more animals than the space allows, it puts the entire population at higher risk for deadly illnesses (the same with human hospitals).
A no-kill label doesn’t mean no euthanisia. It simply means an organization has a live release rate of 90% or more. For every ten animals, they save at least 9. ACCT is not no-kill, because it often has a live release rate in the 80s (not 90s). It is very difficult for open-intake shelters in large cities to also be no-kill shelters. As a foster, you are directly supporting multiple levels of the shelter and rescue system in Philadelphia by freeing up a cage for another animal.
Before You Get Started: Medical Considerations
There are a number of important things to handle before you reach out to any organization about fostering. You’ll need to make sure you have the proper space for a foster and that your resident cats are healthy. You also need to know what to expect regarding the possible health of a foster cat.
Two-Week Quarantine Period & Separate Space
Your new foster will need to have a two-week quarantine period. They must be in a space that’s separate from your resident cats, and disinfected. Be sure to clean this area and supplies (like the litter box and litter scoop) thoroughly with cleaners that kill most viruses, bacteria and fungi. You’ll need to use a separate litter scoop for your foster cat during this period. You’ll also need to wear gloves or wash your hands before and after interacting with a foster cat, so make sure you have gloves or soap easily available.
To set up your foster cat’s new digs, you’ll need:
Litter box and litter
Food bowl and food (dry, wet, and treats, especially the tube treats)
Bed, blanket, and a box or hut for hiding
If you are fostering bottle babies, you’ll need:
Heat source (heating disc, sock filled with rice, etc.)
Bottle with a Miracle Nipple
You don’t need to get these two items, but they may help:
Bluetooth speaker. Many cats are anxious at first and calming meditation or classical music can help them relax.
Pheromone diffuser. Cats communicate a lot with each other using chemicals released by their bodies. A pheromone diffuser releases pheromones into the air that can calm many cats.
Your resident cats MUST be up to date on their vaccines. It’s also never a bad idea to schedule a wellness exam prior to fostering to talk with your vet about all the details. All cats should be vaccinated against rabies and FVRCP (two respiratory viruses and a GI virus) even if they will be staying in separate rooms. If you plan on introducing your cats to any fosters, you should have them vaccinated for FeLV as well.
FIV and Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)
There is a blood test available to check for FIV and FeLV. These are both retroviruses that affect the immune system and bone marrow and can cause increased susceptibility to infections and cancers. Some shelters and rescues test all their cats and others don’t. Try to be aware of if your foster kitties have been tested. They should test negative before being introduced to your own cats. The reverse is also true; if you have never had your own cats tested, go ahead and schedule an appointment for that. Kitties with potential exposure risk (indoor cats, cats co-housed with rotating casts of fosters, etc.) should be tested once a year. Kittens who are tested when young should be checked again around or after 6 months of age. Because of latency periods, a negative test can be followed up with another test in 60 days if you want to be extra cautious. False positives and negatives are rare but possible.
Parasites (fleas, worms, ear mites, and more!)
Intestinal parasites are extremely common in cats and can be transmitted through fecal material and sharing litter boxes. Kittens are generally born with parasites from their mom. Newly rescued cats should get a dose of dewormer and have a fecal parasite check sent to the lab. You should run a fecal parasite check on your own cats once a year or anytime you notice GI signs like vomiting or diarrhea. This is also why you’ll want to use a separate litter scoop for your foster kitty. Once confirmed negative and co-housed, all cats will all be sharing boxes and should be getting regularly dewormed.
Fleas are also extremely common and are particularly aggressive in Philly! They will commonly come into homes seeking out cats, so even indoor-only kitties should be on a regular flea preventative all year round. Many cats who have been on the streets also have ear mites, so it’s good to treat with a flea product that also kills mites. Great choices are Bravecto Plus or Revolution. Cats get tapeworms from ingesting fleas when they groom, so anytime fleas are present, the cat should be dewormed for tapeworms using a product like Profender. If you’ve ever seen the little grain of rice or sesame seed looking worms on a kitty’s butt, then you have seen tapeworms! The reverse is also true; anytime we see tapeworms, make sure the cat is treated for fleas.
Bravecto and Revolution have very good coverage for fleas, ear mites, and some intestinal parasites so are both great choices to use year round.
Despite its name, ringworm is actually a fungal infection. It is fairly common in kittens and can also affect adult cats. It generally causes hair loss and crusty/scaly lesions. If you notice hair loss on your foster kitties, they should be seen for an exam. Ringworm is contagious between cats, dogs, and people, so it is best to keep any ringworm positive or ringworm suspect cats separate. Some types of ringworm glow bright green under a special light called a wood’s lamp or even a black light. This quick test can be done at the vet. Not all species glow, so sometimes we still need to send out a ringworm culture/PCR. Careful cleaning of the household is needed to get ringworm out of the environment.
Fostering: How to Get Started
Once you know your resident kitties are healthy, you can connect with an open-intake shelter, limited-admission shelter, or rescue organization and apply to foster. Most organizations have foster applications on their websites. Here are some local Philly organizations you can reach out to:
After you are approved, you may have formalized training to do or resources you have to read. Once completed, you’re ready to get started.
Ask the rescue if they have cats they need fosters for. Also, if they have social media, be sure to check those sites frequently because they often post immediate needs. Another thing you can do is check out ACCT Philly’s At-Risk pages to see which cats need to leave as soon as possible. You can then ask the rescue if they can “pull” the foster cat you want (it’s ultimately the rescue’s decision on who to pull). When selecting a foster kitty, consider your experience with cats, patience, and time commitment – those all play a role!
Before you agree to fostering any cat, make sure you know what’s expected of you. If the cat is sick, how often is medication required? Do you need to take the cat to the vet? Do you have transportation? If it’s a very shy or fearful cat, do you have enough time to allow the cat to decompress? These are a few considerations. Make sure you ask the shelter all the questions you have and make sure you can meet those needs before committing. And, most importantly, make sure you know who to contact for medical emergencies. The rescue should provide you with a vet hospital to go to, but also a contact at the rescue who you should reach out to with any issues.
Don’t forget to ask the organization you’re working with if the foster cat is:
Up to date on vaccines
Treated for fleas
Tested for FIV/FeLV
If not, talk with the rescue to make sure there is a plan to get them done as soon as possible. Also, keep in mind that some foster cats will still need to be spayed or neutered and microchipped (some foster cats are too young or sick to be altered), so you’ll want to make sure that gets scheduled when the cat is ready.
Lastly, many shelters and rescue organizations will help get a foster cat to your residence if you don’t have transportation. Just make sure you ask if that’s an option before agreeing to foster.
Once you have your foster kitty, you’ll need to care for them regarding their needs, which can be very vast. The shelter or rescue will give you instructions on how to care for sick cats, or cats recovering from surgery. If you have kittens, you’ll want to make sure they’re well fed and get plenty of playtime. For shy cats, try to spend a lot of time just hanging with them and working to get them to come out of their shell.
Normal vs. Concerning Behavior
Any change, even a positive one, can be stressful for a cat. Do not be surprised if your foster cat is scared, hissing, or doesn’t want to be touched at first. That’s okay! They are just adjusting to all of the changes and new smells in your residence.
Keep these things in mind when getting a new foster (note: these do not apply to bottle babies):
Shutdown period. Your foster may not eat or use the box for 24 hours, with severe cases taking up to 48 hours. After that, there is a risk of liver disease, so make sure to keep the rescue in the loop on what’s going on and contact them if there is no food intake during the first 24 hours.
Housesoiling issues. Very nervous cats may be too terrified to leave their bed for the litter box for a day or two. These cats sometimes pee on themselves, in their beds, or on you. This usually improves after the first few days.
Difficulty eating. Some shy (not aggressive) or shutdown cats will eat more if you hand feed them chunks of wet food.
Kitty colds. Look out for illness, even in healthy cats. Changes in environment are stressful and can bring out viruses the cat has already been exposed to, but the cat could also have been exposed to a virus or bacteria before they came to your home. The most common illness you’ll see is an upper respiratory infection (URI) or cold, which commonly presents with sneezing and discharge from the nose and eyes. The majority of kitty colds have a latent and/or shedding period of about 10-14 days, which is another reason to quarantine your cat for 2 weeks before introducing them to resident cats. This way, if they are incubating a virus and contagious, you’ll keep the germs away from your resident cats. Treatment is determined by a vet. If it’s just a virus, the vet will likely suggest steaming up the bathroom, nasal drops, and fluids to help the kitty through it. If it’s suspected to be bacterial, a broad spectrum antibiotic is usually prescribed.
Urinary blockages. With male cats, straining in the box without any visible pee could indicate stress or blockage. A blockage is life-threatening without treatment. Reach out to your contact at the rescue or shelter immediately if you notice this.
Dehydration. Dehydration is extremely dangerous, especially for kittens. If you suspect your foster cat or kitten is dehydrated, reach out to the rescue ASAP. You can check for dehydration by tenting the skin on the back of the neck: Simply pinch and if it takes time to go back to flat, the cat might be dehydrated. You can also touch the gums (carefully!). If they feel tacky, the cat is dehydrated.
How to Build Trust
Step 1: Don’t try to touch, just spend time with your foster cat. Sit on the floor with your foster cat and read a book or play around on your phone. Don’t force any physical contact until the cat is giving you signals that they’re ready. You can also just talk to them in a quiet and calm tone so they get used to your voice. Avoid loud harsh noises. Don’t yell or laugh.
Step 2: Try to play using toys that create distance, like wand or automatic toys. Sometimes foster cats are scared of toys at first. If they were formerly strays or had hard lives, they may not even know what a toy is. Go slow and steady to build curiosity.
Step 3: Don’t be surprised if they’re fixated on your hands and feet – it’s very common. To keep yourself safe, wear closed toe shoes and keep your hands in your lap or behind your back. Instead of offering treats with your hand, put them down first. If you’re using a tube treat, squeeze some of it out and let the cat lick it off the ground, or you can even squirt a little on the top of their paw. During play, use objects like faucets and cabinet handles to dangle streamer toys over and take the focus off you.
Step 4: Use a wand to pet. Since hands can sometimes be scary for foster cats, you can use the wand part of the toy you’ve been using to gently pet the cat’s head. If they are scared of it, first put a little tube treat on the end and let them lick it off. Over time, they’ll become less fearful of the wand.
Step 5: Mix using the wand to pet with your hands. As the cat enjoys the wand pets, you should slowly be able to mix in short pets with your hand. Come in from above or behind the cat’s face so they can’t see your hand. The goal is to get them to enjoy touch and not have sight enter into it. If you can hold the wand at one static point on their head, it will make it easier to pet with the other hand.
Step 6: Graduate to only petting with your hands. You’ll know your foster cat is enjoying pets when they sit up straight and enjoy your pets, even nuzzling your hand. This is a confident body position, showing they trust you!
How to Introduce Foster Cats to Your Resident Cats
After you’re past the two-week quarantine, you may want to try to introduce resident cats to the foster cat. This can be useful in determining if the foster cat can go to a home with other pets.
Keep in mind, you’ll want to continue giving Bravecto Plus or Revolution year round to all cats in the household; make sure they’re up to date on vaccines; and consider testing for FIV/FeLV once a year (as a precaution).
The process of introducing a foster cat is the same as introducing a new cat to your home. If at any point there is a problem, just go to the previous step and try again.
Object scent swapping. Start swapping items like beds and scratchers so each cat can get used to the other cat’s smell.
Feed on opposite sides of the door. You’ll want to feed meals or treats on opposite sides of the door so the cat slowly associates the reward of food with the scent of the other cat.
Baby gates. Stack baby gates in the door frame and allow the cats to see each other. You can also put toys in the little holes of the gate, which can encourage the cats to play, or even give them each treats at the same time. If you don’t have baby gates, you can try putting the foster cat in a playpen and doing the same activities. Don’t get discouraged by mild hissing or growling. Cats commonly make those sounds around unfamiliar cats.
Supervised play & eating. After the cats are used to the baby gates, they are ready to be in the same room. If possible, have one person feed or play with one cat, and a different person interact with another. Try to keep a lot of distance and decrease distance over time. If there is an issue, then increase the distance.
More space. Next, allow the foster cat to have free roam of the entire residence. Feed them where you feed your other cats, but make sure the foster cat has their own specific spot where their food bowl always is (this will decrease the chances of resource guarding by your cats).
Unsupervised & coexisting. Once you’ve completed all of these steps without issue, your foster cat should be integrated into your home.
A few additional tips about this process:
Coexisting is okay. Some cats are very good at living together even though they don’t like each other. They will simply avoid interacting with one another and likely spend time on different spots of the bed, couch, or even in different rooms.
Keep in mind, there are some cats who just will not get along with other cats, even if you do all of the right things. Don’t feel discouraged if this happens. Some cats just like to live in homes with their humans and no other cats.
Spats are not uncommon, but you don’t want any super serious fights. A swat or hiss and a cat retreating is okay. Significant fights are not. If your cats can’t get along, put the foster cat back in the room where you originally had them.
NEVER get in between fighting cats. You will get bit. Toss a towel, dump water, make a loud sound – do whatever you can to disrupt the fight, but keep your physical body out of harm’s way.
If you are ever bit, seek medical attention. Cat bites often get infected and require antibiotics. This is very serious – don’t wait!
When your cat is ready to be adopted, the shelter or rescue will help you through the process. Some people fear that they can’t say goodbye, and in the beginning, it’s very hard, but you will get used to it over time. A forever home is always the goal and remember the more foster cats you adopt out, the more you can save! Thank you for fostering cats and saving lives.
Authors: Dr. Shafer & Elizabeth Italia, Cat Behaviorist
Dr. Morgan Shafer
Associate Veterinarian at Art City Vets
Cat Behaviorist, Liz’s Kitty Boot Camp