Is Cat Fostering Right for Me?

Becoming a foster provider to homeless cats or kittens can be rewarding and fulfilling, and may offer an ideal situation for families who are unwilling or unable to make a long-term commitment to a pet cat.

Many cat rescue groups see finding cat foster homes is a vital part of their work. Sometimes these groups, which rescue cats and kittens from high-kill shelters, don't actually own facilities or shelters. The foster homes become an important stepping stone from the time the cat or kittens are rescued until they can be permanently placed for adoption.

Before you decide to become a foster provider, it's a good idea to assess your situation and decide if fostering a cat is really right for you. If you have young children or dogs, or if you work long hours, you may not be able to provide a suitable home for some cats, and fostering a kitten may be nearly impossible. It helps if the whole family is committed to fostering, because each cat might be with you for several months. If you already have a cat, you should make sure its vaccinations are up to date, to guard against exposing it to infectious diseases. It may also be wise to quarantine incoming foster pets until their health can be adequately assessed and they can be tested for infectious diseases like feline leukemia.

Keep in mind that the cats coming to you may have been abandoned by previous owners or may have spent several weeks caged at a shelter. They may be frightened, stressed, or poorly nourished, and will need love and attention to help them become socialized. Some may need to be retrained in using a litter pan or may need to be coaxed to eat. You may also be called upon to administer medicine to a cat with a health problem, or care for an older, special-needs cat with diminished eyesight or mobility.

Before you decide to become a foster provider, find out which costs you will be asked to cover. Some rescue groups work only with people who can afford to "donate" the food and kitty litter used by the foster cat, while others will give you a monthly stipend. Most groups will reimburse you for the cost of any veterinary care that is needed.

In some cases, you may be asked to foster a mother cat with a litter of very young kittens. This is not as much effort as it may seem, because for the first month of the kittens' life, the mom will do most of the work, nursing and grooming her offspring. Kittens can generally be weaned at eight weeks and separated from their mother shortly after.

One of the greatest challenges is taking in unweaned or orphaned kittens. Not only are newborn kittens fragile and vulnerable, but they'll be depending on you to take the place of their missing mother. For the first two weeks, before kittens even open their eyes, they are completely helpless. You'll have to keep them very warm and feed them every two to three hours with a syringe and commercial kitten formula. Mother cats also stimulate the bodily functions of elimination in their kittens by licking the anus and urinary tract opening -- you'll have to replicate this function with a warm, wet terrycloth washcloth.

Fostering a cat comes not only with a time commitment and some amount of expense, but with the risk that you'll become attached to your foster charges and will feel sadness or a sense of loss when it's time to let them go. As each one is adopted out, it's key to remember that you provided a safe haven to a homeless cat that is now going on to a safe and permanent home.

If you're interested in opening your home to fostering cats, you can search online for cat rescue groups that need volunteers. You'll probably be asked to fill out a questionnaire and go through an interview (in person or on the phone); a home visit may also be required for the rescue group to determine your qualifications.

Photo: Ray Habens