Questions to ask before you foster

Whether you've never fostered a pet before, or you're an experienced foster parent who is fostering for a new organization for the first time, it's important to ask questions before making a commitment to a pet. Every organization has their own rules and processes when it comes to their foster programs, and no one wants to get stuck in a situation that they aren't prepared for. 

If you aren't sure where to start, these questions are a great way to get to know more about a specific organization's program.

What costs are covered?

While many organizations cover most or all costs associated with fostering, it's not a universal guarantee. Organizations that are just getting started, are relatively small, or simply prioritize the use of funds in a different way may require foster homes to cover certain expenses.

Some orgs may ask you to purchase the supplies that you need, but reimburse you if you provide a receipt. You may need to seek approval prior to a purchase to get reimbursement, and you may not be able to get reimbursed for things that go beyond “basic” care or supplies. If this is the case, the organization should be able to provide a specific list of what is covered.

Unexpected expenses are never fun, so be sure that you know what to expect before you make a commitment! As long as the organization is a 501(c)3, anything that you purchase for your foster should be tax deductible, but it's always best to seek advice from a tax professional.

What is the time commitment?

How long can you expect to have your foster pet? Will you be expected to attend in-person adoption events, and if so, how often? If you are fostering a pet longterm, what is the protocol for ensuring that the pet is cared for should you need to go out of town or otherwise need help for a period of time?

Many shelters offer short term foster programs that allow you to take a pet home for a day, weekend, or week (and may allow you to expand that time period, should you want to do so). Other organizations may expect you to foster a pet until they are adopted, and may not be able to give you an exact timeframe for how long that might take.

You may be expected to attend adoption events in person, take your foster to vet appointments, or coordinate with another volunteer who can help with transportation if you are unable to get your foster somewhere yourself. Some tasks, like writing an adoption bio or posting to social media, may not require you to leave your home, but can be additional time commitments.

Adding a foster pet to your home will always require some level of extra work - you are adding another living being to your daily routine! Understanding just how much time you can expect to dedicate to everything that goes into fostering that pet will help you better decide whether a particular organization’s program is a good fit for you.

How do you apply to be a foster?

Nearly all organizations have some sort of application process and a contract that all fosters must sign. This might be a very short process, allowing you to take a pet home the same day; it could also be an extended process that includes an orientation and/or home visit, which may mean waiting a few weeks before you bring your first foster home.

You may want to ask to review the foster contract before committing to a pet. Typically, the main purpose of a foster contract is for the organization to retain legal right of ownership over the pet while the pet is in your care, but some organizations include clauses related to expenses and other expectations.

What if problem behaviors arise?

We don’t always know what a pet will be like in a home environment. Sometimes, once a pet has had time to settle in and become more comfortable in a home, we will see behavior changes - sometimes we like these changes, but sometimes we don’t.

If you’re struggling with a behavior, what resources will the organization provide, if any? Some organizations work with trainers in their community, have someone on staff who can help you navigate difficult behaviors, or can recommend media resources (like videos, webinars, articles, etc.) for you to review. Additionally, will the cost of these resources be covered?

What if there is an emergency?

If your foster pet suddenly falls ill or gets injured, who should you contact? Is there a specific emergency vet that you should take the pet to, and do you need approval to do so? Who is expected to cover the costs?

Emergencies tend to happen at the worst times, like holidays and the middle of the night. Knowing ahead of time what you should do will make things a little easier to handle.

What should you do if things aren’t working out?

Sometimes, a particular foster won’t be a good fit for your home. Maybe they aren’t a good match for your existing pets, they end up having additional medical needs that you are unable to accommodate, or something in your daily life changes and you simply don’t have time for an extra pet in your home.

If you need to find alternative accommodations for your foster, is there a shelter or facility that you can take them to, or will another foster need to be found? How long can you expect it to take? When it comes to foster-based rescues without a shelter or facility, it may take a few days (or even weeks) to find somewhere for the pet to go, so it's important to understand ahead of time what kind of notice you need to give the organization so that you can plan accordingly.

What is the adoption process?

Nearly all organizations require potential adopters to fill out an adoption application and contract. Some may also require that all members of the household meet the pet, introductions between the pet and existing pets in the household, a home visit, and/or vet or reference checks. Some organizations allow same day adoptions, others have a process that takes days or even weeks.

What role will you play in finding a forever family?

Some organizations encourage or even require foster families to participate in every step of the process, including attending meet and greets, choosing adoption candidates, interviewing adopters, and going through adoption paperwork with adopters. Other organizations have specific staff members or volunteers who take care of these tasks and may prefer that the foster not be involved in certain steps.

The organization should be able to provide you with detailed information on any process that you are expected to participate in. You may want to ask to review these processes to make sure that you are comfortable with them prior to committing to a foster.

What happens if you decide that you want to adopt your foster?

Some organizations encourage and celebrate "foster failures," but others do not allow their fosters to adopt because they want to keep those spots open for future pets in need. Many fall somewhere in between.

Organizations that allow fosters to adopt may require you to go through the same adoption process as any other potential adopter. Others may give you "first dibs" or have an abbreviated adoption process for fosters. Some may require you to foster for a set amount of time before you can make the adoption official.

Although rare, some organizations have time limits after which the pet will legally become yours, though will typically allow you to extend the foster period if necessary.

Special cases

If you are fostering a pet that has known health issues, behavior issues, or is considered hospice care, there are some additional questions that you should ask.

Medical cases

The organization should be able to provide you with all known medical history to this date. Has the pet already seen a vet and have a diagnosis? Do they already have a medical plan? Will they need to check in with a vet regularly, and if so, where is that vet? What is the pet's prognosis and/or timeline for healing?

Some medical cases may require at-home care like injections, IV fluids, or wound care. Make sure that you thoroughly understand and are comfortable with everything that you are expected to do.

Especially if the pet is in the early stages of their medical journey, there may be some grey area or questions that the organization can't answer. Only you can decide whether you are comfortable with playing things by ear.

Behavior cases

The organization should be able to provide you with a full behavior history and details on any training that the pet has already received. Has the pet been working with a trainer? What is the pet's behavior plan? Will you need to attend appointments with a trainer at another location or at your home?

Many organizations utilize fosters with previous behavior experience for their behavior cases and/or have specific behavior foster programs. This may include attending an extra orientation, working with an on-staff or partner trainer, or attending classes.

Hospice care

What kind of care does the pet need? Is the plan to simply make them comfortable with no further treatment, or is pursuing additional treatment an option, if available? Some hospice pets only have days, weeks, or months left, but some may defy expectations and stick around for a couple more years; it typically isn't possible to know for sure how long the pet has, but the organization may be able to give you some idea.

Hospice care for a sick or elderly pet can be incredibly rewarding for the right foster home, but it's always emotional. It's especially important to understand the process around making end-of-life decisions before you reach that point. If a euthanasia decision needs to be made, who has the final say? Is in-home euthanasia a possibility, or will you need to bring the pet into a facility? Will you be able to receive the pet's ashes, if you so wish?

It's okay if a particular shelter or rescue isn't for you!

No two foster programs are exactly the same, and it's okay to shop around until you find one that's right for you. You may consider starting with a short-term foster program, like an overnight or weekend foster, to get a feel for the organization before making a longer term commitment. If you foster a pet or two, then decide that it isn't the right fit, you can always try again with another program.

What questions did we miss? Tell us in the comments!

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