Fostering a cat saves lives — and helps take the burden off of local animal shelters and rescue organizations. Like dogs, a lot of cats face homelessness. Getting these animals into a safe place can be challenging. According to Best Friends Animal Society, more than 86 million pet U.S. households have pet cats (Ameowzing!.) Unfortunately, there are still countless feral or stray cats out there. On top of that, every year heralds in kitten season – a time when rescues and shelters are bursting at the seams with newborn kittens in need of homes. If you’re ready to step up and give a kitten or cat in need some space on your sofa and in your heart, here’s everything you need to know about fostering a rescue cat.
Dusty, rescued by Bryan Keller from Kismet League for Animal Welfare (KLAW).
If you rent your home, check your lease to be sure you’re allowed to have a cat. If you have an existing pet, review the terms of the lease to confirm there isn’t a cap on the number of pets that can live in the residence — and be sure you’re not exceeding that number, even temporarily. If you’re part of any type of homeowner’s association, including condominiums and co-ops, check the by-laws to be sure you’re in compliance.
“Fostering is a commitment until the cat is adopted, and that can be anywhere from a few days to a longer period of time — like a year,” says Jennifer Van de Kieft, Esq., a certified feline training and behavior specialist, of Cat Advocate, LLC in Brooklyn, New York. “Kittens tend to get adopted faster than older cats, but during kitten season, even kittens may be in your home for several months,” she notes. Make sure you can commit for an unforeseeable amount of time before entering into a foster agreement.
According to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America, while three in 10 people in the U.S. are allergic to cats and dogs, cat allergies are twice as common. Be sure no one is allergic — and if anyone is, consult with a physician to find out their tolerance level. Some people can be around cats if they’re mildly allergic, while it can be untenable for those with severe allergies.
You’ll want to be sure that the organization through which you’re fostering is legitimate and won’t abandon you or the cat should your circumstances change through no fault of your own or if your foster falls ill. Find out if there is a formal contract and be sure that vet care is covered, should you not become a foster fail (more on that later). Ask if you’ll need to use a specific vet and determine how easily you can get your foster fur baby there.
Piper rescued by Carla Jones from the Hamilton SPCA in Ontario, Canada.
Not all rescues will have lengthy applications, but some will. However buttoned-up (or down!) the process is, be sure to have a few personal references at the ready to vouch for your character — and your love of cats.
Ro Delrose, a cat behavior consultant at imfelinefab.com in Chicago, Illinois, says, “Home prep is pretty similar to child-proofing. You want to make sure you don’t have anything precariously perched that could get knocked down and break or hurt a kitten (or cat).” He recommends removing anything that could be a choking or obstruction hazard. This includes items like yarn, hair ties, or a needle and thread. He also advises, “Make sure all houseplants are out of reach, whether toxic or non-toxic. Even non-toxic plants can cause stomach upset and present a choking hazard.” Van de Kieft urges foster parents to clear counters of food. “There are tons of human foods that are dangerous, such as avocado, garlic, and chocolate,” she says.
Hit your favorite online retailer or brick and mortar and get some supplies if the rescue doesn’t provide them. You’ll need bowls for wet and dry foods, bowls for water (Van de Kieft points to a study published on Royal Canin’s website that indicates that cats like multiple sources for drinking water) and multiple scratching surfaces. “Cats need to scratch and leave their scent when the mood strikes them,” says Delrose. Both suggest having vertical and horizontal scratching outlets, such as sisal rope and scratching posts. If you have room, a cat tree is ideal as it gives them a view, especially if you can place it by a window. If space isn’t an issue, opt for two litter boxes (that you should keep far from feeding sources, according to Van de Kieft). And TOYS! If you can afford multiple cat toys, do it. For one, small toys can get stuck under furniture, so you’ll want to be sure your foster cat always has access to a few play items.
Harley, rescued by Betsy Kramer Davidson from Huntington Bay Beach in New York.
You don’t want to (or need to give) your foster cat the run of your entire home. In fact, it’s best not to. Van de Kieft says, “Most cats are not confident enough to own your whole space initially.” She recommends starting with a small room, like a bathroom, to ensure they are friendly and won’t hide once you let them out. “From there, they can graduate to a bedroom. Once they are comfortable there, you can give them the opportunity to explore more areas,” she says. The bigger your space and the smaller (or more fearful) the cat, means they could hide in areas that are hard for humans to access — and you’ll miss out on precious time to interact with the cat. Delrose reminds foster parents of whatever space they initially select to “provide them with everything they need in that room — food, water, litter boxes, scratching surfaces, and vertical territory, like a cat tree.”
Unless you have a detailed history of the cat from the rescue organization you’re working with, you may not know much about your foster cat or kitten’s personality. Van de Kieft states, “Just like humans, each is different in terms of their comfort level with affection and touching. Socialized cats are more likely to be affectionate and may sleep with you.” However, those who aren’t well-socialized will need more time to warm up to you. If that’s the case, says Delrose, “Don’t lose hope! As your bond grows stronger, they will be more likely to seek out your love and attention; just don’t try to force it.” Van de Kieft concurs, “It’s important to let them come to you.”
We’ve all got that one friend whose cat wakes her up in the middle of the night for food. Broken sleep isn’t good for caregivers, and as a foster parent, you want to help the cat get on a schedule that will make it more adoptable for future owners. “Cats are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. [But] studies show that they can adapt to our schedules,” says Van de Kief. “Cats have small stomachs and require several meals throughout the day.” To avoid late-night demands from your foster, “I would give them a meal before you go to bed.” She also puts dry food out at night in a puzzle bowl to quell nocturnal cravings. If the problem persists, foster parents should consider an automatic feeder. “Set it for 15 minutes before the cat typically wakes you up. It’s exciting! A sound comes on and the food opens up.” And YOU get more precious zzz’s!
It’s important to provide your pet with playtime several times a day, from dedicated hiding spots in the form of low hidey holes or tunnels to an array of toys. “Cats need a lot of mental stimulation. They’re designed to spend much of their day hunting and foraging for food,” says Van de Kief. She recommends wand toys, battery-operated toys, and inanimate toys, like stuffed mice. While laser pointers are popular (and controversial) among cat lovers, they should be used in conjunction with a toy. “Cats need to feel like they’re successfully hunting something, so if they never catch anything, it can be frustrating,” she states. She encourages owners to strategically place toys near where they’re pointing the laser so they have something to “kill.”
Clarence Drohan rescued by Michele Drohan from Beth’s Furry Friends Feline Adoption Center in Port Washington, New York.
Slow, guarded introductions to any other pets in your home are key as it’s your job to keep the cat safe from harm. If you have a dog, it’s a good idea to have a behaviorist evaluate them to see what kind of prey drive they have. Van de Kieft recommends a 14-day quarantine period for any animals new to the home “to ensure no illnesses pop up.” If you already have a cat, Delrose counsels clients to keep cats physically separated initially and then begin with a scent swap. He then recommends feeding the cats on opposite sides of a closed door “so they can hear and smell one another but not see.” You can gradually move to feeding them with the door open, but only after you observe that the cats are not uncomfortable or aggressive. Later, move to supervised play. Delrose says, “As with territory, it’s important that the cats don’t feel the need to compete.” He further advises, “Do not let them be alone together until you are certain they are not going to fight.”
One of the biggest misconceptions that Delrose encounters regarding cats is that they don’t need much attention or care. He says, “Properly caring for your cuties takes just as much physical and emotional effort as any other pet, if not more. They are intelligent, emotional creatures who rely on us for everything.” He notes that cats need to be fed on a regular schedule, their litter boxes need to be scooped at least once a day, and, as noted above, they need lots of playtime.
Otis, rescued by Betsy Kramer Davidson from Bide-A-Wee in Eastport, New York
Be sure to keep your foster cat or kitten indoors at all times. While cats enjoy being outdoors, they risk getting into fights with other animals, contracting diseases, and getting run over by a car. You can bring the outdoors in by cracking a window (assuming it has a screen), purchasing cat grass, or even bringing in a branch with some leaves, so they can access another level of enrichment through different smells and textures. Van de Kieft’s cats love Paul Dinning’s videos for the sights and sounds of nature. Note that it is important that you and your family members create a protocol to keep the cat indoors when opening any exterior doors and windows. There is little sadder than hanging lost pet signs, trust us.
While agreeing to foster a cat or kitten helps rescues, you can help in an additional way. Share your foster cat on social media and reach out to your personal network and neighbors. Take photos and videos so people can see your foster cat in all his adorableness and get to know his personality. You can also post to local Facebook groups in your area. Remember, if you receive queries, you must direct a potential adopter to the rescue to vet all applicants, no matter how well you know the person expressing interest.
Meisha rescued by Carla Jones from the Hamilton SPCA in Ontario, Canada
Depending on the age and health of your foster cat, you may be required by the rescue to bring them to veterinary appointments. Unfortunately, vet appointments involve getting a cat into a carrier (HISS!!!!). Fosters can help make this process much less stressful for cats by introducing them to a cat carrier while in the apartment. This is another way you can help your foster become more adoptable. Van de Kieft says, “Studies show that cats that are carrier-trained show much less stress at vet visits.” She recommends leaving the carrier out — and open — as part of your foster’s daily environment and put “some cool stuff in there, like catnip if the cat likes that.” It can even, over time, become a hiding spot for the cat.
Some people “foster fail” at first sight, while others may realize over time that they have indelibly bonded with the cat. Guess what? That’s OKAY! It’s even encouraged, particularly with older cats who can have a harder time adjusting to yet another home. And don’t feel bad about denying someone else the pleasure of your awesome cat. There are millions of cats in need of a home across the U.S. You can continue to help your local shelters and rescues by sharing other adoptable cats to your social network.
What are your best tips for fostering a cat? Let us know here in the comments or on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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The Ulti-Mutt Guide for Rescue Pets and their Pawsome Pet Parents.