Making Your Money Last

Fostering a Pet Brings Challenges and Rewards

Seniors and retirees who provide temporary homes for dogs and cats serve a critical role in the shelter system.

Sue Warne always had dogs as pets. Three years ago, Warne and her husband, Don Squires, took their love of canines to the next level when they began fostering dogs from a local animal protection organization. "I get the satisfaction of seeing a dog recover from whatever the problem is and go to a new home," says Warne, a Boston book editor in her sixties who works from home.

Warne and Squires have cared for a wide range of dogs, including pit bulls, beagles, Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas and a German shepherd. They take one dog at a time, usually for a month. Their own dog, Lilly, a flat-coated retriever, helps the foster dogs get acclimated.

Fostering dogs and cats is a growing volunteer activity among seniors and retirees. They have the time to give foster animals the attention they need without making a years-long commitment. "Seniors and retirees are a critical piece of the puzzle for shelters," says Kirsten Theisen, director of pet care issues at the Humane Society of the United States, in Washington, D.C.

Foster "parents" provide temporary homes for animals who have been abused or neglected or whose owners can no longer care for them. They prepare pets for permanent homes. Dogs, in particular, need to "experience the kinds of things they will be exposed to when adopted," Warne says. "They need to experience everyday life, ride in a car or be walked downtown."

The biggest reason that dogs wind up in shelters is because their owners are moving to a new home that doesn't allow dogs, such as an assisted-living facility, says Rob Halpin, spokesman for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in Boston. Halpin says his group places more than 2,000 pets in foster homes each year, including Warne's foster animals.

Halpin's group provides behavior consultants if the animal is having a problem adjusting to a foster home. "A puppy comes with its own set of challenges. If you're worrying about your furniture, you shouldn't foster a dog," he says. The animals are screened by shelters before being placed and are removed if there's a problem, which rarely happens, Halpin says.

It's often easier to place kittens or cats than dogs in foster homes, because they require less energy, says Gail Buchwald, senior vice-president of the ASPCA Adoption Center. Some older individuals "are interested in caring for older, sickly cats, especially if they have had an older cat with medical issues," she says.

Saving More Than Nine Lives

Kerry Anderschott, 66, of South Tampa, Fla., a retired systems engineer for Verizon, has five cats of her own and has been caring for foster kittens for five years. The felines, who come from her local Humane Society, usually spend eight weeks with her, until they reach two pounds and are ready for adoption. "I love knowing that I am helping these animals instead of sending them to the shelter where they will be put down," Anderschott says.

Lisa Knight, the foster organizer for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay where Anderschott gets her foster kittens, says many foster pets develop upper respiratory illnesses, which makes caring for them more difficult. "It's a huge investment in time," Knight says.

A foster assignment usually lasts between one and three months. The animal shelter will investigate your living arrangements and check your references before you sign an agreement to care for the animal. Volunteers typically go through an orientation before they can bring an animal home.

Ask about any costs: The Massachusetts group provides food and medical care with no charge to the volunteer. Also find out about any extra care you must provide if you have a "special needs" animal. If you're interested in taking care of a foster pet, contact your local Humane Society chapter.

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