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Pet Talk: Fostering for thought

June 16, 2010

From College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University

Ever have a soft spot for that starry-eyed cat or dog behind the caged door at an animal shelter? But maybe you are not sure if you can take on the responsibilities that come with being a pet owner, for whatever reason, just yet? Fostering could be a good option that allows you to feed your personal wants while also keeping the best interest of the animal in mind.

Dr. M.A. Crist, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, said: “Many animals are fostered. Most are dogs, cats, puppies and kittens. Sometimes reptiles and pocket pets are fostered until a permanent home can be found.”

In the Brazos Valley area especially, there are many young adults and college students who are in a transition stage in their life because of school or other reasons. Because of this, some of us are more hesitant when it comes to making big decisions such as adopting a pet.

“Some young adults volunteer to foster an animal before adoption, especially if they provide volunteer work to a shelter or rescue organization,” Crist said. “Many young adults or college students who graciously provide their volunteer services do go on and adopt the animal they are providing fostering services for. I believe this could allow the foster parent time to ‘bond’ with the pet before making a lifetime commitment.”

Of course, there are also people who foster animals without the intention of adopting.

“If the relationship does not work out for a permanent home, then the pet was housed for some time period and had human contact until new owners could be found,” Crist said. “Pet fostering does allow some young people to enjoy the company of a pet but yet not have a lifetime commitment if they help find a permanent home for the foster pet.”

The process leading up to fostering a pet usually consists of filling out an application and maybe attending a short orientation session. Most shelters provide the food, crate and everything else to meet the specific needs of your animal. Some pets that need to be fostered also have special needs as a result of them being young, old or sick.

“Older pets come with an established character, whereas usually young pets are developing their character,” Crist said. “Older pets may have been abused in a previous environment, and need extra time and care to get acquainted with the foster parent and foster household. It is helpful to know the history of the foster pet, if possible, to provide the best care possible.”

When introducing a new pet into your home there are some things to always consider. Some animals are timid or anxious before they become fully adjusted, which can concern some new parents if they are unsure of this being a permanent personality trauma or problem.

“If the foster pet has not responded to the new foster home or parent within a timely period and is displaying unusual behavior or unacceptable behavior, then the foster pet needs to have a complete physical examination by their veterinarian,” Crist said. “The foster pet may need to be referred to a board-certified animal behaviorist for further treatment. Occasionally, the pet may need medications for their behavior, which can be prescribed by the animal behaviorist.

“The foster parent needs to decide if the foster pet is going to coincide with the existing household pet, or will they be kept separate until the foster pet gets a permanent home?” Crist continued. “Some things to consider is if the foster pet is young or old, and will it get along with the household pet? Also, does the household pet have a dominant or passive character, and will it get along with the foster pet? Introductions need to be made slowly, over a period of days to weeks. The trick with kitty harmony is to introduce the felines slowly.”

Take your new foster cat to your veterinarian for a complete physical examination for a healthy pet check. Have a prepared room with food, water bowls, a bed, and a litter box, which will be your new cat’s home until the two cats get used to one another. Do not put the food so close to the door in the beginning that the cats are too upset at each other’s presence to eat. Gradually move the food dishes to feed your resident kitty and your new cat on each side of the door to this room, and this will encourage them to get used to one another’s smells and eat calmly. Once this is accomplished, prop the door open enough just to allow the cats to see one another, and repeat the whole procedure.

It is good to switch out the sleeping bed or blankets between to have them get comfortable with one another’s scent. When the new cat is using the litter box and eating regularly, it is also good to let your new cat have some free time in the house while the resident cat is confined to the new cat’s room. This switch allows both cats to experience one another’s scents, and the new kitty to become familiar with its new house without being frightened. It is better to introduce your pets to one another gradually so that neither pet becomes frightened or aggressive.

“Do not force the cats to be together and do not allow interactions that are fearful or aggressive because if this is allowed, it can become habit and it is difficult to change,” Crist said. “Eventually, you can encourage them to play with a cat ‘fishing pole’ or cat toys on a string. Remember, a litter box for each cat plus one.

“Introducing a cat to a dog can be quite tricky as well,” Crist added. “Some dogs have such high prey drive that they should never be left alone with a cat. Usually, dogs want to chase and play with cats and they become defensive, afraid and sometimes injured or worse.”

Using the separate room technique as described above helps the introduction. Once the new cat and dog have explored one another’s scents and are comfortable eating on each side of the door, a controlled face-to-face meeting is allowed. The dog is placed on a leash, on a “down stay” on one side of the room and a person on the opposite side of the room will sit quietly next to the cat and offer food or catnip to keep the cat around them without physically restraining the cat. Repeat this with lots of short visits rather than long visits until the dog and cat are tolerating one another’s presence without fear or undesirable behavior.

The next step is to allow the cat to investigate the dog with the dog on a leash on a “down stay” and praising good behavior. It is best to keep the dog on a leash and with you whenever the cat is free in the house during the introduction phase. Allow the cat an escape route and hiding place, and always keep the dog and cat separated when you are not present until you are quite certain your cat will be safe.

“Be mindful that kittens are much smaller and can be easily injured or killed by a young, energetic dog,” said Crist, “or high-prey drive dog as well as our senior cats. Sometimes it is best to allow the kitten to become fully grown.”

At the end of the day, we want always to do what is best for the animal. Fostering an animal can help people decide if they have the time, energy or accommodations needed for a pet.

“The only negative would be if the young adult or college student over-commits themselves,” Crist said. “Sometimes the foster parent gets emotionally attached to the foster pet and it can be hard knowing they have to give up the pet at the end. For most, the foster parent is eager to find a great family who can make a lifelong commitment to the pet.”

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at http://tamunews.tamu.edu. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

From the June 16-22, 2010 issue

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