Nuts and Bolts of Fostering a Cat

Say you’ve decided to open your home and foster a shelter cat for a while. This period can be a weekend, a week, a couple weeks, a month, or longer, depending on how long you are willing to foster, if and when the fostered animal is adopted, or, if space had been an issue, space becomes available. I have only listed a few of the many factors here.

Before bringing home a foster cat (or dog, if you choose to do so), ensure that everyone in the household is on the same page. Introductions may go slowly, and this goes for resident pets too. Discuss with children that this new fur person may be scared when he or she is first brought to your home and must be handled respectfully. If you have not already done so, pet-proof your home.

NB: Each shelter and rescue group have their own rules and policies regarding their fostering process. Be sure that you are acquainted with these and ask questions if you are unclear about any part of these protocols.

What do you do once you bring your foster cat home? What do you need? First and foremost, you will need several crucial intangibles: love, compassion, patience, and time. These cannot be overstated enough. As a foster parent, you need to provide a safe and clean environment, and you may need to make some additional considerations for your individual foster cat’s needs. Second, you will need a few supplies to provide the best foster environment:

  1. Essentials. Food, water, and a clean litter box. Ask the shelter beforehand if the cat has any special needs that you need to know about, such as dietary considerations or medical conditions. It is important to know (or find out) if the cat has house manners and knows how to use a litter box without issues.
  2. Comfort. Add a cozy cat bed, a box to hide in, toys, and a scratching pad or post for enrichment. A window is a great way for cats to engage with their environment (look outside if they wish) or sunbathe. Note that some cats feel safer if up high while others feel that sense of security down low in a carefully chosen hiding spot, such as under the bed. If you know or learn early that your foster cat is stressed out, try using Feliway diffusers or collars to help them feel more at ease.
  3. Space. Changing from a shelter to a new home can be a jostling, bewildering experience for a cat, and it’s perfectly normal for a cat to hide when introduced to a new environment. A large space with lots of stimulation (new people, sights, sounds, smells, etc.) can be overwhelming and cause a cat to shut down. Keeping a cat in a smaller space, such as a guest room with the door shut, is less intimidating and less overwhelmed by fewer stimuli. This enables the cat to feel contained and safe. It’s important to remember that physical space is most important to cats; to dogs it is social place.
  4. Routine. Cats are creatures of habit and like predictability. Routine = security to cats. Feed, refresh water, and clean the litter box at the same time each day. Spend time to visit too.
  5. Quality Time. Take time to hang out with your foster cat. If your cat initially hides under the bed and doesn’t want to come out, don’t force it. Speak gently and be patient. Sit on the floor. Let the cat choose to come to you. Some cats may want to interact with you first via toys before letting you pet them. Others may be snuggle bugs whenever you visit. Cat personalities and behavior will vary widely.
  6. Play. Bringing toys out and enticing treats are excellent ways to build a positive relationship with your foster cat. Again, cats vary widely in their preferences. One may live to catch the red dot while another likes to bat around a rattling ball. These kinds of interactions allow the cat’s personality to shine through, which can help them get adopted.

Want more information? Check out Petfinder’s How to Be the Best Cat Foster Parent (a true life goal) and 8 Things I’ve Learned Fostering Cats from The Humane Society from Reader’s Digest for tips. Austin Pets Alive and the Cat Foster Care Manual are excellent resources that offer comprehensive and detailed information.