Dog and Foster Dog

Q. I am interested in fostering for a local rescue group. What risks does having foster dogs present to my own dog’s health?

A. Fostering is one of the most generous things any pet lover can do. Many rescue groups have no shelter facilities and little to no access to boarding, and they rely on their fostering volunteers to make their important work possible. Even municipal and nonprofit shelters often have pets who need a little TLC, including kittens who need to be bottle-raised and old, shy, sick or just plain fragile pets who wouldn’t survive the stress of traditional kenneling.

And foster homes do much, much more than simply house these pets. They are also key to evaluating the animals’ ability to adjust to normal family life, as well as socializing these pets and providing them with basic training, such as house training and leash manners. Foster homes not only save lives, they also make many animals more likely to be re-homed successfully.

Is it any wonder that I think people who foster homeless pets are heroes? You can’t personally adopt them all, but when you foster, you can truly help get many more pets into the forever homes they deserve.

Assessing Your Abilities

Not everyone is in a position to foster. Some don’t have the time or the money (typically fosters pay for the food their guest pets eat, but the rescue group or shelter pays for veterinary costs). Some don’t have the room, especially if they’ve adopted a previous foster pet — or two or three or more (this so-called foster fail is one reason groups struggle to get and keep enough foster homes). And some people just burn out after dealing with a steady stream of pets who may have health or behavior problems.

Existing pets aren’t always accepting of fosters, either. As you weigh the decision to foster a dog, you can choose how much extra stress you want to take on; your pets, on the other hand, cannot, and they're relying on you to remember this. If you have a pet who doesn’t deal well with change, is aggressive toward or frightened of other animals (especially on his home turf), or is sick or fragile, you might want to pass on fostering and contribute in other ways.

Weighing the Risks

Even if your pet enjoys company, there are some risks to bringing another dog into your home. The chances of infectious disease will be minimized if you work with a shelter or rescue group that sticks to effective protocols, making sure incoming pets are given health screenings and have current vaccinations. Keeping your own pet healthy and insisting on fostering only pets with known health status — so you can evaluate and minimize risk — will go a long way to protecting your pet from illness.

The biggest risk to your dog will likely be “kennel cough,” which he could catch from a dog who’s asymptomatic on arrival but who breaks out with the illness later. The best protection is to make sure your own dog is kept current on this particular vaccine and on all others, as your own veterinarian recommends. Before bringing any foster dog into your home, it's a good idea to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to make sure your dog is healthy and current on appropriate parasite preventives as well.

Not all health issues put your pet at risk, of course. For example, there's essentially no danger to your pet if you're fostering a dog recovering from a heartworm infection or an accident such as being hit by a car. If you are fostering an animal with an illness that does present a risk, be sure to work with your veterinarian for the health of all animals and people concerned.

Other potential problems are bites and physical injuries. Again, if you know (or strongly suspect) that your dog is going to react aggressively or defensively to another dog in the house, you probably shouldn’t be fostering. Experienced fosterers assume there’s always a possibility of a dog fight, and they manage the environment to reduce fight triggers (such as one dog with a toy or treat the other wants). They also know how to stop a fight safely, with as little injury to dogs and people as possible. Remember, too, that even well-meaning dogs can hurt one another, as can happen when playful dogs are mismatched in size or age.

I’m not trying to put you off fostering, believe me! But I do want you to go into it fully informed and properly equipped for the challenge, so you can better enjoy the heartwarming benefits. My motto is always “Lose the risk, and keep the pet.” In this case, I’d change it just a little: “Lose the risk, and keep fostering pets!”