Spring 2009 Newsletter

Cover Story

From Behind the Baby Gate:
Notes of an Animal Foster Mom

By Janet Philippsen

On a recent trip to PetSmart one Saturday afternoon, I saw a rescue group showing their adoptable animals. Though I have companion animals of my own, I couldn't resist walking along the rows of wire cages to look at those adorable faces. On top of one of the cages was a sign that caught my attention. The sign read "Foster homes needed! All you need is a home and lots of love."

I have been a foster parent to abandoned, neglected, and homeless animals over the last 17 years. I know what it's like to take in a frightened animal who not only needs food and a bed, but also lots of love and reassurance. Sometimes a foster animal stays with me overnight and sometimes they stay more than a year. During their time with me, I nurture, love, care for, feed, cuddle, socialize and bond with these animals. Then, I give them up so they can go to their new forever home. Then I am asked to do it again and again and again. Being a foster parent is one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. But, it can also be one of the most emotionally draining experiences.

When I first started doing foster care, no one warned me that I might get attached to my fosters or find it difficult to give them up. Consequently, I ended up adopting my very first foster puppy. I immediately learned that if I were going to be able to continue fostering, I could not adopt all of them. Since my goal was to help as many as I could, I had to find a way not to get too "attached" to them. Even with all my years of experience, it can still be a very difficult task.

When I read a sign that states all you need is a home and lots of love to be a foster parent, I feel that it is only half the truth. We need to better prepare the first time foster parent for the emotional roller coaster ride they could encounter. Not every foster experience is traumatic, but even the successful, happy foster experiences can be emotionally draining. Rescue groups need to be cognizant of that emotional strain and provide support to their foster parents. In addition, they need to be clear to the first time foster parent about what life is really like as a foster parent.

Here are some tips to help facilitate a successful foster experience for both the rescue group and new foster parent:

Rescue Groups:

  • Check in with your foster parents often to get a sense of how they are doing. If they haven't been bringing their foster animals to the clinics lately, this could be a sign of someone who is emotionally drained.
  • When animals are adopted, be available to listen to the foster parent's concerns, especially if they've had the animal for a while.
  • Create an internal support system where foster parents support foster parents. Experienced foster parents know what it's like and can empathize with each other.
  • Ask your senior foster parents if they would be willing to mentor the new foster parent. When you get a new foster parent, assign him/her a mentor to answer their questions and teach them best practices for being a foster parent.

Foster Parents:

  • Does everyone in your family agree to you being a foster parent? To have a successful foster experience, everyone who lives in your home needs to agree about taking in a foster animal.
  • Do you have the time? You might not think taking in one more animal would take up much of your time but it can. This is especially true if you take in a mom and her litter.
  • Do you have the room? Sometimes it's necessary to keep the foster animal separate from your resident animals. Having a separate room available will allow things to go much more smoothly.
  • Reach out to other foster parents. You can not only share your stories, but offer tips and best practices. I remember when I decided to foster a momma dog and puppies after only fostering cats and kittens for years. I immediately figured out that I was in way over my head. The things I used on kittens did not work on puppies. Having another foster parent to talk to would have saved me a lot of time and effort.
  • Develop coping skills for the emotionally draining times. Know that everything you are feeling is normal.
  • Remember it is ok to say "No" once in a while. If necessary, take breaks between your foster animals. When you're ready, there always will be another animal needing a foster home.

Janet Philippsen lives in Albuquerque and shares her home with two dogs and three cats of her own and occasionally, a foster animal or two.

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