Linda Jones is a longtime MSPCA Foster Care volunteer.
1. What’s involved with being a great foster care provider?
As a foster care provider, you are responsible for your fosters’ daily care such as feeding, exercising, medicating, socializing, grooming and basic manners training. You observe their behavior and temperament and maintain open communication with the shelter. Depending on age and health, daily care can be anywhere from a couple of hours to several hours. The nice part about fostering is that you can choose who you foster based on your time, schedule and the animals’ need.
2. What types of animals do you foster?
We started fostering cats and kittens only. About 10 years ago, we took on our first litter of puppies (6) and we were hooked. The last two years we have had puppies only.
3. How long have you been involved with foster care for the MSPCA?
We have been a foster family (and for us it takes the whole family!) for 13 years. I had worked as a veterinary technician for over 17 years, retiring when our 3 kids were born. I missed working with animals but wanted to be home with our kids. A friend who had adopted several cats from the MSPCA at Nevins Farm in Methuen recommended their fostering program. We checked it out, fostered our first cat in February 1998, and have been doing so ever since.
4. It sounds like a time-intensive undertaking. What challenges are unique to caring for very young animals?
The younger they are, the more care they need. If you’re bottle feeding a litter of puppies or kittens they need to be fed every couple of hours, burped, stimulated to go the bathroom when very young, kept clean and warm. As they get older, you work on weaning them, house or litter training, and of course socializing. They may need worming and medicating for upper respiratory infections, kennel cough or other illnesses. Sometimes, they need to return to the shelter for an exam, vaccination or illnesses, and of course there is always cleaning and laundry to do!
5. Why might an older animal need fostering?
We have never fostered an older animal, but an older animal may need fostering for treatment of a chronic problem or recuperation from surgery or an illness. Sometimes it may be to alleviate the stress of a shelter situation. When you have an animal that has lived in a home with a loving family for many years, the sudden change to shelter life can be very stressful.
6. How long do you typically keep each animal, and do you have more than one at a time?
We typically have fosters anywhere from 1 – 6 weeks, depending on their needs. Over the years we have had several that have been with us for as long as six months. When we began fostering, we would not foster from the end of May to the beginning of September. We have a place in New Hampshire and are there most weekends during that time. However, over the years that has changed and it’s not unusual for us to have fosters with us most weekends. The one exception is our one week vacation. We have on occasion returned fosters to the shelter for our vacation week and then taken them back when we returned home. We have had more than one at a time (i.e. kittens and puppies, or adding a single animal to a litter we had been fostering) but it hasn’t happened too often.
7. How many animals do you typically foster per year?
On average 15 – 20 per year. Some years we’ve had as many as 30 – 40 per year (several litters) and some years we’ve had as few as 10 (1 or 2 puppies or kittens at a time or long term fosters).
8. Foster care providers are some of the unsung heroes of shelter work. Why is the foster care program so important for shelters?
The shelter has an open admission policy, meaning no animal will be turned away. This means the shelter is a very busy place. Some animals they take in are not ready to be adopted out due to age, medical or behavioral issues. By placing them in a foster home it lessens the burden on the shelter staff and gives the animal the time, attention and individual care needed to prepare them for a loving home.
9. Do you have any pets of your own, and how are they involved with the foster care process?
We have 3 dogs (Winter, a 9 year old Golden Retriever; Capt. Jack Sparrow, a 7 year old German Shepherd; Paisley, a 1 year old Chihuahua) and 7 cats (ages 2 - 14 years old). They play an important role in the socialization of our fosters; as I said in the beginning, it takes the whole family! Winter is very maternal to our young fosters and teaches them how to play nicely. Jack usually oversees their playing, herding any wanderers back to the group and correcting any rough behavior. Paisley tends to be a little bossy and is slow accepting fosters, typically taking up to 2 weeks before she’ll interact with them. Her behavior with fosters gives us a good indication of what a foster will tolerate, and she has been very helpful in the evaluation of our behaviorally challenged foster puppies.
The cats also help in socialization, especially with puppies. Very young puppies get used to being around cats, and for older pups it gives us a chance to see how they will react to cats and helps us make recommendations about their placement in a home with cats.
10. Do you get attached to the animals you foster?
Of our 10 animals, 7 are foster failures (a foster failure is an animal that is placed in foster care and never leaves because it finds a special place in your heart), so yes you do get attached. It’s certainly easier to return a litter of 6 puppies that you’ve cleaned up after for 5 or 6 weeks – taking them out 8-10 times daily in snow, rain and mud than it is to return a single puppy you’ve been working one-on-one with for 2 months.
Each foster is different and you fall in love with them for different reasons, but we can’t keep them all. It wouldn’t be fair to the animals, and we wouldn’t be able to continue fostering. That doesn’t mean we haven’t cried returning a foster, but the shelter staff makes it so much easier for us because of the time and care they take in matching the animals with their forever homes, and it’s always great to hear they’ve been adopted!
11. Can you tell us about a memorable animal who came through your home?
There have been many over the years that stand out, but the one that will always have a special place in our hearts is Lefty. When we took Lefty, a Boston Terrier, he was 10 weeks old. He had been surrendered the shelter along with his parents and four siblings. They were all underweight, heavily parasitized, had respiratory problems and eye infections. By the time we took him he had been dewormed, his right eye had ruptured and been removed, and he was regurgitating his food every time he ate. He was diagnosed with Persistent Right Aortic Arch (PRAA), a congenital defect that constricts the esophagus at the heart base (also known as megaesophagus), a condition that would require open chest surgery to repair.
His care was intense. He had to be fed in an upright position with his neck elevated. He was fed a dog food gruel that he would lick off my fingers, a very tiny amount at a time. Feeding sessions lasted about an hour each, 5-6 times daily. If he ate too much or too fast, he would regurgitate it and we would have to start all over again. Despite all his medical problems, he has such a wonderful attitude, loving and playful. Needless to say, he spent a lot of time in my arms and we bonded quickly. We went to Angell Memorial for a surgical consultation and spent a month working on getting his weight up in preparation of his surgery.
His surgery was difficult, but he hung in there and was released 2 days later with medication for an ear infection, pneumonia, and a partially collapsed lung. I continued to feed him upright at first, gradually transitioning to an elevated dish (still gruel), then eating canned dog food from a bowl on the floor. He became more energetic with each passing day and continued to gain weight steadily but still fell asleep in my arms each night.
At the same time, the shelter was evaluating adoption applications looking for the perfect family to adopt him. When they choose a family we met with them at the shelter so they could meet Lefty and see for themselves just how special he was. They also came along to his follow-up appointment at Angell to meet his doctor and learn what care Lefty would need going forward.
Two months after we took him in, we returned to the shelter and gave him to his forever family. This wonderful family took him into their lives and hearts unconditionally, knowing that he was still recovering, still required special care and that complications could still arise at any time. It was a dream come true for us, but still left a hole in our hearts. His picture is on our refrigerator and I think of him often. Last we heard he was doing great, eating moistened dry dog food on his own and spreading his love.
12. What do you find most fulfilling about being involved with foster care?
It is very rewarding to know that the love, care and time we give to a foster animal provides the shelter with useful information that helps the shelter in placing them with their forever families. It’s also great to get feedback from the shelter when they hear from an adoptive family. Knowing they are loved and happy makes it all worth it.