Humane societies and shelters are often overwhelmed by the number of animals that come in. It’s pretty uncommon to see much (if any) empty space in most shelters, and overcapacity shelters lead to increased risk of disease transmission, outbreaks and suboptimal care of the animals that are there.
One way of helping deal with overcrowding is fostering animals to people’s homes for periods of time. Typically, foster homes take animals when shelters are at capacity, or take specific animals such as nursing cats, which are more difficult to care for properly in a shelter.
Most places have protocols for fostering, but they’re not always very comprehensive and they don’t always adequately cover some important areas. If you are thinking about fostering shelter animals, you need to think about the risks and whether you can manage them.
Are there people in the household that are at increased risk of infection?
Fostered animals should be assumed to be at higher risk of carrying and transmitting various infectious diseases. They can have high rates of carriage of various intestinal bacteria and parasites, along with a host of other microorganisms (e.g. ringworm). They may also be more likely to bite and scratch, not necessarily because they are aggressive, but often because they are young animals that may do so when playing. They may also be more likely to poop in the house.
Households with children under the age of 5, elderly individuals, pregnant women or people whose immune systems are compromised are at increased risk of various infections, both in terms of the likelihood of becoming infected and the likelihood of developing more severe disease. Households with these types of individuals should not foster animals. They are much better off having their own lower-risk pets.
Are there any "resident" pets in the household?
You might expect that someone willing to foster animals would also have their own pets, but that’s not always the case. Non-pet owners are actually ideal, since this negates any risk of diseases being spread from or to household pets that live there long-term. However, it’s more typical that foster homes also have such resident pets.
Are there any pets in the household that are at higher risk for infection?
As with people, there are some animals that are at increased risk of infection. These include the very young, very old, pregnant and pets with compromised immune systems. The latter group would include pets with chronic illnesses, those being treated with high doses of steroids for various diseases, animals with cancer, animals with diabetes, and a range of other issues. People owning a pet that fits into one of these categories should not foster animals because of the risk to their own pet.
How do you reduce the risks associated with fostering animals?
- May sure there are no high risk people or pets in the household.
- Make sure the shelter or organization knows what they are doing. Make sure they have a clear protocol that says who will be fostered and how it’s done.
- Look at the animal before you get it. Visit it at the shelter. See if it looks healthy. If you have any questions, make sure it’s examined by a vet before it reaches your home.
- Use good hygiene. Wash your hands regularly. Properly clean up feces and clean litterboxes regularly.
If you have pets of your own:
- Make sure they are vaccinated and on an appropriate parasite control program.
- Keep the new animal away from your pet at the start. That lets you find out more about the animal, and it gives you more time to see if there are potential infectious disease concerns.
- Do a controlled introduction of the new animal. Slow, supervised introduction of the animals can reduce the risk of bites or scratches.
Fostering is a good way to reduce pressures on humane societies and shelters, and to provide better care for some animals, like pregnant animals or those with young kittens/puppies. A good fostering program can be set up with limited risk to all involved, but infectious disease risks can never be completely eliminated. By accepting a new animal into your house, you increase the risk of exposing yourself and anyone else (human or animal) to infectious diseases. That’s just a fact of life.