Foster pet parents give loving care

John Wonsowicz never knows what to expect when he gets home from work.

“It’s like a flophouse for animals here,” jokes his wife, Barb. Over the last six and a half years, the couple from Oakville, Ontario, have been foster parents to a succession of cats, kittens, puppies, rabbits, older dogs and even wild birds.

The parade started shortly after Barb retired from a career in television production. Yielding to her passion for animals, she volunteered at the local humane society and, six months later, was offered a job there.

“It’s pretty hard to walk out at the end of the day and not take somebody home with you if you have a house with an extra room,” she says.

Fostering can be a fulfilling exercise for returning snowbirds, notes John, since the need is greatest in the spring and summer, when the pets have their litters. And not only can people choose their hours for fostering, but also most shelters will supply the animal’s litter and food, adds Barb.

“It’s a wonderful deal for people who want to do something but don’t want to be tied down with animals full time.”

Programs across Canada
Perhaps that’s why foster p programs have sprung up like a patchwork quilt across Canada. It’s a classic win-win situation — the long-term responsibility for a pet is eliminated and you’re doing your bit for your community as local animal shelters operate the foster pet programs.

 “A home environment provides the tender loving care that makes all the difference for animals who’ve had a tough start,” says Andrea Harrison, community relations coordinator for the Ontario SPCA, Greater Toronto Area (GTA) branch.

Historically, animal shelters have focused on placing nursing mums and their litters. For instance, kittens or pups cannot receive the protective inoculations they need to live in a shelter until they’re weaned at six to eight weeks. Also, pups learn their main socialization skills at the age of seven to 12 weeks.

“If you give a puppy or kitten a good beginning,” says Barb Wonsowicz, “if you’re socializing them, you’re going to make them delightful pets for somebody.”

Today’s foster pet program focuses on animals that would benefit from the personal care and attention available in a home environment. The animal could be recovering from an operation, in need of some training and manners, or simply have spent a little too much time in an animal shelter.

In fact, Barbara Fellnermayer, manager of the Vancouver Animal Control Services, feels quite strongly about the latter saying, “The dogs who have been here longest are the first in line for foster care.” A four-legged version of the accounting principle, FIFO — first in, first out.

No formal qualifications
Occasionally, emergencies arise that take a little extra effort. Jessica Hunt, executive director of the Nova Scotia SPC, talks about seizing 46 dogs crammed into a small, filthy basement.

“We bathed the dogs four or five times to get rid of the urine smell,” she says.

Once the dogs were healthy, the priority became providing stability and care so that the animals could become adoptable. Fortunately, breeders from across the province, realizing the pups would need longer-term care and more training than the average person could provide, flooded the Dartmouth Centre with offers of assistance.

While there are no formal qualifications for becoming a foster pet parent, standards are reasonably uniform across the country. A screening interview identifies the motives for wanting to foster, the kind of facilities available to a visiting animal – such as a fenced yard or apartment – and the level of experience with animals a prospective foster parent can offer.

An understanding of and compassion for animals is critical. Fellnermayer says without hesitation, “The animals come first. We watch closely how the person and the animal interact on our playground. I have had to turn prospective foster parents away.”

When asked about the type of people who become foster parents, she answered, “We get everyone from young singles to older couples.”

Another drawing card for the program is it costs little, if anything, to be a foster pet parent. The shelters will pay for most pre-approved veterinarian bills and standard shots and antibiotics — even if the staff needs to raise the funds to pay the bills. It’s best to discuss this in advance, as it does vary from shelter to shelter. Some provide food and/or litter as well as leashes – some don’t.

The OSPCA’S Andrea Harrison, a foster parent herself, says, “I always buy my foster cats their own gourmet food, even though the Ontario SPCA provides a good quality cat food.” Animal lovers would understand.

Vancouver at forefront
The Vancouver Animal Control Services (VACS) is in the forefront of the foster pet field. It’s established a “no kill” policy and actively encourages foster parents to find permanent homes for their foster pets. Frequently, however, the “no kill” policy strains physical and financial resources.

 “We’re great fundraisers, but it takes a lot of time and effort for the staff and volunteers,” says Fellnermayer.

An unusual extra service offered by VACS is free training sessions for foster parents and pets by a local dog academy, Custom Canines. Foster parents are also encouraged to call the experts for advice.

According to Harrison and Fellnermayer, the biggest difficulty is the constant need to find new foster parents as many foster animals are subsequently adopted by their parents.

“There’s certainly never any pressure to take an animal that you’re fostering,” says Barb Wonsowicz. “The best foster parents are the ones who don’t have pets of their own. We know we can rely on them to take that extra litter when they’re not worried about their own animals.”

On the other hand, whatever length of time you’ve fostered a pet, you’ve ensured a better life for it – and you’ll likely have enjoyed the relationship in the process.

For further information
In some cases, finding agencies with fostering programs can be tricky. Since animal welfare and animal control fall under a hodgepodge of municipal and provincial legislation, there’s no single, national organization that looks after animals across Canada.

Your hometown may have a Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), a Humane Society, a city-run animal control service, private individuals or a combination of several. A call to a local veterinarian or the local library should put you on the right track.

A search on the Internet using keyword combinations such as ‘foster animal canada’ or ‘spca canada’ will turn up choices as diverse as Chilliwack, Windsor or Montreal.