Before March 2020 it had never occurred to me to foster a cat. It seemed complicated, and I was certain I’d get too attached to say goodbye. But then we had to make the heart-wrenching decision to put Lulu down, and the very next day the WHO declared a global pandemic. The apartment felt so empty without her, which was especially painful because we were spending so much time there.
I’d been running past a sign advertising fostered cats for adoption with a local rescue, which got me thinking. I also started following Kitten Lady on Instagram. Then one of my colleagues suggested that people consider fostering during the pandemic.
So I did.
In my quest for information, I accidentally applied to foster a cat named Chesterton through Mother Gaia Animal Rescue, the one I’d seen on the sign. He was pending adoption, but another cat had just arrived after spending days in a tree, hiding from coyotes.
The next thing I knew, I was picking up a feral tomcat who hadn’t been neutered. We called him Yeti because he was a snowshoe mix and I was drinking out of a Yeti tumbler at the time. Yeti was with us for over two months and underwent a total transformation; a year later and we’re on our ninth foster cat. I’m now an advocate for fostering cats and credit it with keeping me on the edge of sanity during an unpredictable year.
I wrote this guide to help inform other people who are thinking about fostering cats. While I can only speak specifically to my experience, I’m hopeful that it will help you get a better understanding of what it’s like to foster a cat, and why it’s such an important part of animal rescue.
Foster a cat, save a life
Going into this, I wanted to work with a rescue that only took in local animals and worked with no-kill shelters. Then I saw this video on why Kitten Lady supports kill shelters and realized I was misguided.
Kill shelters typically cannot turn animals away, nor do they have the resources to support the influx of animals that come in (spay and neuter your pets, people!), which is what leads to animals being euthanized. No-kill shelters can say no to new intakes when they hit capacity. A no-kill shelter isn’t morally better than a kill shelter—they have more resources and are funded differently.
I foster for a rescue that works closely with a ‘kill’ shelter in Amarillo, Texas. The rescue ‘tags’ cats and dogs from the shelter to save them from being euthanized. This basically means that they’re guaranteeing the animal has a place to go. The tagged animals get loaded onto a transport van and driven to Colorado, along with animals destined for other rescue organizations.
These shelter pets are often in rough shape and in need of special medical attention. The ones who need the most help are often at the highest risk for euthanasia because the shelters just cannot dedicate the time and money it takes to get them healthy. In some cases, a rescue can only tag an animal if they have a guaranteed foster home waiting for them.
That’s where you come in as a cat foster parent!
Your role as a cat foster parent
As a foster, you are the key to a smooth transition to adoption. Rescue cats come from a multitude of backgrounds: shelters, cat colonies, other rescues, owner surrenders, hoarding situations, the street, anywhere. A foster home is a safe place to land for these cats, where they can decompress with regular meals, medical care, and love.
Foster cats can also come to you anywhere on the health spectrum. Across our eight cats, we’ve had two cases of ringworm, four upper respiratory infections, two flea-ridden kittens, one UTI, and more diarrhea than I care to revisit. Our first foster wasn’t neutered, and my biggest concern was that he’d spray everywhere. He didn’t spray at all, and as it turns out I should have been more concerned with his love for scratching up our headboard.
Foster cat personality assessment
One of my favorite things about fostering a new cat is getting to know their personalities. Is the cat playful and interested in people? Or does she prefer to sit on top of the cabinets, observing before she is comfortable? Is he a lap cat or more standoffish? Learning these personality traits will help you write an accurate, compelling profile for your foster cat, so they can find the right fit in an adopter.
People often come looking for a specific ‘type’ of cat, and while you can’t always be certain how a cat will behave in their new adoptive home, you can get a pretty good idea through fostering.
Foster cat health assessment
Most of our foster cats have arrived looking worse for wear, especially the ones who have made the trek from Texas. It’s incredible to watch them thrive as they adjust and get the medical care they need. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected—cats and kittens may look healthy, but turn out to have an underlying illness. New foster cats should be quarantined from your other pets while you observe them and get veterinary care. During this period I’d also suggest keeping them away from toys that can’t be thrown out or thoroughly washed.
We had one kitten, Damon, who was getting treated for a mysterious squinty eye. He also had weird scabs on his body, but otherwise seemed healthy and happy. Turns out the eye was fine—a side effect of herpesvirus, very common in shelter cats—but the scabs were ringworm.
Ringworm is a fungal infection that traditionally shows up as round, hairless lesions. It’s also zoonotic, which means it can pass between animals and humans. It can live in the environment for up to 18 months and is highly contagious. If Damon had been diagnosed with ringworm in the shelter, there’s a good chance he would have been put down. While it’s not harmful, ringworm treatment is pretty labor-intensive and requires diligent cleaning of the area.
We had to bathe him with medicated shampoo and apply lime sulfur twice a week for eight weeks, all while furiously disinfecting the apartment. It was a lot, but Damon recovered well, found an amazing home, and remains one of my favorite foster cats.
Shelter life is very stressful for a cat, and can be hard on their immune system. Fostering gives them time and space to get vet-checked and vaccinated, so they can recover and get ready for a new, permanent home.
I’ve been lucky, and none of our foster cats have had life-threatening illnesses. However, this is a part of fostering cats that you may face, as a cat may be diagnosed with a dangerous condition while in your care.
Foster cat home assessment
We live in a two-bedroom apartment with no children or pets, so we often foster cats who need to be the only pet in a home or who need special attention. You can foster a cat if you have kids or other pets! It’s up to us fosters to determine if a cat will do well with other cats, dogs, or children. If we don’t have background information on an animal, we look for clues in the animal’s personality to gauge what will be a good fit.
A cat’s behavioral tendencies also inform the questions I ask potential adopters—do they mind if he is especially vocal? Chews on plants? Scratches furniture? Jumps on counters? Sleeps on your pillow? Some of these things might be a dealbreaker, so your observations will frame expectations for the adopter and help you weed out applications that aren’t a good fit.
Time and cost to foster a cat
Fostering a cat with a 501(c)(3) organization is considered volunteer work. You’re putting your hand up to care for this animal, which will certainly involve your time and may come with associated costs.
How long do you foster a cat?
This was one of my first questions when we got started, and there isn’t a clear answer. In my experience, we foster a cat until they are adopted. The shortest was Tao, who was with us for two weeks, and the longest was Damon, who was with us for over three months.
Cats with health issues (like ringworm) or special needs may spend more time in a foster home than young, healthy kittens. I’ve also seen the difference a good set of photos and a detailed online profile can make in a speedy adoption (more on that later).
How much of my time will it take to foster a cat?
A foster cat will take just as much time as any pet, perhaps more. You’ll need to take them to vet visits, keep their litter box clean, play with them, feed them, and administer/log any required medications. You may also need to bathe them, brush them, clean their ears, trim their nails, or clean them up after an accident in the carrier. Fostering cats can get messy!
It also takes time to review applications, file paperwork, and arrange adoptions, depending on how involved you are with the process. When we started, the rescue sifted through all of the applications and only passed me the good ones. If I liked the application, the rescue did the vet checks and home checks, so all I had to do was set up the meet and greet (done virtually during the pandemic).
As I learned more about the process, I started reviewing the applications, doing vet checks, (virtual) home checks, and meet and greets. These administrative tasks can take up a couple of hours once a good application comes through, but I like being involved from the start. It gives me more confidence that I’m choosing the right home for our foster cats.
What does it cost to foster a cat?
The rescue typically covers costs associated with vet visits, medication, and other treatments. They may also be able to pass on donated food, litter, toys, or other supplies. However, we sometimes pay out of pocket for food and litter to ensure consistency. It’s not always possible to get the same type of food from donations, and it can mess with a cat’s stomach to switch up their food all the time. I also prefer a specific type of litter (Dr. Elsey’s), and it’s worth it to me to pay for that since I’m the one cleaning the litter!
For reference, we fostered cats for nine months in 2020 and spent approximately $800 on food, litter, and supplies. Expenses associated with volunteer work can be tax deductible but we took the standard deduction so fostering costs didn’t end up reducing our taxable income.
Getting started with cat fostering
Consider the ups and downs
I have been a cat person my whole life, so I knew that whatever happened, I was willing to go out on a limb for a foster cat. With that said, I was definitely not prepared for everything that came with cat fostering.
Why foster a cat
- You get to have a cat!
- Cat cuddles
- Cat toe beans
- Cat blep
- Tiny noses
- Cute sleeping positions
- They are hilarious
- Seeing a cat go from scared and shy to healthy and confident is so, so rewarding
- Finding a cat a permanent home and knowing you played a part is so, so rewarding
- You get to have a cat without a lifetime commitment, great for someone like me who moves around a lot
The challenges of fostering a cat
- Your heart will hurt when you say goodbye, it’s just part of the deal
- The kitty may be sick and it’s hard to watch – some may even have fatal illnesses
- You may have to do hard things, like give medicine and baths to a very resistant cat
- The cat may be very sheddy
- The cat may pee on your bed
- The cat may scratch up your furniture
- The cat may prance on your counters
- The cat may lie on your keyboard when you’re trying to work
- The cat may show its butt to your whole company on a Zoom call
- The cat may be very vocal at 4am
- The cat may stomp on your throat at 4am because he wants to tell you hello
- The cat may arrive covered in fleas and poo
- The cat may leap on your back while you are cooking dinner which is very unexpected and results in curse words
You get the picture. It’s not all snuggles and purrs, but the upsides manage to make up for the downsides.
Research local shelters and rescues
When I became interested in fostering, I sat down and started Googling how to foster a cat near me. I looked at local shelters, humane societies, and rescue organizations. Most required exclusivity, so you can’t sign up to foster with multiple organizations. I reached out to a few different places to request information, and tried to find reviews for each place.
In the end, I went with Mother Gaia because it was close and somewhat familiar, though I didn’t have a clear picture of what I was getting into. No regrets!
Paperwork and background checks
I filled out an application to foster a cat, since I couldn’t find information on how to become a foster in general. The questions were similar to an adoption application: why do you want to foster, describe your experience with cats, etc. Before I could foster Yeti, I also needed to sign a foster contract and do a home check. Normally this is done in person, but since it was the beginning of the pandemic I submitted a video instead.
Some organizations may do more rigorous vetting and training for prospective cat fosters, and some may do less.
Preparing your home before you foster a cat
We had basic supplies from Lulu: a cat carrier, litter box, food dishes, a small bed, and a brush. The rescue also gave us some donated food and toys. It doesn’t hurt to ask the organization if they have extra supplies for you!
Basic cat supplies
- Cat carrier (hard-sided for easier cleaning/disinfecting)
- Litter box
- Litter (I like Dr. Elsey’s)
- 3 x ceramic dishes for food and water (preferably raised)
- Nail clippers
- Towels and blankets
- Scratching post and/or pad
- Wand toy
- Catnip mice (all our foster cats have gone crazy for these)
- Cat bed
We inherited a small cat tree from a previous owner, but I’d love to have a big cat tree! However, it’s good that we didn’t have one from the beginning because they can trap ringworm spores and we would have had to throw it away.
Of course, a cat may reject all of these amenities in favor of a discarded box from your latest Amazon delivery.
Cat-proof your home
It wasn’t until we fostered a set of kittens that I realized how hazardous our apartment was, but I should have cat-proofed it even for Yeti. Here are just a few things I’d recommend to get started:
- Tie up any loose cords, like the ones hanging from your blinds
- Unplug electrical cords overnight if the cat is in the room
- Put away toys with strings, ribbons, feathers, overnight so the cat doesn’t get tangled
- Avoid leaving bags, bras, masks, hanging from doorknobs
- Get rid of toxic plants like lilies, tulips, and poinsettias
- Block off tight spaces: next to the fridge, behind the washing machine
- Put away anything that a cat could swallow: hair tie, rubber band, string, floss
Some of these things may seem like unlikely hazards, but I’ve been surprised at what the foster cats get into. Damon ran open-mouthed into the TV antenna and nearly choked himself when it went straight to his throat. He was fine, but it could have gone badly. I never would have thought to tuck away the antenna, but I do now.
Bringing home your foster cat
So you’re all set up to foster through a rescue or shelter. Your home is cat-ready, and so are you. Now how do you get your cat?
Matching with a foster cat
The foster cat (or cats!) you get can depend on the organization’s needs, your environment, and your level of experience. We often get cats who are scared, need special medical attention, or don’t like children or other animals because we can provide a the right type of environment for them. But sometimes we just get whichever cat needs a home next!
You may apply to foster a specific cat or it could be a lucky dip, based on how the rescue does things.
Introducing your foster cat to your space
When you foster a cat, start them in a small, safe space. We keep the litter box, food, and water in the spare bathroom, and that’s where I tend to let the cat out of their carrier for the first time. It’s a scary experience for many foster cats, who have come from an overcrowded shelter, traveled from Texas, and landed in Colorado. Be patient and calm, and let the cat set the pace.
A cat’s instinct is to find a place to hide; ours often go behind the toilet, under the couch, or on top of the fridge. Start them in the small room and sit with them in there, so they learn to trust you. It can take time—Yeti spent FOUR WEEKS in the bathroom, mostly hiding behind the shower curtain. Then one day he came marching out and joined on the couch. We were shocked, but he was nonplussed.
If you have other pets, introduce them to your foster cat gradually (if at all) and remember the quarantine period!
Socialize your foster cat
A foster cat may have lots of experience with people, or none at all. Part of your role as a cat foster parent is to help them socialize, so they’re ready to be adopted. This will take time and patience as the cat learns to trust you and the environment.
Regular playtime is good for your cat’s mental and physical health, so set aside time each day to play! Some cats are learning to play with toys for the first time, while others take to it instantly. One cat’s wand is another cat’s garbage, so try a variety of toys until you hit on something that appeals to your foster cat.
Monitoring your foster cat’s progress
Keep an eye on your foster cat’s behavior, eating habits, and litter box usage. Cats are experts at concealing illnesses, and you are the in-house detective. Aim for consistency whenever possible, and avoid changing up their food or litter unless directed by a veterinarian. If you’re fostering kittens, be prepared to weigh them daily. Even small fluctuations can have serious implications for a kitten’s health.
If I have concerns about a foster cat’s health or behavior, I always touch base with the rescue to see if I should make an appointment with the vet. Cat and kitten vomiting or diarrhea can be attributed to a huge range of causes, so it helps if you can give a detailed report on the foster cat’s eating, drinking, and litter habits.
I’ve definitely been that creeper who watches kittens use the litter box through a crack in the door to see how solid their poop is—it’s alarming how quickly you get invested in things like that.
Although we’re supposed to get confirmation from the rescue before taking a foster cat to the vet, if it was an emergency and I couldn’t get in touch with someone I wouldn’t hesitate to take them in. Fortunately that hasn’t been an issue.
Finding a forever home for your foster cat
With Mother Gaia, I’m very involved with finding a home for our foster cats. That may not be the case for every shelter or rescue, but hopefully the information in this section will still be helpful.
My philosophy on adopting out a foster cat is to wait until we have a good fit. Once I’ve bonded with a cat and seen their personality, my goal is to match them with a great adopter, not the first one that comes along. I’m a ‘love the one you’re with’ kind of foster parent, and my main concern is for the cat that’s in our home at the time.
Some fosters are focused on quantity, and a faster adoption means more cats saved. I prefer to focus on one cat at a time. If I thought about all of the cats out there who needed homes, I’d crumble. For me, it’s better to get each cat into the right home, which also reduces the chances that they’ll be rehomed in the future.
Your foster cat’s profile
In most cases, a cat’s online profile is their ticket to adoption. Do your foster cat a favor and spend some time on making it great! You don’t have to be a professional photographer, but try to get a picture of the cat in natural light, both a headshot and full body. I follow I Am The Cat Photographer on Instagram for inspiration and tips.
Be honest but positive in your description. If a cat needs to be the only cat in a home, try spinning it as ‘she’ll do best as the only pet’ as opposed to ‘she hates other animals and will pee on your bed’ even if it’s true. You can (and should) go into behavioral details during the meet and greet, but frame the cat’s personality in the description.
We had a kitten named Paco who wasn’t getting many applications, even though he was one of the most fun fosters we’d ever had. I tweaked his description to add details about his backstory and how far he’d come, that he was like a Labrador in a kitten’s body, and used wand toys as jousting sticks. All of a sudden he started getting great applications, and is now in his forever home getting on famously with his new cat brother.
The more descriptive and personalized the profile, the better chance your foster cat has of finding an adopter that’s a good fit. Potential adopters connect with the details and the photo, so give the cat a chance to shine.
I created an Instagram account specifically for my foster cats, and it was integral in getting some of them adopted. Instagram stories can say so much more than a static online profile!
Something else to note: most of our fosters have come with a name and we just stick with it, but occasionally we have to give them a temporary name. Because Yeti’s name started with a Y, he was way at the bottom of the rescue’s available animals page. It’s just a theory, but next time I’d look for a name starting with A, just to give him more of an advantage by appearing at the top of the website.
Reviewing applications when you foster a cat
Each organization will have its own application form, with different questions. The form I use asks a range of questions, including but not limited to:
- Name, age, profession of people in the household
- Why do you want to adopt a cat?
- What would a typical day be like for a cat in your home?
- How do you feel about cats on counters?
- What would you do if your cat was peeing inappropriately or scratching the furniture?
- List all current or previous pets in the home, age, reason they are no longer with you
All of these questions give me insight into an adopter and help tremendously in deciding whether or not to move to the next stage. For example, our most recent cat was a huge fan of jumping on the counters, whether I liked it or not. If someone said they wouldn’t tolerate cats on the counters, they were out of the running.
I’m also looking for detail in an adoption application. The more information the better! I love it when a potential adopter refers to the cat by name in the application, because it shows me that they felt a connection with that particular cat, and are not just applying on a whim. I almost always pass over applications full of one-word answers.
Ultimately, I rely on instinct when reviewing an application. Some applications just jump off the page, while others fall flat. I can tell when I’m trying to force something, and if an application gives me an uneasy feeling it’s better to decline.
If I like an application, I reach out and let the adopter know that we’re progressing their application to the next stage.
Our rescue does vet checks and home checks to approve an application for meet and greet. As the cat foster parent, you may or may not be the one doing these checks.
I usually call the veterinary clinic listed on the application, introduce myself, and let them know one of their clients has applied to adopt an animal with the rescue. So far I haven’t needed to talk directly to the vet, as the person answering the phone has been able to answer my questions.
Here’s what I ask:
- Can you confirm that X is a client with you?
- How long have they been a client?
- Could you please let me know which animals you see/saw for them?
- Confirm that the pets are spayed/neutered/up to date with vaccines
- Do you see the pet(s) for regular check-ups?
- Has this client had any animals euthanized?
- Can you tell me your personal opinion of them as pet owners?
- Do you have any reservations or general comments (good or bad) about the client?
If the application mentions any previous pets or medical issues, I want to make sure that lines up with what the vet says. I’ve heard stories of the potential adopters saying an animal was put down for a reason that turned out to be false—a definite rejection.
If a client doesn’t have a recent or current veterinarian listed, I proceed with caution. This may be their first pet, or they may be new to the area. It’s better to have a vet check, but if the rest of the application is strong then it’s not a barrier to adoption.
A home check gives us an idea of the cat’s potential environment and if there are any red flags. I do all of these virtually and ask for a video showing where the cat’s food and litter will go and a general look at the home. In my experience, these have been very straightforward and I haven’t had any concerns.
I look for potential hazards, like dog doors or escape routes, dangerous areas, or plants. If I have any concerns, I can talk about them during the meet and greet. A recent adopter had shelves full of collectibles, so we talked about the possibility of the cat knocking them over. He had already considered the issue and had a plan, which was reassuring.
I saw several plants in the background of one video, and made sure to mention them during the meet and greet. After he stopped laughing, the adopter told me they were all fake but he would be sure to let Target know how convincing they were.
Better safe than sorry!
Meet and greet when you foster a cat
The meet and greet is the most important part of the adoption process for me. It gives me a chance to learn more about the adopters, ask questions, and for them to see the cat in action. I have only done meet and greets via Zoom or FaceTime, but they still give a good indication of whether or not it’s a good match.
To set up the call, I bring the cat into my office with an assortment of toys and shut the door. I sit on the floor with the computer propped on a footstool, and try to keep the cat in the frame by waving a wand toy.
I usually start by asking them about themselves, why they want to adopt a cat, and what drew them to this particular cat. Then I give them background information about the cat’s personality, origin, and medical history. I don’t leave anything out and I answer all of their questions honestly.
I’ve had a few cats with previous history of peeing outside the box when stressed—one of them peed on our bed twice. I disclosed this information during the meet and greet, and they were more than willing to work with her. If they’d shown hesitancy I would have understood, but would have taken them out of the running.
If you have any concerns about the adopter or the environment, now is the time to ask questions. Don’t assume anything; if a particular issue is niggling at you, bring it up. Sensitive topics can include:
- Cost of vet care and pet insurance
- Reasons for death/rehoming of previous pets
- Lack of regular vet care for previous pets
- Behavior of current pets or children
- Will the cat be allowed to sleep with you (can be relevant for certain cats)
I try to make it clear that the adoption is not a done deal, and encourage the adopters to take their time to make a decision. When I feel really good about the adopters, I’ll tell them that I’m happy to move forward with the adoption if they would like to. If I’m not so sure, I say I’ll let them know if they are approved once I touch base with the rescue. I also give them information on next steps.
If there are any red flags, remember that you are not obligated to move forward with the adoption! Your foster cat is safe with you, and can remain there until the right adopter comes along.
Finalizing the adoption when you foster a cat
Every rescue will have their own process, but here’s what mine involves.
Send paperwork to adopters
I send the adopters a copy of the adoption contract, along with the foster cat’s medical records and medicine log. For kittens who haven’t yet been neutered or spayed, the adopter signs a foster-to-adopt agreement. The rescue pays for the desexing when they’re old enough, and the adoption contract is signed at that point. Otherwise, we sign the paperwork at pickup, and I email a copy to the adopters for their records.
I also let them know the type of food and litter the cat has been using, so they can have it ready to help with the transition.
Pay the adoption fee
Each cat has an adoption fee to cover the vet checks, vaccinations, and treatment done while in the rescue’s care. This can range from $80 to $400, depending on the animal and the medical history. Kittens often have a higher fee because they’ve had a series of tests done. Animal rescue is largely dependent on donations, so these fees help these organizations do what they do.
We accept payment via Venmo, or in person via cash or check. Once the payment is made, I take the pet off the website and arrange for the family to come pick up their new cat.
Saying goodbye to your foster cat
When Yeti was adopted, I cried. We had a bond, and it felt like a betrayal to put him into a carrier and hand him off to strangers. I understand why ‘foster fails’ happen, when foster parents decide to adopt their foster cats. But we’re not in a position to adopt a pet long-term, and I knew we’d have to say goodbye to him eventually. It has gotten easier, but my heart breaks a little bit each time.
We live in an apartment building, so I meet the adopters outside. They bring a cat carrier and the adoption contract, we talk about any final questions, and I go upstairs to fetch the foster cat. It’s a long walk to the elevator with a confused cat in the carrier, not knowing what’s happening.
I remind myself that while it’s a sad day for me, it’s an exciting day for the adopters. I love seeing how thrilled they are to meet their cats for the first time and finally take them home.
Keeping in touch after you foster a cat
I usually ask the adopters to let me know how the cat settles in on arrival, and if they mind if I reach out in a few weeks to see how things are going. Everyone has been open to that, and it’s wonderful to get updates and hear how our former fosters are thriving! It really closes the loop for me, and motivates me to keep going.
Most of our adopters have not been on social media, but I know some fosters and adopters keep in touch that way.
Goodbye is the goal
If you’ve been involved with fostering for any length of time, you’ve probably come across this catchphrase: goodbye is the goal. It’s become a mantra for me, a reminder that these foster cats are temporary residents. It also helps to know that there’s always another cat waiting in the wings, scared and ready for love.
Fostering cats is hard, but the rewards far outweigh the pain points. I’ve learned so much about animal rescue, and each one of these cats has brought something different and good into my life. If you’re on the fence because you’re afraid you’ll get too attached, do it anyway. I’m here to tell you that you will absolutely get too attached, but it’s worth it.
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