Helping animals through foster caring can be very rewarding, but the role should not be taken lightly. By Cameron Cooper
Dr Emma Bronts knows only too well how hard it is to give up animals after fostering them—she has had to do it herself with three of her own pets.
The chief veterinarian at RSPCA Victoria is one of an army of foster carers around the nation who look after dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, horses, pigs, goats and other animals as they await rehoming.
“It can be quite hard for foster carers, who often become attached to the animals they’re caring for,” Dr Bronts says. “The good news is some of those animals end up as what we affectionately refer to as ‘foster fails’ and are adopted by their foster carer.”
It can also be heartbreaking, especially if a sick pet has to be put down at the direction of vets, as this decision must be made by RSPCA vets as opposed to the foster carers who are acting as carers only. Such instances underline the fact that for all the great work foster carers do, and for all the joyful stories, theirs is not always an easy task.
Organisations such as the RSPCA and Animal Welfare League Queensland are renowned for their foster-care programs.
They typically cater for animals who are too young for adoption, need behavioural training, are recuperating from illness or surgery, or who are subject to a bequest after owners die or can no longer care for their pet.
The COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in a massive increase in foster-carer registrations within RSPCA Victoria alone, where this year about 3500 animals are in the program across its shelters in Burwood, Pearcedale and Epping in Melbourne and Portland, Warrnambool and Wangaratta in regional Victoria. Dr Bronts says the spike at one point led to the shutdown of carer registrations. “It’s been amazing how many new foster carers have wanted to take up the opportunity while they’ve been working from home,” she says.
The RSPCA’s goal is to get vulnerable animals out of the shelters and into a home environment through fostering before they are ready to be permanently rehomed. Apart from reducing the animal’s stress, fostering provides an opportunity to observe animal behaviour, treat injuries or post-operative conditions, improve feeding and nutrition—and generally give the pets some love.
“There’s a great understanding that, particularly over the long term, a shelter environment really has a lot of downfalls for animals,” Dr Bronts says. “If those extended stays can happen outside the shelter environment, there tends to be a better outcome for everyone.”
History of care
Since 1959, Animal Welfare League Queensland has been working with local councils, rescue groups and the community to save stray and surrendered pets. The organisation now fosters about 2700 animals a year from its four animal rehoming centres.
Melinda Phipps, AWLQ’s state rehoming manager, says fostering is at the heart of the organisation’s promise to never euthanise a healthy, sociable or treatable animal in its care.
“It’s a huge program and it has a lot of strong support,” says Phipps, who notes that her organisation has about 5000 foster carers on its books.
The key, she says, is to match the right people with the right animals. Some largely self-sufficient older cats, for example, may just need a couple of weeks of care, while neonatal kittens could require an intensive commitment of time from a more experienced foster carer. “We have all sorts of animals with different needs.”
Phipps says most foster carers find their role highly rewarding. “They fall in love with their foster animals,” she says. “It’s great knowing they’ve helped animals go from a bad spot to getting into a new home.”
While handing back the pets can be an emotional experience, most carers draw comfort from knowing there are many other animals requiring similar attention.
Prospective foster carers can expect to be put through a basic training program. Apart from donating their time, it helps if they have some experience handling animals, suitable accommodation and the capacity and punctuality to take the animals to vet appointments if necessary.
Dr Bronts says the RSPCA picks up all costs for items such as food, bedding and toys, in addition to any veterinary bills incurred outside the group’s own veterinary services. “We don’t want foster carers to have any out-of-pocket expenses, so if they do have to go to a vet in an emergency, and it can’t be one of our vets, we certainly cover all those expenses.”
While it helps if someone looking after a horse or rabbit has owned one before, most animals require low-level care. However, suitably qualified carers may be required in high-needs cases.
Phipps says some animals need behaviour-modification training or cage rest after surgery. Those recovering from fractures or cruciate ligament surgery may have to be taken to physiotherapy and engage in special exercises to recover. Such cases could involve care for weeks or even months.
Vets, nurses in demand
While the RSPCA has its own veterinary team in Melbourne, it uses external vets at its regional shelters. “Those vets have been really supportive,” Dr Bronts says.
The high number of animals coming through the shelters means vets are under pressure to perform the necessary volume of procedures, including desexing, cruciate surgery, amputations and dental work, in a timely manner.
Even though AWLQ has its own veterinary teams, Phipps says external vets can help the service by referring appropriate pets to shelters if their owners cannot look after the animals adequately. Those with professional veterinary experience who become foster carers can also provide medical attention such as physical therapy or daily medication while they wait for the animals to be adopted.
Dr Bronts adds that trained veterinary staff often make ideal carers. “That’s why we’re always looking out for vet nurses—they make amazing foster carers.”
She says while fostering can bring great joy to carers, they should be prepared to put in the time and effort to properly look after animals that may be stressed or at risk. “It’s not just about looking after a cute little kitten for a couple of weeks. Looking after the animals might actually take a lot of care and effort.”