When my only child headed off for school last fall, the house was quiet. Tomb quiet. Even my 6-year-old bichon frise, Rosie, felt the emptiness.
My home needed new energy, which soon arrived in a crate of three wiggling, yapping, licking and bounding dachshund puppies, who needed a foster home. Soon, 8-week-old Sunny, Red and Vinnie were filling big spaces in my heart and house with little antics — latching on to the same toy, tumbling over long-suffering Rosie, snuggling in my lap for a midmorning snooze.
Fostering rescue pets is a lesson in loving and letting go. It's a great fit for older animal lovers who want to share themselves and their homes fully, but not forever.
"Fostering is particularly attractive to older people who generally have more flexible schedules and more time to devote to animals in need," says Kim Intino, director of shelter services for the Humane Society of the United States. Also, many shelters foot the bill for food, toys and vet bills, which makes fostering "attractive to folks on a fixed income," Intino says.
Fostering, which usually lasts between one week and three months, also can be a labor of love for snowbirds and frequent travelers, who shelter animals between trips.
"Some older people own two homes and aren't in one area for a whole year," says Lois Lefkowitz of Virginia, who has fostered 24 animals over four years. "Fostering is a great way to have some companionship and help some dogs and cats."
Although national rescue groups don't keep statistics on pet fostering, the Humane Society estimates that tens of thousands of families foster pets every year. In Sacramento, Calif., alone, the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals placed 1,000 animals — including rabbits and rats — with Sacramento-area foster families in 2009.
"Retired people are a prime resource for us," says Leslie Kirrene, a spokeswoman for Sacramento SPCA.
Foster families provide not only temporary shelter for rescue animals, but also training and socialization. Retirees especially have the time and experience to devote to training animals to walk on a leash, sleep in a crate or do their business outside.
"These animals don't need to be locked in a kitchen all day when someone goes to work," Kirrene says. "They benefit from someone who is at home and can give them the attention they need."
Fostering pets often begins with an application designed to match human with critter: dog or cat, puppy or adult, big or small, high energy or couch potato.
"I like older dogs," says Lefkowitz, in her early 50s. "Puppies are really energetic and a lot of work."
Most shelters offer a short pet care and training class, then support a foster placement by paying all costs attached to the animal, even trainers to help change antisocial behaviors.
Foster parents are expected to introduce their charges to prospective adoptive families during private meet-and-greets and at adoption fairs. Although the rescue group makes the final decision, fosters greatly influence who adopts the pet.
Often, a friend or relative falls in love with the pet. Sometimes, the foster family becomes the forever family. Rescue groups half-jokingly call them "foster failures" with hearts two sizes too big.
"Every time a foster family keeps an animal, we risk losing them as a foster home," says Kirrene. "Foster parents need the ability to care, form a bond and then let go."
I just about died when sweet newlyweds adopted my Sunny two weeks after she arrived. But when Red and Vinnie pranced out two months later with a single woman who couldn't bear to break up the pair, my heart soared: The siblings could grow up together, and I could finally shampoo my rug.
"When a dog leaves your house it's always bittersweet," says Lefkowitz. "I'm sad to see a dog go because I become attached. But I'm really happy because I'm free to save another dog's life."