Keeping Your Pets Safe When You Foster

Dog and cat next to one another in a foster home

Foster home situations help homeless dogs and cats by, among other things, decreasing their stress and limiting their exposure to infectious diseases, which can occur when many animals are housed together in an enclosed area (such as a shelter). Of course, most people who foster pets do so because of their love for animals, and that means they usually have their own pets at home. So, how do you keep your own pets from becoming ill when you foster an animal?

Schedule a check-up with a veterinarian

First, make sure that your personal pets are in relatively good health (for example, not currently being treated for a contagious illness) and are up to date on their vaccinations against infectious diseases such as canine parvovirus and canine distemper (in dogs) or feline panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis and calici viruses (in cats). If you are going to foster a cat long-term and your own cats have not been tested for feline leukemia virus (FeLV), this test should be done before you foster. Cats who are FeLV-positive should not share living space with cats who haven’t been vaccinated for FeLV. To make sure your pets are adequately protected, discuss the status of your pets’ health and current vaccinations with your veterinarian before you bring a foster animal home. 

In addition, if you have a pet whose immune system is compromised (for example, the pet is receiving chemotherapy for cancer or steroid therapy for an autoimmune disorder, or, as we said above, you have an FeLV-positive cat), you may need to take extra precautions or foster a pet at another time.

Separate your pets from foster animals

Ideally, you should keep your foster animal separated from your pets for at least two weeks after arrival in your home. The reason is that most of the common infectious diseases have a three- to ten-day or three- to fourteen-day incubation period. So, your foster pet could be healthy when she arrives but be incubating a virus that will manifest a few days or weeks later. 

This two-week separation is not always practical, however, and it may not always be necessary to separate them for the full period, depending on the age of the animals involved. For example, if you have older animals (say, five years of age and up) who are fully vaccinated and you are fostering a healthy adult animal (over the age of two) who has been vaccinated and has been at the shelter for some time, the likelihood of infectious disease transmission is low. Conversely, if you have young animals at home, especially puppies or kittens under five to six months of age, and you are planning to foster young animals (under two) who have only recently been vaccinated at the shelter — or an ill or recovering animal with an infectious disease — then the risk is significantly greater. 

To make reasonable decisions regarding risk, it’s very important to work with a veterinarian who understands shelter medicine and infectious disease transmission. Look for a vet who’s a member of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians or ask your vet to contact a shelter vet if he or she has questions regarding exposure risks. There is no way to guarantee that your pets will never be exposed, but there is a risk-benefit equation that should be considered before making a decision about fostering.

Reduce risk of parvovirus and other diseases

If you are fostering puppies from a shelter, we recommend not allowing them to relieve themselves in your yard if the yard’s surface is grass, rock or dirt. Until puppies are fully vaccinated, they are susceptible to contracting parvovirus, especially if they end up at a shelter, and parvovirus can live in soil for years. It would be best to have fostered puppies go out on your concrete driveway or the sidewalk in front of your house, or even on puppy pads in the garage. That way, you can avoid exposing them to anything infectious in the soil in your yard and you can also prevent contamination of your yard for future foster pets if the dogs who eliminate in the yard are shedding viruses such as parvo and distemper.

Regarding felines, foster cats should have their own litter pans and bowls. In addition, they should be kept separate from your cats if they are FeLV-positive or if they tend to fight with other cats and are positive for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).

Allow animals to meet one another

After a period of about two weeks, you may begin to introduce your foster animals to your pets. Obviously, you will want to make sure that they get along before allowing them free access to one another. Cats especially can be quite territorial, so you may need to keep your own cats and a foster cat separate for the duration of the fostering period, not so much for disease control, but to prevent territorial fighting if the cats are prone to that behavior.

Because all animals are individuals, it is difficult to provide a one-size-fits-all plan for pet introductions. However, if you’re looking for general tips on how to introduce new pets into your household, check out Introducing Dogs to Each Other and Introducing a New Cat.

To conclude, fostering is not only a vital lifesaving tool, it’s something that can bring you much joy and satisfaction as you help to Save Them All. We applaud you for taking this important step.

Learn more about fostering