My Catawba County

Foster One, Save Two

Foster One, Save Two

Meet Clarabell, a 5-month-old Labrador Retriever-Dalmation mix who is as sweet and playful as she looks (that smile!). Clarabell is currently (as of 3.29.2022) one of the many great dogs and cats available for adoption or fostering at the Catawba County Animal Shelter in Newton.

Catawba County Animal Services recently received a Rachael Ray Save Them All Grant from Best Friends Animal Society to support their goal of facilitating foster placement for at least 150 kittens. That got us wondering about what it takes to foster a pet from the Catawba County Animal Shelter – so we asked Catawba County Animal Services Manager Jenna Arsenault to fill us in.

How does the shelter's foster program work?
It starts with a very simple application, which highlights things like the number and age of individuals living at the residences, do you rent or do you own, do you have other animals in the house? The whole purpose of the application is not to decline people, it's to learn more about their living environment and their accommodations. We want to match the right animal with their lifestyle and set them both up for success.

We also encourage people who are interested in fostering to set up an appointment with us at the shelter. We want the opportunity to spend time with them, answer their questions and discuss their comfort level. Each animal we are sending into a home comes with a different level of commitment. We want to make sure they are aware of what it takes to foster a particular animal and are comfortable handling that situation. It’s a process that takes time. If they can't set up an appointment, they can stop by any time we're open.

A foster volunteer takes an animal home and handles basic care, including feeding, grooming, health controls, and bringing the pet in for vaccinations or follow-up medical appointments. We provide all the supplies they need. Say we have a nursing mama cat with six kittens. Mama's doing the majority of the work, especially if she's healthy, and we're going to make sure she's vaccinated and dewormed before we send her to her foster home. We're going to provide you with litter, a litter box, provisions, and anything else you could potentially need in order to accommodate this cat and her litter during the time she is with you in your home.

Why is the foster program an important part of what you do at the shelter?
It's an important part of our success in saving and adopting out as many animals as we possibly can. Foster homes essentially provide a temporary transition for pets that are waiting to find their forever homes or are not yet of age to go onto our adoption floor. They help with socialization and essentially prepare pets to live inside a home when they get adopted.

Additionally, we can only house a certain number of animals according to the regulations we follow. If we have a mama cat with five kittens and we can get them into a foster home temporarily, that brings our numbers down by six – which means we can bring six more animals into our facility.

Animal Services recently received a Rachael Ray Save Them All grant from Best Friends Animal Society to help support the fostering of cats in particular. Could you share a little more about that?
This grant is helping us focus additional efforts on our cat foster program. A portion of the grant covers the cost of the foster kits we put together to go home with our cats, which include things like crates, additional medications, bottles for bottle babies and milk replacement. The kits are pre-assembled and ready to hand to a foster home. When that foster situation ends, they bring back the reusable items to be cleaned, disinfected and sanitized, and that kit is now ready to go to the next foster home.   

Which animals tend to benefit most from the foster program?
The foster program is ideal for animals that are considered a high risk in a shelter environment. This includes nursing puppies and kittens, along with their mothers. Nursing puppies and kittens are little tiny babies that aren’t vaccinated yet. It’s also a very overwhelming environment for a nursing mom taking care of that many. Many young puppies and kittens need a high level of care, which could include bottle feeding. Also, a shelter environment is not ideal for a young kitten or a young puppy to grow up in, because they're not exposed to the outside world. They're exposed to barking dogs and people walking by, but they don't hear TVs, they don't hear doors opening and closing, they don't get accustomed to being house trained, walking on different surfaces. They’re exposed to so much more outside of this environment. In order for animals to really succeed, they need that diversion from the shelter.

Animals needing recovery time from medical procedures or illnesses are also high on our list for fostering. These animals are highly stressed and fragile. Putting them in a foster home is ideal for recovery. We're fortunate to be able to treat dogs for heartworms now, which is pretty prevalent in this area. Heartworm treatment takes a few months, and after they have that initial injection, dogs need to stay calm and quiet. That's very difficult to do in an animal shelter. Sending them to a home environment to rest after that procedure is ideal.

We have hospice heroes, too. Some animals come in with medical issues that will unfortunately shorten their lifespan. We want to see that dog or that cat enjoy its last couple weeks or months of life – live out their bucket list, for lack of a better term, enjoy a comfy bed, get special meals. It's very emotional to think about in the beginning, but when you look at the big picture and the difference you are making, it is one more animal that ended up with a great life. And that dog or that cat will give back to you, too. We have some individuals who will only foster hospice. They give them the best possible life. They get cheeseburgers for dinner. Every time they go to Starbucks, they get a pup cup. They’re living the good life for the last little bit.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about fostering?
Most people think they can’t foster because they view it as emotionally challenging. They’re afraid of getting attached and then having to give the animal back. We hear that a lot, especially with puppies and kittens. It's okay to get attached. I don't expect someone not to. It means you have a good heart. But hosting a foster pet at your home saves not just one life, but two lives because you are moving one animal out of the shelter and opening up a kennel for another animal to come in. So you're saving two. A lot of people who had reservations at first say the levels of gratitude and satisfaction they got from helping a pet in need were pretty impossible to undermine. They loved it. Seeing the animals grow and find their forever home can be really rewarding, and they give you so much back.

Do you have a particularly memorable story from the foster program?
We had a dog named Buttercup. She came in here so scared and so emaciated, she wouldn't walk. She just kind of shuffled along because she was paralyzed with fear. She tugged at the heartstrings of all of our staff, and it took a lot of work and dedication from them to get her healthy enough to even be eligible for adoption. During her testing process we found out she was heartworm positive, so that was another hurdle for her. She didn't present well in the kennel because she was so petrified. She wasn't wagging her tail, she wasn't sitting toward the front, so a lot of people would just walk by her.

Eventually, she was fostered. I'll never forget – when she came back for her final heartworm test, to make sure she was negative and finalize her adoption paperwork, she had probably put on about 15 pounds. Her eyes were different, her coat was beautiful. And she walked straight through our front door with her tail wagging. That had to be the first time I'd ever seen this dog's tail wag. That stuck with me for a long time. You can physically see a difference and a different type of light in these animals’ eyes when they are fostered.

If someone's thinking about becoming a foster volunteer, what advice would you give them?
Our job is to make this process the best experience possible for both the animal and the potential foster home. That comes with its own unique challenges. Sometimes animals get sick, sometimes things happen. I would encourage them to trust the process, because we are here to support them.

I also encourage foster volunteers to have patience. These animals are coming into new environments, and it can be stressful for them. Be open-minded to that.

There’s something we call the “3-3-3 Rule.” After an animal, especially a dog, comes into your residence, it is going to take three days for them to decompress. They're probably going to be shut down, they're going to want to hide. They may not even eat for the first three days because they’re so stressed. It’s because they’ve been accustomed to a totally different environment.

You're not going to see their true personality start to come out until about that three-day mark. Then they'll start getting a little bit more comfortable, they'll start exploring your house more, they may come up to you and seek affection. Don’t think you’re failing because this dog is depressed, or they're not acting like your dog you've had for 10 years. That's to be expected. This is a huge, huge change. They're transitioning, and it's overwhelming. Don't feel defeated.

Once you hit that three-week mark, you're going to see even more of their true personality. They're going to be much more vibrant, they're going to start to recognize your routine. They're going to know that they're being consistently fed and that jumping on the couch is okay if we're going to watch a movie. They're kind of settling in.

You might not really see an animal’s full personality until the three-month mark. A lot of times they don’t need to be in foster care that long, but what you do get to see and experience along the way is really rewarding.