Foster Parenting: Lessons.

In August of 2004, I became a foster parent for the Ottawa Humane Society. I was moving away from my parents for the first time, and leaving my childhood cat, Frisky, behind. And frankly, I knew I (a) couldn't afford to own a cat and have to worry about vet bills and (b) wasn't ready to commit to an animal for 15+ years. Fostering seemed so ideal - I could have pets, but have them on my terms, and I was doing a good thing, providing a home and love and socialization to kitties who would otherwise just sit in a cage all day. It was a no-brainer.

My roommate at the time thought it would be a great idea, as he was a cat person too, and we both had a bunch of spare time on our hands. How hard would it be to have kitties? And temporary kitties at that? They can't be hard work, we thought, "they're just too cute.". YEAH.

I like to think that we were lucky. Our first kitties, Pica, Pixel and Dot, were a dream. They ate real food, used their litter boxes, and were generally well rounded. Pica continues to be a good kitty and lives with my little sister. The rest, who knows. They're out there somewhere ... with fond memories of learning to climb hardwood stairs in my first house, and lounging in those nice deep windowsills.

But while there are tons of ways in which I could tell you that raising kittens for even just a few weeks was easy and hilarious and soft and snuggly, there are also a ton of ways that I could tell you that it'll also be potentially one of the hardest, patience trying things you ever do.

But I digress. I've been asked more than once how and why we do this. It's not the easiest thing in the world to explain - I think each foster parent has their own distinct set of reasons for doing what we do. But we all learn many of the same things from our kitties and the programs. Below are some of the lessons we've learned and taken away from this amazing program.

It's Never As Clean As It Looks For all their cuteness, it can just as easily be matched with so many uncomfortable moments. Cleaning up kitten poop, trying not to get angry that somebody missed the box for the third time already today, vomit, more poop, and on and on. Until they're about 8 weeks old, kittens and bathrooms can sometimes be terribly unpredictable. We generally have good days and bad days here, and we take them all in stride - just sometimes better stride than others. Important lessons: Invest in paper towels and pet-friendly floor cleaners. Also, patience. Lots of it. You will reconsider their cuteness momentarily the minute someone puts a litter-coated poopy paw on your brand new sundress. But we continue to love them anyway. They are, afterall, just babies. They will grow. And they're not all dirty - they just have the potential to be.

You Will Get Weepy You will weep when you take them back to find a family. Not only because it's hard to say goodbye to fluffy balls of cuteness, but because they are now your babies and you're sending them off into the wild unknown where they'll hopefully find a cooler new cat-parent than you. And you know, of course, how unlikely *that* is.

You will weep when you think about how no one but you else might ever know or figure out that Honey has that soft spot on her head that always bothers her when you pet it, or that Trixie hates the fishy food. Or that Cleo likes to sleep on top of the curtain rod in the living room window.

You will also get weepy when your two-week old kitten opens its eyes for the first time, or when kitties like Hugo, who seem to go only downhill instead of up, double their body weight in a week. Or tries to play with his sisters for the first time. Or tracks your fingers as you try to con him into playing. Or jumps off the couch without landing on his face. Maybe you're not the weepy type. But I am. And all of these firsts bring me an incredible amount of joy. It's amazing to watch these little creatures grow up and become cats and learn that no matter where they came from, people are good and just want to love them.

Nothing is Guaranteed. Some of your kitties may die. It's not a nice fact, but it's a fact about fostering nonetheless. I was lucky in some respects - I had been a foster parent for just about two years when my first kitten didn't make it. And it KILLS you (no pun intended). It does. You're sad for you, for them, for their siblings, for not being able to fix it, or cure it with love. In all, we have had five kittens out of 70+ who have not survived. It's terrible to lose them, but it's also a fact of life. Not all of them will make it, and it's ok to be sad about it too. It doesn't matter if they are young or old - it is incredibly hard to lose a pet - temporary or permanent. The last foster kitten we lost was Linus, well after he had stopped being our foster cat and started to be my parent's kitty instead. It is hard not to believe, even for a short time, that it's unfair.

Your Heart Will Melt The first time you come home and Fluffy is waiting by the door for you looking like she's been sitting there ALL DAY LONG, your heart will melt. When they rub up against your face when you're having a mopey day, and they're all full of purrs and love, you will melt. And when you realize how much they learn from you - how all of the things you've shown them how to do, like eat properly, like climbing the couch, like playing fetch with that fake mouse - you'll be hooked.

Trust Both foster parent and foster kitten learn a lot about trust during their stay. More often than not, the kitties you foster come from bad situations. Whether they were 6 weeks old and orphaned, left in a garbage bag for dead, or just turned in by their owner for any number of reasons, these kitties have generally not seen a lot of love. And they may or may not have had good experiences with people in the few short weeks they've been around.

They will be shy. And they will be scared of you. And they will watch their full food bowl all day until you come home and THEN gobble it down because they may or may not believe that there will ever be more food. This is a common thing with our kitties. Quite often we will feed them in the morning and return home after work to the very same full bowl of food, which they promptly gobble down once they see us. As they grow to trust us, the behaviour stops. In fact, they start begging for food, even. It's incredibly heartwarming to watch them grow and to believe that you will come back so it's ok to eat breakfast at breakfast time, not to have to save it just in case there's never any more.

Love These kittens need lots of love. At least a good solid hour every day (if not more) is dedicated to playing with the kitties, and one-on-one with them if we can. They love to play together, but they also need to learn how to be apart, and how to be comfortable hanging out with people on their own. We try to introduce them to lots of our friends and family, so they can get used to a room full of people, but also the smell of others so that when they go to find a family, they're not frightened that they don't smell like us!

There's probably lots more that I could say here, but I won't. So much of programs like these is all about what you are willing to put into it - what you get out of it is directly related. There have been days, hard days, where I considered never doing this again. Ever. But at the end of the day, I have to. For all of the downsides, there are a million more upsides.

We have often debated keeping one. Or two. Or all of them. But in the end, the foster program always wins out. I feel like it's what I was meant to do, rather than owning my own pet. It makes me feel great to give my time and efforts and patience to such a worthy cause, however hard it sometimes is. But for every hard day, there is an email from a kitties new parents, or a photo of a kitten taking its first feeble steps, or a story about a funny thing they did that makes me smile that makes the hard days seem easy somehow.

I would strongly encourage you, if you've considered fostering, to give it a try. You need a heavy dose of love to give, patience, and a willingness to take care of something outside of yourself - but it's so so worth it.