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Like Your Own: Fostering a Loved One's Pet During an Illness or Recovery

What you should do when fostering a pet left behind after a medical emergency

By Amy Grisak
Four dogs on leashes at the park. Next Avenue, fostering a dog, foster pet
Pay close attention to your foster dog's body language. The more you know about your foster's mood, language and behavior, the more you can support their needs.  |  Credit: Matt Nelson

Medical emergencies are always a challenge, but it reaches another level when there are pets left at home. When my brother-in-law was slated to spend over a month in a health care facility, we decided it was best to bring his 12-year-old husky mix, Cooper, home with us. As someone who often babysits friends' dogs when they go on vacation, I thought we were prepared.

But I quickly realized this was no weekend playdate. Fortunately, with the advice of experts who understand the potentially complex situation of caring for a loved one's pet, we discovered steps to make his stay with us as beneficial as possible for everyone.

Making Them Feel at Home

"Any animal that has a change in circumstances is going to go through an initial stress response," explains Natasha Osborn, CPDT-KA and CVT at Pathfinder Dog Training in Stevensville, Montana. "Most animals prefer to isolate when they are under stress."

Make sure there is food and water available, out of the reach of other pets.

Osborn recommends providing a foster pet with a room of its own, or at least a place for the dog, or cat, to step away. "For the first 48 hours, I let them find their own space," she says. This might mean setting up a covered crate, if the pet is accustomed to one, or creating a cozy spot away from the hustle and bustle of a new household.

She also makes sure there is food and water available, out of the reach of other pets, allowing the dog or cat to eat and drink without pressure.

When we brought Cooper home, we kept him in the tiled back hallway where he wasn't overwhelmed with attention from our energetic, young (and very large) dog and six-month-old kitten who knows no boundaries. Another concern was potty issues, which is why we opted for an easy-to-clean area. It turns out the old guy had a UTI, which thankfully resolved after a course of antibiotics.

Reading Their Moods

After this initial acclimation period, Osborn notes that it's a good time to determine their affection level and gradually work into more of a routine. She says when she's becoming acquainted with a new dog or cat, if she pets them and they walk away, she's not going to force attention upon the pet. It can take time until the pet sees you as a new source of comfort.

Pay attention to calming signals in dogs.

Osborn also recommends to pay attention to calming signals in dogs, particularly if you are not around them frequently. Calming signals include behavior such as licking their lips or turning their heads as an avoidance sign, or bending into a play bow as a welcoming gesture.

"The more we know about dogs' language, dogs' moods, and dogs' behavior, the more we can support their needs," she says.

Cats are a little different in their body language, making it equally important to allow them to dictate how they feel in a situation. Some cats are fine with being picked up and cuddled, while others will fight to get away.

Fitting Into the Family

During this time, consistency is key. "Dogs find comfort in routine. Cats even more so," says Osborn. "But after two weeks you can introduce new things, if they're capable of handling it."

This, too, is a very individual step for a dog or cat. Osborn says some pets will happily go on an adventure, while an outing can be paralyzing for others. This holds true for meeting other pets. Follow the pet's lead when it comes to interactions with the other furry household members.

Pets react differently when they're away from their home.

Pets react differently when they're away from their home, which is why it's important to keep proper contact information on them at all times, whether the pet is microchipped or not.

Another useful tool is some type of Bluetooth tracker. We already knew from having Cooper visit us several years ago that he tried to squeeze outside of the fence at every chance, and age has not changed this behavior. In the event of an escape, having a tracker connected to a phone app would make it easier to find him.

Planning Ahead

Dr. Pam Barker, DVM, highly recommends that everyone create an emergency plan for their pets in the case of a medical situation or an accident. A thorough plan includes how to feed the pet or pets, lists all of the medications, and provides authorization at the veterinarian's office. She says many veterinarians will not treat a pet without knowing the owner's wishes and, frankly, their cost limits.

"Tell someone where the pet emergency plan is located," she says. "At least they are not left flailing."

"Tell someone where the pet emergency plan is located."

As part of being prepared for a friend or family member to take care of your pets' needs, Barker highly recommends that owners have pet insurance in place to handle emergencies. She and her husband have policies for their own dogs because it gives them a piece of mind in case of a catastrophic illness or injury, along with one less concern if a medical emergency happens when their pet sitter is watching their dogs.

"When it comes to fostering, (pet insurance) can help because when that person knows there's something in place, they're more likely to take the pet into the veterinarian," she says. It also helps the veterinarian provide the best care when the owner is not available.


The Realities of Older Pets

"Older pet owners tend to have older pets," explains Barker. "And older pets can come with their own issues." She notes that many people adopt their pet in their 50s or 60s, and now they're in their 70s with their pet aging right along with them.

If an owner has struggled with health issues of their own for an extended period of time, along with possible mobility issues that make routine projects difficult, sometimes their pets need a little extra attention when they come to stay with someone else.

"Grooming is so important to keep them comfortable and for them to stay healthy," she says. "Their skin and coat ages the way ours does, and as pets age, grooming becomes more critical."

"Grooming is so important to keep [pets] comfortable and for them to stay healthy."

Nail care is another key to their health, even though trimming a dog's, or cat's, nails is usually the last thing they want. Barker points out that when the nails grow too long, they can stretch out the toes and exacerbate arthritis issues.This elevates nail trimming to far more than simply an aesthetic issue.

She recommends finding a groomer experienced with older dogs, particularly if the dog or cat is not accustomed to visiting a professional, who knows how to support achy joints and be extra patient with this sometimes stressful experience.

Bathing and grooming can be tricky with a foster pet, particularly an older one. Focus on general brushing, at first. A bath can come later once the pet is comfortable with their new surroundings.

Dental health is another issue with older pets, particularly if the owner struggles with their own medical challenges. According to Barker, "It's not uncommon for them to have dental issues. Dental (health) is number one, two and three in keeping the heart and kidneys healthy. If there is an issue with the teeth and gums, there's a low grade bacterial infection traveling through the bloodstream."

Returning the pet to the owner is the ultimate goal, but can become problematic if dementia or a chronic medical issue is the reason for the pet staying with someone else in the first place.

Pets are far more than mere companions.

"It's a very individual situation, depending upon the health and situation of the human. If there are serious health conditions revolving around the person, there needs to be a very frank conversation when it's appropriate," Osborn says.

This might mean that the foster human should stay involved to some degree, possibly through visits or even keeping the pet, at times. The situation largely depends upon the level of care the owner can provide, along with balancing the benefits of them having their pet at home with the care the pet requires and deserves.

Pets are far more than mere companions. When a loved one is under the weather, it is a relief for them to know their beloved pet is in good hands. By creating a safe and healthy environment for their beloved dog or cat, they can focus on healing and look forward to a happy reunion.

Amy Grisak
Amy Grisak Based in Great Falls, Montana, freelance writer Amy Grisak is the author of Nature Guide to Glacier and Waterton National Parks and Found Photos of Yellowstone. Many of her articles, videos and podcasts are viewed on her website, Read More
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