Animal Shelters Are Clearing Out, but Here’s How You Can Still Foster a Pet

Think you missed the boat on fostering a pet during the pandemic? You haven't! Here's how you can still find the perfect stay-at-home buddy.

The good news is that more people are fostering dogs and cats because of being in quarantine due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and it can be a great experience with surprising dividends. Taking care of a pet—whether it’s going for a walk or snuggling on the sofa—is a pleasant distraction from everything that’s going on in the world. The bad news is that many shelters cleared out quickly in the first few weeks of stay-at-home orders, which you may have realized after Googling, “how to foster a dog near me” in those early days. But most of those shelters didn’t stay empty. Here’s how you can find a dog or other pet who needs a home and some TLC right now.

New arrivals daily!

They may be working with a skeleton crew, but shelters and rescue organizations, along with local county animal control units, are still busy caring for pets amid the pandemic. They continue to take in strays or owner-surrendered pets from those who can’t keep their dog due to financial hardship, illness, death, or other reasons. Because it’s spring, litters of new arrivals are coming! Springtime is kitten season, and shelters and rescues are often overwhelmed with pregnant mama cats who need a quiet place to give birth and nurse their sweet kittens. You can foster mom and her kittens or, after they’re weaned, foster just one of the kittens. You might want to go from fostering to adopting after seeing these before and after cat adoption photos that will melt your heart.

Foster pet, where are you?

Now, it’s time to let Google work its magic and help you find a local animal shelter or a rescue organization. The fundamental difference between the two is that shelters have a physical location to house pets, while rescues generally do not. Rescues depend solely on foster parents to care for the pets they take in, like the Fur-Ever Paws Dog Rescue in Bear, Delaware, which places dogs immediately into a foster home until a perfect match is found for a forever home. Some shelters have foster programs, too, so they can make room for new pets coming in. Petfinder hosts a huge database of shelters and rescues featuring adoptable pets, but you can also search for foster pets. To do this, click on “Resources,” then “Search for Animal Shelters and Rescues.” Just enter your zip code and the generic term “animal rescue” for the group name. You’ll see lots of adorable faces that are available for adoption or fostering.

Find foster pets on social media

Charming dog lying on bed in morningViorel Kurnosov/Getty Images

Once you find your local shelter’s website, look for its social media icon. The website typically has the foster application and specific details about the program, but shelters also utilize social media to post updates on pets available to foster near you. For example, the Huntsville Animal Shelter in Alabama frequently updates its Facebook page with information about pets that need immediate foster homes. The Instagram account of the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando is chock-full of cute kittens, adorable puppies, and sweet cats and dogs looking for foster homes. While scrolling through social media, you should check out these ridiculously adorable animal Instagram accounts. (Seriously, trust us on this one.)

One-stop foster shop was created by the charitable organization to help shelters impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. “ makes it simple by providing those interested in fostering a pet with a universal national form, where they can easily sign up and be connected through with a registered animal shelter across the United States,” says Liz Baker, CEO of Potential foster parents check off the boxes for the type of pet they want to foster. When there’s a potential match, the animal shelter sends an email. “If a pet is not currently available, the shelter will put them on a waiting list for when a pet meeting their criteria becomes available,” says Baker.

All creatures great and small

Cats and dogs are by far the most popular foster pets, but what if you want to sing the quarantine blues with a parrot? Or you’re a night owl looking for a nocturnal friend like a hamster to keep you company when everyone else is asleep? It varies by shelter and rescue, but all things furry, feathery, or even scaly need foster homes. Petfinder has an option to search for adoptable fish, birds, small critters, lizards, horses, goats, and even fluffy rabbit breeds like these cuties. But many of these same pets are available to foster, too. Click on the pet you’re interested in to learn more.

Can I get a foster pet today?

Chihuahua sitting on the sofaKohei Hara/Getty ImagesYes, in some cases, but it varies from shelter to shelter. “There is no average wait time, since every animal shelter is different, and it also depends on the foster parent’s criteria for a pet,” says Baker. This is true whether you use or work directly with a local shelter. Don’t lose heart if there isn’t a pet available to foster near you right away—new pets arrive at shelters every day. In fact, according to the ASPCA, approximately 6.5 million companion animals enter American animal shelters nationwide each year. Right now, some of those pets might belong to the first responders and health care professionals who need a little help with their fur babies while they serve on the front lines of the pandemic. Don’t miss these heartwarming stories of neighbors helping one another during coronavirus.

These types of pets really need you

All pets yearn to be loved and cared for, but some have a harder time finding homes than others. “At the moment, the biggest need for fosters are medium and large dogs,” says Baker. Because of their size, they’re more difficult to place. Senior dogs are often overlooked, as well, but they have so much going for them. For example, they’re easygoing, don’t require a lot of exercise, and have mastered basic obedience commands. Pets with medical issues, which might require daily meds and other special care, also need help; it’s a rewarding and worthwhile experience to nurse them back to health.

How long can I foster a pet?

Fostering a pet for the duration of the pandemic is preferred. Some shelters, like the Maryland SPCA, are currently closed. That means no adoptions, so foster pets are staying put in their foster homes. “Keeping them in foster while they’re waiting for permanent homes increases our flexibility and enables us to respond more readily to this ever-changing environment. Long term, we haven’t made any decisions about continuing that model,” says Nichole Miller, operations director of the Maryland SPCA. Be sure to ask your shelter or rescue what the expectations and guidelines are before you sign up. Even if you’re just providing temporary foster care, this is what you should know before bringing home a shelter dog.

Who pays for the food and vet care?

Staffordshire Bull Terrier in the carPekic/Getty Images

Generally, shelters and rescues strive to provide for the daily care of the pet. Best Friends in Los Angeles gives foster parents everything they need to care for their dogs, including vet care. Others, like the Valley Oak SPCA in Visalia, California, give foster parents a starter kit and help with vet care and other supplies when possible. The HIT Living Foundation covers the cost of any medical needs, food, and supplies unless the foster family offers to pay for the expenses. These are the 20 things animal shelters desperately need right now.

Can I keep my foster pet forever?

Your intentions to foster temporarily might take a sudden turn when you fall head over paws for your new roomie. It’s prudent to ask the shelter or rescue this question before you pick your furry friend, as adoption policies differ. Stephanie Filer, a spokesperson for the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, told AP News that 60 to 70 percent of people who foster an animal from them opt to keep the animal permanently. That’s precisely what happened when these two lovable foster dogs changed a woman’s life forever.

For more strategies, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and, among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center. Follow her on Instagram @lisamariewrites4food and Twitter @cornish_conklin.