Foster families help nurture troubled pets

Foster families help nurture troubled pets

A beautiful German shepherd named Sweet Pea has visitors today
who’d like to take her home with them. Problem is, Sweet Pea
doesn’t want to go.
A beautiful German shepherd named Sweet Pea has visitors today who’d like to take her home with them. Problem is, Sweet Pea doesn’t want to go.

Stephanie Henshaw, the energetic foster coordinator here at Halfway Home Pet Adoptions, pokes her head in the lobby.

“Give me one second,” she says. “‘Cause she is a little scared.”

Actually, Sweet Pea is a lot scared. Scared of people. Scared of other dogs. Scared of stairs. Pretty much everything.

And don’t even think about trying to put a collar on her. The 6-month-old dog arrived here, the place formerly known as the Kansas City, Mo. animal shelter, wearing a collar so tight it was embedded in her skin.

Sweet Pea doesn’t realize it, but she can start to trust humans again.

Her visitors this Saturday morning – Tammy Andrews, 13-year-old daughter Amelia and family pooch Lilly Belle – are part of her new foster family. Over the next 20 minutes or so, in a tiny “meet and greet room” at the shelter, Sweet Pea will cower in a corner while officially meeting the family, who live in Stilwell in Johnson County. Then she’ll be dragged outside to the Andrewses’ vehicle, but not before trying to scoot under another car – and being scooped up by Henshaw, who’ll end up getting peed on.

None of this qualifies as a warm and fuzzy moment. But the shelter is betting that within a couple of months, maybe sooner, time spent in a nice home with nice people will transform this scared dog – a dog that was mistreated and then dumped – into someone’s perfect pet.

If a foster family hadn’t stepped up, Sweet Pea probably wouldn’t stand a chance. At the shelter, after all, plenty of other more social animals are available.

“People would walk right by her,” Henshaw says.

The goal of pet foster parenting is always to make animals more adoptable, which should mean fewer dogs and cats euthanized.

An animal might be put in foster care because it needs some basic obedience training – teaching a dog, for instance, not to jump up on every person it meets or chew on the sofa. It might be recovering from surgery or an illness and need one-on-one care. Some animals need a break from “shelter stress.”

Young animals that haven’t been fully vaccinated might get sick in a shelter. Plus, “young puppies and kittens appreciate a quiet atmosphere, so having them in a home is a really great opportunity for them,” says Robin Rowland, development director for the Humane Society of Greater Kansas City shelter in Kansas City, Kan. It doesn’t have a formal foster program, but staff and volunteers take in foster pets.

Very old animals, too, do better away from the hubbub of a shelter.

Often, though, a dog or cat (or bird or rabbit) just needs to learn what it’s like to be part of a family: get used to being around people, get along with other animals, learn a routine.

An animal might put in two months at a shelter like Wayside Waifs in south Kansas City, but experience with a foster family is likely to turn the tide.

“Instantly, within a couple of weeks (of being fostered), they get adopted,” says Kristin Sampson, foster program manager at Wayside, which claims to have the largest foster program in the city. Wayside placed about 800 animals in foster care last year.

Another plus: Pets that come out of foster programs are less likely to be returned by adoptive families. Foster parents can tell prospective adopters what the animal is like as a pet. Is Fluffy an aloof kitty or a lap cat? Is Bowser good with little kids? Scared of the vacuum cleaner?


Pet fostering, particularly with dogs, looks to be on the rise, says Michelle Jones, intake coordinator for No More Homeless Pets. Targeting free-roaming cats, No More Homeless Pets fosters only cats and kittens.

The organization has a clinic (in Merriam) but not a shelter and has five active families now fostering about 30 cats and kittens. “It’s not busy kitten season yet,” Jones says.

Halfway Home has only about 10 animals in foster care, but Henshaw, who’s new on the job, plans to expand the program.

In a corner of Cheryl and Matthew Westra’s living room is a plaid cat bed chock-full of cats: mother Liza, a calico mix, and four 5-week-old kittens, who at the moment are having breakfast. Or maybe brunch.

Liza appears young to be a mother of four. She’s small and thin, but she and her kittens are healthy, thanks in part to the Westras, who live in the Hickman Mills area. They’re a Wayside Waifs foster family that has taken in at least 60 mother cats and kittens over the last four years.

Liza was pregnant when she arrived. She gave birth in a dresser drawer of 13-year-old Mieke’s. The family has named one of the kittens Amelia Earhart, because of her independent, explorer-like nature.

Why do the Westras do this?

“I have perpetual kittens,” says mom Cheryl, who, once the kittens are full and drowsy, can give Liza some personal attention on her lap. “By the time they get to the annoying stage – climbing the curtains and walking on the window ledges – they’re big enough to go back, and I get a whole new batch of kittens. It’s heaven.”

Usually, anyway. The Westra kids are home-schooled, so they’ve seen kittens born. And die. It’s a valuable lesson.

Still, “it’s hard on the kids,” Cheryl says. “It’s hard on me.”

But mostly, fostering is a joyful experience. Cheryl says helping raise litter after litter makes her look altruistic without becoming “a crazy cat lady” with 100 cats. As it is, the family has two adult cats, one of which, “Uncle Roger,” has been known to try to nurse kittens. Despite the obvious.


A friendly black German shepherd mix named Hunter is the greeter at Deborah Kallevig’s home in downtown Overland Park, Kan., which has a heated two-car garage that’s gone to the dogs. Besides kennels, this “dog living room” has a couple of couches, too. As they figure out how to behave in a home, the dogs will have more access to the rest of the house.

Kallevig’s foster charges qualify as “special needs” animals. At the moment her menagerie includes Hunter, who’s recovering from an old spinal cord injury; Ribbons, a blind and deaf keeshond; and Scruffy, an 18-year-old black cat. Kallevig calls him “Old Black Cat.”

Pet the keeshond and she’ll freeze; she’s not sure what’s happening. One way Kallevig communicates with her is by stomping her foot near the dog. If Ribbons happens to run into another dog, she’ll bounce off it like a pinball, Kallevig says.

Hunter the German shepherd was anxious and nervous in the shelter. He needs to put on weight and calm down, which will be easier in a home environment.

Both dogs are about 12, and both have obviously lived in homes before and been trained.

Kallevig, who fosters for the Pet Connection shelter in Mission, Kan., calls herself a foster addict.

“Once they come, they come. We fix ’em, then they go. I say I need a break (from fostering), and that lasts two days,” says Kallevig, who has three sons. She can never take a vacation, but then again, she doesn’t want to.

At least 70 dogs have lived with the Kallevigs. She has had the old black cat for a year and a half.

Surprisingly, maybe, animals like her current foster pets will probably be adopted. Melody Kelso, founding director of the Pet Connection, says elderly pets tend to find homes.

So, too, three-legged dogs, cats with heart conditions and yes, deaf and blind animals. (Pet Connection also has a day program, a rent-a-dog kind of deal, for people who want to give a dog an outing. There’s no charge.)

The Pet Connection offers behavioral support to its foster parents, so if issues arise, all Kallevig has to do is call.

“Once a dog figures out what you expect of them, they understand the rules, they know how to live in a house with other dogs and people … you have this wonderful dog that’s ready to be someone’s lifelong pet,” Kallevig says.


Sometimes, however, that someone is the foster parent.

Yes, a whole lot of foster parents end up becoming “foster failures.” That means that when it’s time to return the pet to the shelter, they just can’t do it. They adopt the foster pet as their own pet.

On one hand, at least the animal has found a good home.

But …

“The best foster people love them and want the best for them, but they ultimately know they have to give them up,” says Rowland at the Humane Society. “If you adopt them all, your house is going to fill up, and you won’t be able to help anyone after that.”

Kelso at Pet Connection says fully half of first-time foster parents there end up adopting the pet. Another 30 percent stop after one foster experience because they can’t handle the heartache of saying goodbye to the pet.

Sampson says Wayside Waifs expects a high rate of foster failures (and even offers half-price adoptions to foster parents), but they know one way around it: Don’t place just one pet at a time in a foster home.

“If you send out a litter to them, they’ll bring it back.”

Sweet Pea postscript

Sweet Pea the timid German shepherd has had a rough go of it. At her foster home she’d get sick after eating. She returned to Halfway Home to be spayed and vaccinated – and she tested positive for heartworm. The shelter started treatment.

But she got sicker and sicker and was put on an IV. The following day, the shelter wasn’t sure the dog would survive the night.

But she did. Mid-week she was doing better, and by the end of the week the dog had the all-clear to return to her foster family, the Andrewses.

“My girls are already in love with her and wanting to adopt her,” Tammy Andrews says.

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