5 Important Life Lessons I’ve Learned From Fostering Animals

As I write this, Iím watching my foster momma cat teach her kitten how to play. Thereís nothing quite like seeing a 1-pound kitten confidently pounce on a fully grown cat. And itís surreal to think she might have been born outside somewhere, fighting every day to survive, if her pregnant mom hadnít been found as a stray and taken to the animal shelter.

For several years, Iíve volunteered my time as a foster pet parent for my local humane society. Iíve experienced triumphs and losses. Iíve gained invaluable knowledge. And Iíve foster failedóthree times. Iím by no means an expert, but every foster case has shaped me both as an animal caregiver and as a person. Here are five essential life lessons Iíve learned from fostering animals.

1. Never stop learning

puppy with cone on his head

There’s always more to learn in life, and fostering is no different. The organization youíre fostering for will likely have some kind of training program and be available to answer questions. But that doesnít mean you shouldnít educate yourself, too. ďItís best to have some knowledge about companion animal behavior and health,Ē according to Best Friends Animal Society. Every foster situation is unique, and issues often donít present themselves until you get an animal into your home. So you should always be honing your ability to spot problems and provide care.

My first foster who needed more than just routine medical care was a puppy who just had a broken leg amputated. In addition to the vetís instructions, I read as much information as I could about the aftercare of his surgery. Luckily he healed like a champ (and became my first foster failure ó i.e., I ended up adopting him). Since then, Iíve taken on two more dogs recovering from amputations and was able to put what Iíd learned to good use when one of them experienced complications. You definitely donít have to be a veterinarian to foster, but itís never a bad idea to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible.

2. Be able to say no

Once you start fostering itís hard to stop. The difference you make in animalsí lives as their bridge from bad situations to happily ever afters ó as well as the knowledge that plenty more animals need your help ó can easily motivate you to take in foster after foster. But there are times when you have to learn to say no.

I have five animals of my own ó three dogs and two birds ó so Iím already limited to fosters I can safely accommodate in my space. But even when an appropriate animal comes along, I still sometimes have to pass. As much as I hate saying no, I need breaks to decompress and spoil my own animals. Just like in any aspect of life, itís important to know your limits when fostering. Plus, donít forget there are other ways to help your local animal shelter if you need a foster break.

3. Thereís always something to smile about

dog lying down and smiling

Iíve seen some fosters in rough shape when they stepped through my door. But animals are the best teachers of eternal optimism, and foster animals are prime examples of that.

Before I foster failed my border collie, she came to me as a neglected, abused shell of a dog. Sheíd hide from the squeak of a toy. She hated the snap that the clasp on her collar made. And sheíd cower if I moved my hands too quickly. But she couldnít get enough petting (and still canít), and thatís when her huge smile broke free. Despite her fear and confusion during those foster days, she still managed to find the positives in her situation ó a lesson we all should take to heart.

4. Donít be afraid of failure

I hear it all the time: ďI could never foster because Iíd want to keep all the animals!Ē And itís true. Unless youíre somehow immune to the charm of these creatures, youíll wish they could live with you forever. But hereís the twist: Failure is an option.

In this case, failure means things just didn’t go according to plan, and that’s OK. Iím three dogs richer thanks to fostering. I didnít plan that, but somehow they all were perfect fits in my little pack. Iíve definitely wanted to keep other fosters, but I knew I wasnít the right home for them. When you foster, itís the animalís needs that come first. Itís your job to give them whatever it is they require to be able to find that forever home, regardless of whether itís with you or someone else. †

5. Itís never too late to change your life

happy dog in grass

As a foster pet parent, youíll likely see a lot of young animals, especially those who simply need a little more growing time before they can be adopted. But itís the older animals who might impact you the most.

One of my early fosters was an older Labrador-hound mix. She had no history, but it was clear sheíd been neglected. She was skinny, battling multiple ailments and depressed. It seemed like she was just going through the motions of life: get up, eat, go out, return to bed. But one day when I took her outside, she suddenly came alive and started joyfully rolling in the grass. After that turning point, she slowly became more engaged in her surroundings. And she ended up finding a forever home where her gentle, old soul could finally be at peace ó better late than never.

Images by Mary Daly


hELEN h5 months ago


Alexandra R
Alexandra Richards5 months ago

Thank you.

Elizabeth M
Past Member 5 months ago

thank you mary great article.

Chad A
Chad A6 months ago

Thank you.

Deborab S
Deborab S6 months ago

Thank you. I would want to keep them all.

michela c
michela c6 months ago

I'll keep on fostering animals in need every time I can.

Naomi D
Naomi Dreyer6 months ago


Amanda M
Amanda McConnell6 months ago

THanks for sharing

Amanda M
Amanda McConnell6 months ago

THanks for sharing

Janet B
Janet B6 months ago