It’s no surprise that lots of fostering families have a family pet, a cat or a dog, or even a snake or a parrot, since foster carers are often people who love the company of pets in their home. Indeed, cat and dog owners tend to be the type of person with the personal qualities to be great foster carers! However, I’m often asked by prospective foster carers who are followers of our popular Facebook page if they can apply for fostering if they have pets.
The answer to this is straightforward as having a pet rarely rules anyone out from becoming a foster carer, but it is something that is taken into account as part of a fostering assessment. Here I have done some research to share with you why pets can be a real benefit in fostering and can go a long way in helping a looked after child or young person to settle happily into your home.
The whole family fosters – including pets!
Back in the eighties, when I was in care, I fondly remember some of the pets I lived with, as well as those I was allowed to keep as a pet of my own.
They added up to quite a menagerie, including a hamster, gerbils, goldfish and… stick insects! In varying degrees, these pets, which were my responsibility, taught me how to look after a creature much smaller than me, although several sharp, bloodletting bites from Rocky the hamster resulted in a rather weak ‘attachment bond’, compared, a few years later, to lots more fun with my much more docile gerbils, Judo and Scoopy.
Throughout my time in foster care, there were also family pets, mostly cats. In Kinoulton, Nottinghamshire were two cats, Sunny and Poddy, and, being in rural countryside, there were also chickens, which I was sometimes asked to herd into a coop in the evening to protect them from roaming night-time foxes. In the morning I would love to let out the hens and then peer inside to collect eggs that had been laid.
I also recall pre-school walks to pick handfuls of greenery from the grounds of the village hall across our road for our two rabbits. At the weekends, I would visit a local stable to muck out horses. My foster-mother at that time advised me that this was ‘character building’ and good for me!
There were more cats, too, at a later foster home in West Bridgford, Nottingham. A rather stately older lady named Penny who enjoyed the quiet life until a new arrival, a kitten, a black and white fluffball who was named William.
This little boy spent his first weeks hiding behind furniture and refusing food unless it was tinned salmon until my foster-mother one day left a bowl of regular cat food out until hours had passed and the kitten realised it was that, or starvation. William got the idea pretty quickly and went on to harass poor Penny mercilessly in later years.
Pets as ‘therapy’
Many children come into care following years of emotional trauma that makes it extremely difficult to trust adults, much less open up to them about their feelings. Their strong sense of rejection, through neglect and abuse before coming into care, and of abandonment afterwards, unsurprisingly causes emotional numbing. This is a natural way for young minds to cope with what has happened to them.
If you own a pet, you know that they can bring a lot of joy and love to your home and giving a child or young person an opportunity to be involved in the care of a cat or dog can be a great way of helping them to feel more involved with family life and ‘part of’, rather than ‘apart from’.
Having animals in a foster home can bring positive benefits for foster children who have come a background of parental neglect. Pets are a constant and reassuring presence for a child with an early life history of instability and uncertainty.
Pets can give children a way to thaw out and care for or play with an animal that offers affection in return and can often be an ice-breaker by giving a few wholehearted laughs from time to time, as well as being great at relieving loneliness, making them a wonderful part of a foster family.
Making sure everyone’s compatible
As part of your fostering assessment, your supervising social worker will want to meet your pet and will take into account things like behaviour and temperament, that they are house-trained and safe around children, as well as noting that some children and young people may have allergies to animals in the home.
Only a few kinds of pets are barred from fostering placements, and those include animals which are required to be registered under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 or the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, as this is contrary to child safeguarding obligations.
I’ve been supporting fostering agencies to recruit new foster carers for many years, and I’ve yet to hear of an applicant who has been asked to choose between running a mini-zoo in their home, or becoming a foster carer, but there’s always a first time!
Children copy what they see
For aspiring foster carers, it should be considered that some children may have seen adults being extremely cruel to animals, and it can be difficult to predict when their own bad memories of this might result in acting-out in a similar way.
So, if you have pets it is worth thinking about how you might react and respond to a child accidentally injuring one of your pets or mistreating your dog or cat which has become the object of a foster child’s pent-up frustration and suppressed trauma. It’s something that may be discussed as part of your fostering assessment.
During the introduction process between your family and a new child or young person, any known instances of their exposure to animal cruelty with be shared with you so that you and your supervising social worker can discuss whether that poses a risk to your pet.
It also must be said that any fostering applicant, or person in their household who has a conviction for cruelty to animals will be precluded from fostering.
A lifetime of love for animals
For my part, thanks to the love of all my feline foster-pets from my childhood in care, I have developed a particular fondness for cats. I love that I have to earn their affection, and I do this partly by playing with them often, and attempting, somewhat failingly, to train them.
As an adult, I have since fostered two cats from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, and my partner and I now have two beautiful cats, Cosmos and Gaia. So far, I’ve managed to train Cosmos to ‘lie down’ using the well-known positive-reinforcement technique, well known to cat owners as ‘Dreamies’, and I’m working with him on giving me a high-five!
For all children, not just those who come to live with you from a troubled and painful background, caring for a pet teaches a sense of responsibility, of kindness for a creature smaller than themselves, and the important personal quality of empathy, which is something that may not have been shown to children before they are placed into your care.
It’s difficult to imagine any vet, animal psychologist, police dog-handler, pet shop owner, horse-rider, or even zookeeper who didn’t have a pet as a child. I think pets make a house into a home and caring for them makes us better people. In fact, I think happy pet owners generally make good foster carers!
I interviewed my cat Gaia for this blog, asking her what benefits she could bring to fostering. She meowed that just being herself was all anyone could wish for and set about washing herself!