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How NOT To Fail At Fostering A Cat

Meet our new foster cat Harvey, a.k.a. Couscous. Harvey is not shy, almost never sits still and has a serious sock fetish. He’s about the same size as Ruby and sometimes acts more dog like than she does. Although he’s a great cat, he’s already been surrendered to the city shelter twice in fifteen months – once because he had fleas and the second time because his family was moving.

My track record with fostering cats (not to mention dogs and rabbits) is not great. Pip, Rosie, Lulu, Cleo and Elsie were all foster fails. We actually adopted Ruby and the mice, but otherwise we are a family of fosters gone wrong, or right depending on your perspective. Some cats I planned to re-home or admit to a shelter, others just kind of stayed because I didn’t make a plan for them to leave. In my defense, I have fostered many cats and dogs that I didn’t keep (but only because there was literally no room at the inn. And by inn, I mean our house).

I’m hardwired for foster failure; I pretty much fall in love with any animal that is in my house for more than five minutes and if they stay overnight, forget about it. Sleepovers are hard for me – I get attached. Even though I always tell myself (and promise my husband) that it will be different this time, I will be a grown up, – it never works out. I want to keep ALL of them. But time, space, and resources don’t allow me to do so, which is probably a good thing.

Tips on fostering cats and how not to fail at fostering

Fostering a cat or dog is a really BIG deal and one of the most important things you can do to help homeless pets in your community. When you foster a cat or dog from a shelter, you literally make room for another one to be saved. And while there are worse things than failing at fostering, keeping every foster pet kind of defeats the purpose. You eventually, and probably pretty quickly, run out of space. It’s a glass half-empty or half-full thing. You are giving an animal a home BUT you might not have room to foster another one. We haven’t fostered in awhile because I failed too many times and we ran out of space. I know this on a rational level but I’m not always (ever) rational when it comes to animals. It’s my strength and weakness all wrapped up in one.

We may very well “foster fail” with Harvey. Here’s where we are: he met Rosie briefly; she hissed at him and he backed down (she’s half his size, which made this exchange hilarious). Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to like Ruby much and this may be a deal breaker. We are in a wait-and-see phase.

If we adopt Harvey we will be able to take another foster cat, but if we fail at the next one, we are out of room. It’s a big deal with consequences; no right or wrong, black or white answers just lots of grey. This is probably the most rational I have ever been about fostering and in full disclosure, it won’t last.

how not to fail at fostering a cat and forgive yourself if you do

How Not To Fail At Fostering A Cat

  1. Do not give your foster dog or cat a nickname – not even one. Nicknames are like a road map to foster failure. You don’t give someone a nickname unless you really like them a whole lot. Harvey currently has five nicknames: Couscous, Doggie (because I keep forgetting he’s a cat), Dribbles, Teddy, and Hot Pocket.
  2. Don’t keep your foster cat or dog in your bedroom. If they are sleeping on your bed, all bets are off, just sign those adoption papers now and be done with it. Harvey is currently staying in our bedroom and my connecting office. He was originally sequestered in my office, but somehow the door magically opened and now he’s in the bedroom.
  3. Don’t buy your foster cat or dog a bunch of new stuff. We bought Teddy a fluffy bed (which he promptly rejected). Fortunately, Rosie likes the new bed and Teddy likes Pip’s old bed so problem solved.
  4. Pretend they are just visiting. While you can’t take your foster cat out sightseeing, you can bring them breakfast on a tray like room service – and ask them if they are enjoying their stay and if they need anything else (like maybe a new home). Ideally, you may even be able to (depending on temperament and comfort level) take your foster dog on a tour of local attractions.
  5. Take your time, put your big girl pants on, and know your limits. Be realistic about your resources, time, space, and finances. And most importantly, be sensitive to how adding a new family member will impact your existing pets because they have a say in this, too!

The best thing about fostering cats is you save two lives – the cat you foster AND the cat who takes its place at the shelter. The not so great thing about fostering is you have to give them up, send them out into the world and trust that they will be safe and OK.

I haven’t fostered in several years. I thought I was ready, but fostering is hard for me and it turns out it is hard for mini-me as well (not surprising since she is my kid). I am mindful that my decision about Harvey will have consequences. It’s kind of a battle between my head and heart – and as usual, my heart is winning.

We will see. I will try my best not to fail. Whatever that means.

Harvey was rescued from Chicago Animal Care & Control by Grassroots Animal Rescue. Stay up-to-date on his time with us (whether it is a month or 10 years) by subscribing to our email list.

Five Tips On Fostering Cats and How Not To Foster Fail


  1. August 3, 2018 / 7:32 pm

    This is why the mom doesn’t foster. She falls in love too quickly. We temporarily fostered a cat from our local shelter, and even though it was only for 2 weeks, the mom had a tough time giving her back to the shelter. She found a good home…so that’s good.

  2. The OP Pack
    August 3, 2018 / 7:48 pm

    Ummm, look at that face – failure is inevitable:)

    Woos – Lightning, Misty, and Timber

  3. 15andmeowing
    August 3, 2018 / 8:10 pm

    Such a cutie 🙂 I would definitely fail and want to keep them all.

  4. kestrel42
    August 3, 2018 / 8:27 pm

    Even following your advice….I just can’t do it. I accept that I am a complete failure at fostering. Every single attempt has lead to a new member of My Tribe. How can you see that face and not want him!?!? Nope, he is too cute and if he were my foster he would be home, lol. Thanks for the advice even though I know I am a failure despite it.

  5. August 3, 2018 / 9:24 pm

    Chuckling here as I am sure I would become a foster failure so am looking at this way at the moment that I cannot have another pet in my studio it is much too small but I do know how important it is to foster

  6. August 3, 2018 / 9:33 pm

    OMD/OMC, I knows Ma would FAIL fursure! I thinks she is the same as your MOms…if they give her the ‘eyes’, that is IT! Pawsonially , I don’t thinks it’s a fail at all ☺
    Ruby ♥
    (the OTHER Ruby….☺)

  7. August 3, 2018 / 10:04 pm

    I commend those who foster (essentially expanding the shelter services) but I can’t do it. I’d never give them back. Technically, my black cat is a foster fail because I took her on the pretence of foster but knew I’d never give her up. Ever.

  8. Hindy Pearson
    August 4, 2018 / 1:37 am

    Great tips but I’m afraid I’m hardwired to be a foster failure. It really is a shame because once you “fail” especially if you don’t have room for more, you can no longer help other animals in need of a foster home. I did manage to let a couple of dogs go, but otherwise I just keep them forever. Of course I foster old dogs and sadly there was never a line of people waiting to adopt them. I do remember fostering kittens and decided I had to keep them, because I was afraid I would always wonder if they went to a good home and I didn’t want to live my life with that wonder.

  9. August 4, 2018 / 1:57 am

    Hari OM
    …I just failed and I’s sitting on the other side of some big water… sigh… best of luck and wishes to you. YAM xx

  10. August 4, 2018 / 2:50 am

    I would foster, why? Because we have a house full and there is no room for them to stay forever. That’s my logic.

    Re: little Harvey.I am concerned he has already had two stokes of bad luck before fetching up with you. The fault is not his but the effects on his confidence cannot be under estimated. I hope Ruby relents and is a bit friendlier. I would want to be absolutely sure he was safe in any ‘new home’ after he left you.

  11. August 4, 2018 / 2:59 am

    People who can foster are amazing. My momma knows she would be a failure.

  12. August 4, 2018 / 5:44 am

    Oh my gosh, he’s so sweet, how could you not fall in love with him? I know you will make the right decision. You are doing a good thing no matter what. If you “fail”, you’ve still given a homeless cat a new home. ♥

  13. August 4, 2018 / 6:26 am

    See how not alone you are, the Dad and Mom can’t do it either for all those same reasons. Harvey is such a sweet and handsome dude.

  14. Chelle
    August 4, 2018 / 6:37 am

    What a cutie! I’m a huge foster failure. I tried fostering rabbits a few times and adopted every single one of them. I think I’m just not cut out to be a foster, but do give a lot of credit to those who are! After we move and have more space I’m planning on trying to foster again, but I don’t have high expectations that I won’t just fail again.

  15. August 4, 2018 / 6:42 am

    Harvey is absolutely drop dead Gorgeous!…Wow that velvety nose and those eyes. Kinda looks like Madi with a black nose. Same shade of charcoal grey furs.
    Poor Mr. B is outnumbered with you and Miss M. I know you both are already in love with Harvey.
    Good luck with your efforts to ‘just’ foster.
    Hugs Cecilia and Madi

  16. August 4, 2018 / 7:16 am

    Harvey’s pretty cute. Here’s hoping he gets that fur-ever home…be it with you or some other angel on earth. 😇 Kudos for being such an advocate!

  17. meowmeowmans
    August 4, 2018 / 8:50 am

    Harvey sure is a cutie. Thank you for fostering him!

    Add us to the ranks of those who have foster failed. That’s how we adopted our Angel Maggie, and Gracie and (Angel) Zoe. 🙂

  18. August 4, 2018 / 9:59 am

    Oh my, Harvey’s eyes!!! I could’ve used this list last year, ha! Actually, I’m very happy that we foster failed with our two newest additions. I considered failing with all the cats we fostered last year, but didn’t. Two were adopted really quick, which helped. Woodrow, Lion at the time, had diet issues and I couldn’t think about returning him to a kennel instead of a free-roaming room. We kept him as a foster longer than usual to see if we could get any takers, but as you can see that didn’t happen. We were the takers! As for Harley, he was a little similar to Harvey in that he was adopted and returned twice in one year. (Btw, I can’t believe fleas was given as a reason for Harvey). When we adopted Harley, Ross wanted to rename him Harvey. But I liked Harley and he didn’t need another change. And since failing with Harley, we haven’t fostered again yet. But I know we will! I’m actually making adjustments in the house slowly to allow for it. Just no more failures, we’re definitely at our limit. And Eddie, our dog, definitely says we’re at our limit! I look forward to seeing what happens with Harvey, failure or not.

  19. August 4, 2018 / 12:22 pm

    I want to start fostering when my living arrangements allow it but I think I will have the same problem as you – I’ll want to keep them all. But I’m going to have to come here to read your tips again and try not to fail.

  20. August 4, 2018 / 1:18 pm

    I’d have a hard time fostering, too. Having them in my home would be the easy part, giving them back would be downright impossible. I think I’d rather run off to Mexico with the furry ones!

  21. August 4, 2018 / 2:35 pm

    Great post. That’s why Claire will probably never be able to foster : she would fail every time. Paws up for doing this ! Purrs

  22. Idaho PugRanch
    August 4, 2018 / 4:38 pm

    I used to think when I retired I would foster pugs in need but I am sure I would be a foster fail too!

  23. August 4, 2018 / 7:17 pm

    OMG, I love you for being such a great foster fail!! Fostering totally saves lives, whether or “fail” or not. I so hope you end up keeping Harvey, he’s been returned twice (for totally stupid reasons – some people just suck!) which has got to take a toll on a kitty. Bless your husband for being so understanding and letting you keep so many pets – I do not have that luxury in our house )- : Beautifully written post, as always!
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  24. Well with 2 Beagles in the house, cats through fostering or adoption are not even an option. As for fostering dogs/puppies – really no room either, especially as a foster fail. I would love to but since transportation as far as vet care or whatever reason is a problem for me (can’t drive) it is better for all concerned if I don’t. And foster fail is a real possibility.

  25. mtmburgess
    August 5, 2018 / 3:59 am

    I would definitely fail at fostering and it’s why I haven’t fostered, also one of our dogs has taken 2.5 years to get to where she is now, so adding another dog to the mix, I just don’t think is the right time right now but I hope to help other dogs in the future. Harvey is gorgeous, I hope he finds his furever home, whether with you or with another family who will love him forever.

  26. August 5, 2018 / 6:13 am

    I know my limits, too, but boy … that Couscous would be a “fail” at my house. What a sweetheart! I admire those able to do this important work.

  27. August 5, 2018 / 10:34 am

    I can’t foster. I know it too well. I’d have a 100 cats. I currently have 3 6 week old kittens, I originally thought I was giving away all 3. Then I though my daughter was going to adopt one and I would keep one and give one to a friend. Then that one fell in love with me. So two are staying and all three are in the family since my daughter is taking one, technically we’re going to co-own it so I can show him even if she can’t go with me.

  28. August 5, 2018 / 12:18 pm

    This would work less well with cats but with dogs the advice I was given was to foster breeds I didn’t have an affinity for or dogs that would not be a good match for our house long-term. It helps when you know you’re not the best home for them!

  29. August 5, 2018 / 2:31 pm

    Amazing tips for fostering! I especially like your personal tip to me “fostering a animal whose just had surgery during my weekend time at home”. I’m planning to discuss with the shelter ASAP.

  30. August 5, 2018 / 4:36 pm

    From what I observed with dogs, every first foster seems to be a foster fail. After that, I imagine people get their ducks in a row.

  31. August 5, 2018 / 5:05 pm

    While all our cats came directly from the street, everyone of our dogs is a “foster failure”. THAT’S why husband instituted a “No More Fostering” rule– I just can’t be trusted!

  32. August 5, 2018 / 6:29 pm

    Either way it is a win/win situation. If you don’t adopt him, he’ll end up in another good home. And you’ll have another chance to foster fail. If you do adopt him, that’s awesome! Thanks for stepping up and fostering repeatedly. I haven’t talked my husband into fostering yet, but I am working on it.

  33. August 5, 2018 / 10:24 pm

    I wouldn’t be able to foster. I truly admire those who do it and who are successful (even if they are “foster fails.”

  34. August 5, 2018 / 11:31 pm

    These are great fostering tips for cats. I agree it would be hard not to become attached. I think it is a great thing you are doing!

  35. August 6, 2018 / 7:14 am

    I think you’ve done a great job by taking on these extra pets. I have not fostered any pets since I am not home much during the day. Also my husband only likes to have one dog that we own. Maybe I’ll start fostering once I retire.

  36. FiveSibesMom
    August 6, 2018 / 8:55 am

    Oh, Harvey is so sweet…yup, I see him as a foster fail, I mean, just look at those sweet eyes… oye, this is why I can’t foster! I’d have a whole Husky sled dog team without ever mushing! Seriously, it is wonderful to foster, fail or not! The lives that are helped and that includes our own sometimes. I sometimes dream of having a huge farm so I could adopt and foster to my heart’s content…. Great post with good tips (I chuckled at #1 because that is exactly what I do – give nicknames! I’m sunk!) I’m Pinning this over on my “Bark About” board to share!

    PS – LOVE the new blog name!

  37. August 6, 2018 / 9:41 am

    LOL You sound like me!! I’ve been thinking about fostering for a while now and rack my brain about how would I prevent myself from failing. These are good tips to try but with a face like Harvey’s I know in my gut it’s a wrap! I mean look at that face though!! Either way it’s a win, either you foster and succeed or someone will have a forever home.

  38. August 6, 2018 / 12:22 pm

    harvey…wavez two ewe dood in chi town frum trout towne….we troo lee hope thiz werkz out for de best N ruby will say oh kay go a head N stay N de bozz sayz yea eye knead sum one ta watch me bak what with havin ta help chaze down de LOAN and all N & foster failure iz de best kinda failure ther iz lezz ya fail ta eat a BURD DINNER ~~~~~~~ 😉 ♥♥♥

  39. August 6, 2018 / 6:12 pm

    I know that I’d be a foster fail every single time… Harvey is a gorgeous kitty. Those eyes…. I’m failing from a distance! 🙂

  40. stella rose
    August 7, 2018 / 11:02 am

    This is such a good post, and so accurate. I know myself good enough that I would fail, fail and fail. See that is the problem with our goats. Butch bought them cos he thinks he is a farmer, BUT we named them, and feed them treats, and spend time with them, so when it came time to sale them I freaked out. I confronted him with “what do you mean SALE them!!” I guess he thought that is what farmers do, but heck we are not farmers…it has been quite an experience at our house, and sometimes I have lost the battle. I thought we would keep everyone. Ugh x’s 100. deb

  41. August 7, 2018 / 11:48 pm

    I learned most of these lessons back when I found Bear on the street. Once I named him and started feeding him – we all know how that was going to end.

  42. August 15, 2018 / 4:20 pm

    Hehehe, Jan has the same problem. We have never actually fostered but we have had a number of “visitors” come through. Not all left. Guess that makes Jan a visitor-failure. We’re always relieved when the visitor already has a home; we just have to figure out where it is, so we can send it home. but if it has no home …

  43. Margaret McCarthy
    November 9, 2019 / 1:05 am

    How sad so many said they couldn’t foster.. To know that a poor animal is suffering in a cold kennel while I had room to help is heart breaking. Like having a child grow up snd move away.. We deal. We survive. Same as we will when we foster. To know I can save many over a few. Helps with the letting go.. Hope some of you reconsider.. There is a doggie or kitty needing you to help them..

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