If you’ve read the other articles in our Foster Cats 101 series, you’ve heard me gush about how amazing fostering can be. Don’t let the title of this article fool you. I’ll be gushing in this one too. Believe it or not, saying goodbye as a foster guardian can be a beautiful thing. It is so rewarding to see your foster cat, whom you have loved and cared for, start a new life with someone else who will do the same — for the rest of their life!
Sadly, it also seems to be a big reason people don’t think they’re cut out to foster cats. They’re not sure how to manage the emotions of letting their foster go after building a bond. So, let’s talk about it and take some of the mystery away. I'll share tips for getting through difficult times and, most importantly, finding the positive, warm-and-fuzzy feelings that are easy to overlook when you’re in an emotional tornado.
- Foster Cats 101: Why You Should Consider Fostering a Cat
- Foster Cats 101: How to Become a Foster Cat Guardian
- Foster Cats 101: Applying to Be a Cat Foster Volunteer
- Foster Cats 101: Your First Foster Cat — Set Up and What to Expect
- Foster Cats 101: Caring for Your Foster Cat
- Foster Cats 101: How to Help Your Foster Cat Get Adopted
There are two different “goodbyes” in fostering. The first is wonderful. As a foster guardian, your ultimate goal is to hand your beloved foster cat over their forever family (or the rescue organization, if they keep their adoption-ready cats in-house). That’s the goodbye we’re all waiting for. The second is much more difficult. If you take fosters with serious medical conditions, as I often do, or those nearing the end of their life, you may be their final home and part of their last moments.
These are obviously very different situations. But they’re both tough to handle and significant barriers for people interested in fostering or considering taking on more difficult cases. I hope to help ease your mind by sharing some of my experiences, good and bad, and the wisdom of life-long foster families who’ve been through it all.
When Your Foster Cat Goes to Their Forever Home
I hear it all the time. “You foster? That’s amazing. I don’t think I could do it, letting a cat go after spending so much time with them.” While I completely understand that feeling, it breaks my heart that people who have the love and capacity to foster are hesitant to do it, just because of the ending. But here’s the thing. It’s all a matter of perspective. You can look at it as giving away an animal you’ve come to love. Or you can look at it as the successful completion of the most wonderful adventure and a new life for an animal you’ve come to love.
To me, that moment of placing my foster cat in the arms of their forever family is the entire point of what I do, the end goal. It’s everything. That’s when they stop being abandoned, stray, injured, or whatever brought them to the rescue in the first place, and start being part of a family.
That’s what I focus on. From the first time the rescue organization tells me about my new foster cat, I’m thinking about what I need to do to help them get to that goal. Every behavioral milestone, clean bill of health from the veterinarian, and successful interaction with another person or animal, brings us one step closer to the finish line.
Okay, real talk. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy saying goodbye and knowing I won’t see my foster cat when I wake up the next morning. I’m human – an overly emotional human at that. But the sadness is totally eclipsed by the joy of the entire experience of fostering a cat. I’m not going to let that one blue moment keep me from helping them, and in turn, helping myself.
When You Start Feeling Anxious About an Impending Adoption
- You did it! Whether your foster cat was scared, lonely, aggressive, injured, ill, or just in need of love, you helped them through, and they’re ready for the first day of the rest of their life with a loving family.
- They did it! Your foster cat beat all the odds, and overcame any number of difficult, even unthinkable situations. They found a loving and generous human to give them everything they needed to get better. And now they can settle into a beautiful, secure new life.
- Many people were part of rescuing and caring for this foster cat. It’s a success for everyone who shed blood, sweat, and tears to get to this point.
- When one kitty door closes, another opens. You can start looking for your next foster cat as soon as you feel ready. You saved one life, and now you get to save another. And you get to experience the joy and excitement of getting to know another special animal.
The Inevitable Foster Fail
And then there’s the foster fail. In the world of fostering, a foster fail means you just couldn’t say goodbye. The bond was too strong, and you adopted your foster cat. I admit it. I foster failed … with my VERY FIRST FOSTER. I only had him for about a week, and I was head-over-heels in love. It happens to the best of us. And in most cases, the foster family has priority if they’re interested in adopting their foster cat. It’s a fantastic thing!
I only ask that you consider how adopting will affect your ability to continue fostering. So many families stop fostering because they decide to adopt their first foster cat. I urge, beg, and plead with you to continue fostering even if you adopt. You put so much thought, energy, and emotion into the decision to become a foster guardian. The rescue organization may have dedicated time and resources to prepare you. And there’s such great need for good foster families. We don’t want to lose you! But we can’t deny the joy when you make the final decision to adopt a cat you’ve been caring for.
How Do I Cope with All These Emotions?
It’s all fine and good for me to tell you to look on the bright side. But how do you actually do that? How can we work through those deeper feelings that creep up on us, sometimes unexpectedly? Here are some helpful suggestions.
Do it Your Way
Everyone handles the emotions of fostering differently. You do you! Cry if you want to cry, be it happy or sad tears. Focus on a project to take your mind off of it. Call a friend and let loose. Have an internal dialog therapy session. Or hash it out with a professional therapist. Find the process that works for you.
Throw a Goodbye Party
As I've said, goodbye is the goal. It’s the marker of success. So why not celebrate it. Turn adoption day into a party. You did it! Your foster did it! Time for a video montage and a cocktail.
It’s Okay to Be Sad
And don’t let anyone tell you differently. (I’m talking to you, inner voice.) Whether you’re saying goodbye as your foster heads off to a new home or suffering a loss, it’s completely reasonable to feel whatever you’re feeling. We all do that thing. “I shouldn’t be upset. I know what I’m going through is nothing compared to what other people have been through.” That’s a bunch of malarkey. Everyone has a right to their emotions (or lack thereof if you’re one who processes things internally). Your feelings are justified. The way you choose to deal with them is yours. And you have no reason to diminish what you’re going through. Let yourself feel it so you can move through it.
Look to the Future
One of the great joys of fostering cats is getting to meet, support, and fall in love with new cats all the time. You’ve done your part with your current foster. And now you have the opportunity to help a new little spirit. It’s an exciting time!
If you’ve been through a particularly rough foster situation, you can always look for a simpler case for your next foster. Instead of taking in a cat with serious medical issues or a kitten whose health is in question, foster a healthy furball or do a short-term foster. Keep it light until you’re ready to dive back into the deep end. And if you find the deep end is just a little too deep, don’t beat yourself up. There is no shortage of cats who need foster care, and they don’t have to be tough cases. Healthy, happy furballs need foster love too.
Turn it into a Learning Opportunity
Every foster cat is a new opportunity to learn. And so is every goodbye. If you’re handing your foster off to their forever family, you might make arrangements to keep in touch or ask for an update a few months down the road. You can see how your training helped your foster cat adjust to their new environment, how your overview with the new family helped them manage the transition, and even how accurate your intuition was about what your foster cat would become and what type of family they’d do best with. Take this insight into your next foster experience and continue to grow.
Getting Through a Tragic Loss of a Foster Cat
Finding Joy in the Sadness
It’s difficult to know where to start. My story is as good a place as any. I think I can safely say this is a very rare, worst-case-scenario situation. So, when I tell you I’ve been through the wringer and still couldn’t wait to foster again, I’m speaking from experience.
I specialize in fostering cats with special medical needs – those going through treatment or recovering from injury or illness. My first foster cat had a straightforward respiratory infection. Easy enough. My second foster, Bettina, was a beautiful, stray, tiger-striped angel awaiting an amputation and removal of a small portion of her lung after being shot with a pellet gun. It was a long road.
She was with me for many months as she got healthy enough for surgery and then through her recovery. She handled it beautifully. In fact, you can read a little bit about her recovery and how I cared for her in the article What to Expect after Your Cat's Surgery. When she got the all-clear from the veterinarian, I was overjoyed. One small hurdle to go, and she’d be up for adoption. She just needed to be spayed and heal up for a couple of weeks.
We were all ready. The rescue organization had her adoption page all set. We just needed her incision to heal. But it wasn’t happening as quickly as it should have, and she wasn’t herself. Working with all the information they had, the clinic thought she was probably licking her wound and in pain from the sutures they used. But my gut told me something more serious was going on.
This is why I say never be afraid to speak up if you sense something’s wrong, even if you can’t prove it. Trust your intuition.
One morning, I noticed she was sitting on my bookshelf, licking the books. This stood out to me because I’d seen something similar with my dog when I was a kid. Although a clear cause has not been identified for licking strange things, it can be an indication that there is a medical problem. It was serious for my dog. So, I didn’t delay and took her straight to the clinic. It took a couple of days to get a diagnosis as she continued to decline.
Sadly, it was the worst possible outcome. Bettina was diagnosed with feline leukemia virus (FeLV), a virus that can cause a progressive infection, replicating in lymph nodes and bone marrow and eventually leading to FeLV-associated diseases. Also, it is contagious to other cats. I said this was a very rare situation because she’d actually been tested before she came to stay with me, and she was negative. Somehow, the virus didn’t show itself until later, which also put my resident cats at risk (thankfully, they were all fine). This disease was taking her very suddenly and unexpectedly.
An army of rescue staff, veterinarians, and specialists fought for her, as they had been for months. I drove 90 minutes each way to visit her in the hospital every day. The decision was finally made to euthanize and humanely let her go. I was lucky to be with her at the end. And the rescue was kind enough to let me have her ashes, which was so important because I wanted to be able to say she had a forever home. It wasn’t the one I imagined for her. But she wasn’t a stray. She was loved. She had a favorite sunny spot, a special place to sleep, an older brother to play with, and all the love in the world. She had a home with me.
Why am I breaking your heart with this story? Because she wouldn’t have had all those wonderful things — she wouldn’t have a forever home now, her ashes sitting with other beloved pets I’ve lost — if I hadn’t taken the emotional risk and chosen to foster her. She would have lived her short life in a kennel at the rescue instead of sleeping next to me and my other cats at night. She didn’t have the long life so many people fought for. But she did have a life — a good life — because of fostering.
Am I crying right now, writing this? Yes, like a baby. Mostly because I spent so much time thinking about the best family for her and all the quirks and special stories I wanted to share with them. We worked so hard, her and I, to get her through the surgery and ready to start life as a house cat. And she never made it to that finish line.
But I’m smiling through the tears because of everything I was able to give her in her short life and, just as important, everything she gave me. Believe it or not, I was incredibly anxious to foster again after I lost Betti. I grieved very hard and very long. I still mourn her loss. But I celebrate her life and how lucky I was to be a part of it. And after a little self-care, I couldn’t wait to do it again. I longed to help another beautiful cat to the adoption finish line.
Even More Emotions! How Can I Work Through This?
Many of the coping tools above are relevant for even the most painful losses. Finding a grieving process that works for you, allowing yourself to feel whatever you're feeling, and looking to the future is the perfect place to start. But if you find this hurt goes deeper, these are the ideas that help me through to the other side.
Give Yourself the Time You Need
It may be a day, a week, a month. Take the time you need to feel better, especially if you’ve been through a difficult foster situation that ended in loss, or even an extended foster case that ended happily but took an emotional or physical toll.
Some people are excited to foster again right away. I was, after losing Bettina. I felt an overwhelming need to do something positive again and a renewed understanding of the quality of life she had with me. Even though it was cut so much shorter than anyone expected, I gave her a beautiful few months she wouldn’t have had without a foster being willing to take her in.
But I also knew I needed a minute to center myself and dedicate some extra time and love to my own cats. My youngest cat had become very close with Bettina. He was also feeling her loss. Sometimes you just need to take a break, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Foster guardians need to be well to do the best for their foster cats. So, take the time you need for self-care.
Be Kind to Yourself
Particularly if you’ve lost a foster cat, your first instinct may be to go back and try to figure out where you screwed up. I’m going to take a leap of faith here and say that you DIDN’T screw up at all. It’s human nature to look for reason in tragedy. And sometimes, that search leads us to try and assign blame to ourselves or those around us. Just knock it off. Stop it right now.
You are amazing! What you’re doing for your foster cats takes strength, bravery, selflessness, and compassion. You’re their guardian angel. But it also takes faith in yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong. You did the best you could with what you had and what you knew. Don’t let this loss shake your faith in your ability to do good. You are enough. And you did enough. There is no blame in this foster story.
Turn it into a Learning Opportunity
If you’re grieving a loss, don’t feel like you have to jump into analysis mode right away. But when you’re ready, you may find something new you can take from your experience, giving you more confidence and a deeper well of knowledge for the future.
Maybe there was a symptom that didn’t stand out at the time, but, in hindsight, might have been a clue. Maybe there was a particularly rough patch, and you’re thinking of ways to ease the process or provide more comfort next time around. Perhaps you and the rescue team could have communicated more effectively. We say hindsight is 20/20. It’s a frustrating fact.
But consider it a superpower you can use for the good of foster cats everywhere. Find something you can take away from this loss to help you be an ever-better foster guardian for the next furball that needs your support.
On the other hand, sometimes looking back isn’t the right approach. Maybe you prefer to look to the future. Your loss can still fuel your education. Consider doing some research on the causes behind that loss. Was it a virus you can spend a few hours studying up on? Can you read about different post-surgery care techniques or learn a little about warning signs for undiagnosed illnesses? The Kitten Lady says those of us who have lost foster cats are often the best situated to save more cats in the future. With each critical case comes invaluable knowledge that can — and will — save lives. And I couldn’t agree more.
You’re Not Alone
Not only do you have friends, family, and maybe even pets for support, you can also connect with other foster families, rescue organizations, and even anonymous animal lovers to share stories, get tips for handing the difficult times, and find comfort. And know that your rescue organization shares in your successes and your grief. They’ve formed the same attachments you have and dedicated themselves to your foster cats. Don’t be afraid to lean on them in good and bad times. Many rescues even offer loss counseling services to support their staff, volunteers, and foster families.
There are also so many books, websites, support groups, and hotlines to help those grieving the loss of a furry family member, be it foster or forever. Many are staffed by loving, committed volunteers, which, frankly, says something wonderful about animal lovers and their place in the world. Bestfriends.org has compiled this extensive list of pet loss and grief resources. Don’t be afraid to look for the support you need or provide support to others. We all have different experiences that can help someone else heal.
Use it as Fuel
This is another wonderful coping mechanism from The Kitten Lady. She suggests doing something to honor the life you’ve lost. In fact, that's what I'm doing with this Foster Cat 101 series. Through writing about my experiences and trying to bring new people into the world of fostering, I'm honoring Bettina and the impact she had on my life.
Start a small fundraiser for nonprofit organizations that rescue and treat cats like the one you fostered. Promote the idea of fostering to your friends and family. If you can bring one new volunteer into the foster guardian world, you’re impacting the future of so many potential foster cats. Volunteer for a weekend to help with a TNR program (trap, neuter or spay, return) to help humanely control kitten populations and manage feral cat communities. There’s a lot you can do to create something positive from a painful situation.
So yes, fostering comes with its share of emotional roads to navigate. Depending on the type of fosters you decide to take in, it can be scary thinking about what’s around the corner. But goodbye is just one small pitstop. Don’t let it define your entire foster journey. There is so much beauty and joy in the process.
I’ve had the privilege to be part of some amazing moments with my foster cats. I have snapshots in my mind of a former stray curling up in a comfy recliner for the very first time, and the first breeze that came through the window of the foster room and hit the face of a cat who’d been inside a rescue for more than six months. Or the chatter coming from a new foster who realized he could perch by the window and watch birds just outside in the tree.
I don’t know how to fully express the feelings of happiness, peace, wonder, and inspiration from fostering cats in need. But I know, without a doubt, those moments of sadness, overwhelming and powerful as they may be, will never overshadow the moments of pure joy I have with every foster cat who becomes part of my family for just a little while. Hold on to those moments. They will carry you through the rough patches and give you more than enough strength to continue sharing your home and heart with these beautiful animals.