Fostering animals at the end, worth the heartache (Opinion)
Humane Society volunteer
On Bingo’s last night, we cuddled on the floor so he could more easily get up and walk the two feet to his water bowl, which he visited frequently, but had stopped drinking from. That was one of the indications that this sweet old kitty was not much longer for this world. I felt his soft purr and thanked him for teaching me so much in the two short weeks that he’d spent with me in foster.
You’ve probably heard about fostering: temporarily bringing home a pet that is or will soon be available for adoption at the local animal shelter. Maybe a neighbor had a litter of kittens for a few weeks; or a coworker brought home a dog while it awaited surgery. But providing end-of-life care for a cat? This less common foster situation is for animals that won’t ever be going back to the shelter, and that’s the point. In this case, a volunteer is providing hospice care in a foster setting. Hence, “fospice”: providing a comfortable place for an ailing animal to live out the last of its days. But what does that mean and, the question you really want to ask, why would anyone volunteer to do that?
Bingo arrived at the Humane Society of Truckee Tahoe when his elderly owner passed away. Many pets become homeless in this way, and through the work of an animal shelter, start a whole new phase of life with an adoptive family. But during Bingo’s medical intake exam, staff discovered that he had advanced oral cancer, and likely wouldn’t live long.
Bingo himself wasn’t aware of this prognosis though; he wasn’t yet suffering significant pain or handicap. Some shelters have to make the difficult decision at this point to euthanize an animal, even if it still has a good quality of life. Mercifully, HSTT is what is sometimes called a “no kill” shelter; they don’t euthanize an animal for financial or space reasons. Still, staff knew he was unlikely to be adopted, and that shelter life would be particularly unpleasant for an aged gent like Bingo. Through their network of volunteers, HSTT found a better option for Bingo: “fospice”; he would live out the rest of his days, as long as he could enjoy them, in a foster home.
At 14-years-old, Bingo had knobby legs and slightly greasy fur. He ate voraciously, jumped up on counters, played with feathers and even gave the dog a boop on the nose for getting too close. He definitely didn’t seem terminally ill. That is, until the day he did. Bingo’s health took a turn late one evening (why do the bad things always happen late at night?) and his decline happened quickly.
I cried as I carried Bingo into the HSTT clinic the next morning and said my last goodbye. I admonished myself for being emotional when I had known from the start that this would be the outcome.
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard,” said Alison Herzog, animal sShelter manager for Town of Truckee Animal Services.
And she should know; she has fostered eight elderly pets on their journey toward the rainbow bridge. (Merle, her current fospice pet, is 14-years-old and still enjoying life). Of course it’s hard to see them decline, but once you accept that your only goal is to keep them comfortable, the task takes on a sweeter tone.
“The intention of course isn’t to prolong an animal’s life unnecessarily; but to give them a warm, loving, dignified place to spend their final days, months, even years,” says Alison. “Senior pets ask for so little and it is so easy to give them that. It is extremely rewarding.”
The biggest reward for me is in the act of giving selflessly. It nurtures a sense of compassion, patience and generosity that is easy to lose sight of in our stressful lives.
Providing companionship to an elderly animal feels all the more special because you know that their time is limited. An aging pet like Bingo has given unconditional love and comfort to his humans for a long time. It’s an honor to be the one to provide that for him in return.
If you would like to learn more about the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe’s foster program (including their fospice program), please reach out to, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maria Marsh is a volunteer at the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe.
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