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How do I transition my foster cat into a forever pet?

On any given day, between 50 and 70 million stray or feral cats call the US. home. Left uncontrolled, feral cat populations are at increased risk for health problems, parasitic infections, and accidental death. Shelters across the nation work tirelessly to address the problem, but many are already stressed by lack of resources and an abundance of strays.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an uptick in pet fosters and adoptions—reducing the shelter population by 40% or more—as people are spending more time under stay-at-home orders. If you’re thinking of fostering a cat, or if you’re already a caregiver who’s looking to give your foster cat a forever home, there are a few important factors to consider.

Transitioning Tips for Your Foster Cat

Cats that have spent much of their lives as strays often take some time to transition to domestic life. If you’ve obtained your foster from a shelter, your animal has likely been spayed or neutered and given its required vaccinations. But that’s just the beginning. Integrating your foster into your family and routines will likely take some patience and understanding.

Allow your animal time to adjust. Domestic life is unfamiliar to many stray or feral cats, so be patient and allow your animal to explore its surroundings. If you have other pets in the home, wait a few days before making introductions. Your foster’s personality will likely dictate the appropriate of their integration.

Provide a cozy place for your pet to retreat from the action. Cats cherish their solitude, and when household activity becomes overwhelming, most will seek out a private place to relax. By providing your foster with a cozy hideout, you’ll help your new pet de-stress.

Choose a healthy diet. Cats are carnivores by nature, so they need meat and the protein it contains. If you’ll be feeding your cat kibble, select a brand that includes meat protein and a minimum of carb fillers. Look for real meat ingredients (e.g., chicken is preferable to poultry, and chicken meal is preferable to chicken byproducts).

Be sure your cat gets ample exercise. Cats love natural hunters that love to run, jump, chase, and play. By providing your foster with some home amusements (such as a cat tree, a feather wand, or a plush catnip mouse), you’ll help ensure that your pet stays active and mentally engaged.

Watch For These Behavioral Signs

Cats, like dogs, can display problem behaviors, especially while adjusting to new or unfamiliar surroundings. Feral animals may be hesitant to trust people and may be more prone to anxiety than their domestic counterparts.

  • Hiding. Hiding during times of stress is normal for cats. Provide a safe place for your foster retreat and in time your animal should come around.
  • Toileting Issues. Most cats learn where the litter pan is and what it’s for without much coaching from their human families—but cats can signal physical or emotional problems by toileting outside the pan, soiling rugs or bedding. If your pet has persistent toileting problems, the cause could be medical (such as a urinary tract infection) or emotional (such as jealousy of another pet). If you’re unsure, see your vet to rule out any medical causes.
  • Destructive Behaviors. Upon entering a new and unfamiliar environment, a stray cat may act out by clawing curtains or furniture. Some cats may even be aggressive. While declawing is not recommended, you may be able to help your pet develop healthier habits by providing ample amusements. If behavior problems persist, your vet may be able to recommend a consult with an animal behaviorist.

What is a Foster Failure?

Choosing to become a foster caregiver to a pet is a big decision that comes with some very real responsibilities. Fostering can also be a unique chance to bond with an animal that will become your forever pet. If you’ve fallen in love with your foster and want to adopt, go ahead. Remember, a foster fail isn’t a fail when it’s an adoption success!

If you’re already fostering an animal, thank you. And if you’re looking to foster for the first time, check online for the animal shelters in your area. Fostering and adopting a pet can be among the most rewarding experiences of a lifetime.

Editor’s Note: The Contra Costa Humane Society has a comprehensive Cat Foster Manual available for download here (PDF).


Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.

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