Fostering cats and kittens is something I've been doing since I was in fourth grade- about twelve years of my life. From kittens that just needed a place to stay for a while to cats that required gloves to be handled, I've had the pleasure of working with a wide variety of felines. One thing I've learned is that no matter the cat or situation, you'll have a story to tell when the fostering period is over.
The biggest lesson I learned from fostering is that patience is truly a virtue.
Because I started at such a young age, it was the typical "little girl wants kittens to play with" situation. What I got was very different. While some of the cats and kittens I fostered were happy to sit in my lap and purr, there were others that took months just for me to pet.
Working with Mid Michigan Cat Rescue, many of the felines I fostered were brought in straight from the streets. Being strays their whole lives, it understandably took a long time for them to warm up to humans. And, seeing as I soon became the one in my family who was doing most of the fostering, it was a lesson I had to learn early on.
One memorable story was of a kitten who came with a thick pair of gloves and the instructions to never handle with bare hands. Yes, it was a kitten. So you can imagine that the fostering period for this kitten, in particular, took many many nights of only being able to sit outside of the cage reading children's books so that they could get used to my voice. (Pro tip: if you wear an old, maybe too-snug shirt for a day and then put it in your foster cat's cage, it'll slowly get used to your scent as well!)
From bedtime stories I moved to light play periods (through the cage bars) followed by lots of treats so that the interactions always ended on a positive note. Basically, I had to get the kitten to associate me with its favorite things- sleeping, eating, and playing. I was more of an annoyance than any kind of companion at that stage.
Thankfully, there is a light at the end of the tunnel; with great patience comes great reward. After what seemed like months of only interacting with the kitten through steel bars, I finally was able to build trust to the point where I could begin petting and even holding the kitten- without gloves! While this may seem like a small step, I assure you that once you've put weeks of dedication into something like fostering, the first signs of affection are the sweetest.
The next lesson that fostering offered me was just as important- trust. More specifically, that it's something that goes both ways.
With the example above, the first few weeks of fostering the kitten took a lot of trust on both ends. For the kitten, it took learning to trust a completely new home and person- something the kitten had never had. For me, it took trusting myself and the kitten to the point where I could eventually handle her without gloves. And trust me, when you're handed a large pair of bulky gloves with your newest foster cat, it's a bit unsettling.
The truth is, the trust that builds between you and your foster companion is something that will change the both of you. It can be frustrating and even scary to work with aggressive cats and kittens- for both parties. My best advice is to take it slow. As silly as it seems, gently reading to your furry friend helps to instill familiarity and trust between you, as does the eventual playtime and treats. In the end, baby steps are the fastest way to a successful bond.
One other thing that fostering taught me is how to understand.
To start, I should say that all cats and kittens are different. Even with some of the shared characteristics, each cat has a personality that is different from any other. The key is to figure out the behavior early on and learn to adapt to it (and you can do that with people too).
The best way to figure out what kind of personality your foster cat has is to simply watch it. Cats have various ways of displaying their current moods, some of them basic and some more complex. For instance, I'll bet that most people associate purring with happiness. But did you also know that purring can mean frustration?
Cats will often purr when stalking and hunting, like a cat watching a bird through the window. Sometimes along with chirping, cats will resort to a frustrated purr when they can't get to their prey. This frustrated purr can also show itself when a cat doesn't want to be held, which is where it can get tricky. In these cases, you can turn to other signals.
Another sign of frustration or anger in a cat is a sharp, long flick of its tail. In fact, cats use their tails to relay a ton of messages, such as a "fluffy" tail when it's scared or angry and a slow, waving tail when it's happy or alert. There are actually a ton of indicators that cats use, with a ton of body parts. Ears back mean angry or scared (or simply listening to something behind them) while ears forward mean being alert. Whiskers fanned out are a sign of being alert, often being expressed while playing. Dilated pupils are a sign that your cat is very alert and probably about to strike.
The truth is, there are a ton of ways to watch your cat and figure out what kind of behavior it's displaying. These signals are cats' best way of communicating with us, and are thus crucial to learn as a foster mom. In order to help your foster cat, you have to be able to "listen" to what it wants and needs.
Sometimes your plans for the day are spoiled by the cat's grumpy behavior, and sometimes what you think is helping is actually harming the situation. Some people think that fostering cats is simply adjusting the cat to be better for a home environment, but the reality is that you often have to adjust yourself, as well.
All in all, there are a ton of lessons that I've learned through fostering cats. While they may seem small or specific to fostering, the reality is that many of the lessons can be extended to other parts of life.
My patience has taught me to work through difficult or excruciatingly slow situations, and what I've learned about trust has helped me to build bonds with other people as well as cats. And just like cats have different personalities, so do people. I've learned that understanding each other is a sometimes a hard process, but a rewarding one nonetheless. Thus, I am so grateful for my experience with fostering!