March 12, 2001 -- Florida widow Louella Rohr had managed her share of problems in life when her mother died in 1990. Although her mother was very elderly, Rohr, then age 70, sank into a depression after the funeral.
So severe did it become that her physician prescribed antidepressants. But after a while, Rohr says she felt hooked. So she made a courageous decision. She signed herself into a 28-day detoxification program at a nearby hospital. She was looking forward to getting off the drugs but was anxious about how her constant companion, Zeeba, would fare without her. The sleek black Doberman meant everything to her. And with no family around, Rohr didn't know where to turn.
Then someone told her about a program run by the Humane Society of Vero Beach. Under the Foster Pet Care Program, pets are temporarily housed at the Vero Beach shelter or sent to volunteers who take animals into their homes while owners are hospitalized or relocated after a significant life event. Zeeba was lucky enough to get in the program. And Rohr still remembers how happy Zeeba was to see her the day she finished the program and they were reunited.
Around the country, several similar programs are in operation, many of them modeled after the Vero Beach program, believed to be the first when it opened in 1986. Some foster pet care programs are dedicated to caring only for pets of owners with AIDS, while others care for pets whose owners are ill with any condition, or who are escaping domestic violence or natural disasters and can't immediately take their pets with them.
The arrangements vary, too. Some programs shelter the animals in a special part of their kennels; others send them to trained volunteers. Some programs do both. Foster owners are carefully selected and trained, and often are visited in their homes to assess their capabilities.
Whatever the specifics, the programs have a common denominator: making pets feel as comfortable as possible. But the benefits of such programs go far beyond the pets, advocates say. Because a growing body of research suggests health benefits of the human-animal bond, it makes sense that disrupting that bond by removing a pet permanently isn't advisable. Foster care can relieve owners' anxieties and allow them to focus on recovering or rebuilding their lives. And there's yet another advantage: volunteers who care for these pets say their sense of well-being increases.
Meeting a need
The Humane Society of Vero Beach program -- which now provides foster care for 300 animals a year and boasts 40 volunteers -- began when a humane society volunteer had a stroke and no place to park her pooch. "I ended up fostering the dog," says Joan Carlson, the society's executive director. "We took her German Shepherd, Lacey, to the rehabilitation facility." And just seeing her dog, Carlson says, seemed to speed the volunteer's recovery.
When hospitalized AIDS patients with limited finances needed someone to walk or board their pets, Pets-DC was born in 1990, says Chip Wells, a veterinarian and one of the founders of the program based in Washington, D.C.
Yet another program, the Pet Haven at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Texas, began in 1996 to help pets of people in transition or crisis, says Gale Storms, the humane education coordinator. "Our placements are typically 30 days or less," she says. The fostered animals must be neutered or spayed (the society will help if they're not), and the program includes free care at the society's clinic if needed. Volunteers usually provide the pet food.
The health pluses of pets
In a review article published in 1998 in The Social Work Student, the authors cite several studies supporting the claim that a multitude of health benefits are associated with pet ownership. In one, heart patients who owned pets were less likely to die than non-pet owners during a one-year follow-up. In another, elderly pet owners expressed more satisfaction with life than those without pets. In a third, elderly subjects who interacted with pet parakeets had better attitudes after five months than those who were given begonias to care for, TV sets to watch, or nothing.
Other studies have found that pet ownership lessens the likelihood of depression in men with AIDS and can help people with Alzheimer's disease or those with orthopedic disorders.
"Now that research is showing that pets are important for the physical, psychological, and social well-being of people, using foster care to preserve the health benefits that people and animals may derive from one another seems more important than ever," says Caroline B. Schaffer, DVM, who directs the Center for the Study of Human-Animal Interdependent Relationships at Tuskegee, Ala.
The pluses for pet owners, volunteers
Not surprisingly, pet owners say they are grateful for the pet-sitting programs. Wells remembers Jerry, an AIDS patient who had two dogs and often was hospitalized on short notice. "Sometimes he would go in for an appointment, and they would keep him," he says. The hospital did not have phones in the rooms, so Jerry would struggle out of bed and plod down the hall to the telephone, trying to reach friends to tend his dogs. Finally, someone on the hospital staff referred him to Pets-DC, allowing him to make a single phone call and solve the problem. (When Jerry passed away, the young family that cared for his poodle and his terrier mix adopted the dogs.)
Seniors especially appreciate having someone to care for their pets in a pinch, Carlson finds. "For many of these older people, their animal is the only thing they have left -- the only unconditional relationship in their life."
Gladys Van Name, a Vero Beach widow who will be 90 in October, can relate. She talks about her little white Maltese lovingly. "Her name is Jennifer. Jennifer Van Name." Before Jennifer, there was the now-departed Foxy, who went to foster care a few times, too.
Cornelia Perez, 58, a Vero Beach grandmother, was Foxy's foster mom. She still laughs at the memory of Foxy's arrival, greeting her six large dogs without a bit of fear. "He was a Chihuahua, and they all think they are Great Danes," she says. "He did well; he fit right in."
A sense of accomplishment is palpable in the voice of foster volunteers such as Perez and Barbara Cadman, 55. Cadman lives near Dallas, works as a substitute teacher, and has three dogs of her own. She recalls vividly the woman who once placed her dog with her while fleeing a violent spouse. "She told me her husband used to beat her, and that she and the dog would huddle together in fear until they stopped shaking." The woman made a fresh start and came back for her pooch. The reunion, Cadman says, "meant the world to her."
"It's such an emotional reward to know you are helping both people and animals,'" says Perez.
The security of a safety net
Right now, Gladys Van Name feels great. But sometimes she gets a bad case of the what-ifs. "Gladys calls me every few weeks," Perez says. "And she says, 'Remember, my Jenny may need you.'"
Perez always responds the same way. "I remind her I am always here, and then she doesn't worry. But I think she needs the reassurance."
And Perez understands. "Without their pets," she says, "I think many people would give up."
How to find a pet fostering service
There's no master list of such programs, but officials from the Humane Society of the United States and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (which operate independently from local organizations) suggest those in need call their local shelters and humane organizations.
Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based health journalist and regular contributor to WebMD. She also writes for the Los Angeles Times, Shape, Modern Maturity, and other magazines.