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Safety Net Fostering offers solution for pet owners, animal shelters

ASU program looking to grow in more communities as the need grows

A woman lays on her couch snuggling with her dog.
December 09, 2021

Dog owners will do just about anything for their pets. So when owners need medical care for themselves, are suffering a financial hardship or otherwise are unable to care for their pets, it can be devastating.

Arizona State University’s Canine Science Collaboratory is helping animal shelters in 13 states ease this burden for dog (and even some cat) owners through Safety Net Fostering, a temporary foster care program for owned pets when owners are experiencing hardship. The program launched in January and has helped more than 500 pets nationally.

“Early in the pandemic, shelters were inundated with requests to foster and adopt animals,” said Lisa Gunter, Maddie's Fund Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology at ASU. “But with the national eviction moratorium lifted, animal shelters are worried about an influx of owned animals if owners lose their housing and need to surrender their pets.”

Led by Clive Wynne at ASU and Erica Feuerbacher at Virginia Tech, Gunter and their team are assisting 18 animal shelters with Safety Net Fostering programs. This assistance includes extensive training on how to successfully implement and manage Safety Net Fostering programs along with six months of programmatic support for shelter staff. Throughout their time together, the research team members are collecting a substantial amount of data in hopes of learning how animal shelters can best support owners and their pets in times of crisis.

Pet owners participating in these Safety Net Fostering programs list multiple reasons for needing assistance, Gunter said, adding that more than two-thirds report that they lack the housing they need for themselves and their pet.

Another hardship owners face is having no one to care for their pets when owners need to be hospitalized, she said.  

Jose Trejo, a dog owner helped through Pima Animal Control Center’s Safety Net Fostering program, had no one to help with his 6-year-old dachshund, Roxy, when he needed inpatient medical care. She is used to three walks a day and has become family to Trejo during the past five years.

“She comes first; I live my life for her in many ways,” Trejo said. “I had overwhelming anxiety over what to do with Roxy. From the moment they described the program to me, my anxiety level went to under 50%. This program is named perfectly. It is a safety net for her and I.”

Owners in need of assistance complete an application with the animal shelter, and if their situation is one in which the shelter can help, the process moves forward to bring the pet into temporary care and find a suitable foster caregiver.

Once owners are enrolled and their pets are placed in foster care, shelter staff stay in touch with owners on a weekly basis as well as with the foster caregivers, Gunter said. Caregivers share updates about the fostered pets, which are shared with owners, and staff provide support to owners and connect them to resources.

Sarah Horton, a Kansas City Pet Project foster caregiver, has fostered two dogs so far for the shelter’s Safety Net Fostering program and plans to foster more after the holidays.

“If you're in a situation where you would benefit from this program, then you should definitely go for it,” Horton said. “Animal shelters have the best interest of the animals in mind and will try to find caregivers that would fit the lifestyle and activity level of the dogs in the program.

“The need is there. Our shelter is always asking for more people to foster for the program.”

“Safety Net Fostering offers an alternative to surrendering pets to animal shelters, which have a finite number of kennels and often incur significant costs when they accept pets,” Gunter said. “Surrendering a pet costs the shelter hundreds of dollars in medical care and daily care of the pet as it awaits adoption, not to mention the broken bond with the owner. These programs in which pets stay out of the shelter and in temporary foster care while owners address the hardship in their lives are a financial and emotional savings.”

This initial work on Safety Net Fostering has been graciously funded by Maddie’s Fund, but the collaboratory is seeking additional funding to continue this vital research.

“Giving to the Canine Science Collaboratory allows us to help more shelters in more communities have evidence-based programs like this,” Gunter said.

"You're not just helping one shelter,” said Clayton Tenquist, senior associate director of development with the ASU Foundation for A New American University. “You may be even helping the future of animal sheltering.”

To donate to the Canine Science Collaboratory, visit

Top photo by iStock

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