Foster Care For Shelter Dog Welfare And Stress Reduction
Many dogs spend some of their lives in shelters. It is not a stretch to think that spending time in a shelter can be a highly disruptive experience for a dog. The U.S. has about 5,000 shelters nationwide. And there is limited central regulation of them. In some cases, living in a shelter may be the first step toward euthanasia; in other cases, it may mean months or even years of potential stress. Though most shelters do their best to reduce stress, they often lack sufficient resources for achieving this. One of the most affordable ways shelters combat the stress is to actually get the dogs out of the shelter setting and into a foster care system. Just like with human children, a foster system allows dogs to live with volunteers while they wait for a “forever home.”
Studies have shown that dogs exhibit more stress—measured through their salivary cortisol levels—when entering a shelter from a home. The purpose of this study was to find out if the stress can be reduced when shelter dogs are entered into foster care. The researchers selected dogs entering a PAWS no-kill shelter. All dogs weighed at least 9kg, were 5 months of age or older, and were in good health. In total, the researchers studied 39 dogs with comparable but varied backgrounds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that “salivary cortisol concentrations were higher [which indicates higher stress] when dogs were living in the shelter compared to when they were living in the foster home.” They also found that stress increased during the transition to a shelter. And although a subsequent general downward trend in stress does exist, it does “not reach statistical significance.”
There were some anomalies in the study. For example, the researchers measured a cortisol spike during the third day in a foster home for one of the dogs in the study. The dog had not been getting along with the foster carer, and had begun to show aggression towards the carer’s roommate. Sure enough, the observation notes indicated that the dog had tried to bite the roommate on the third day of being there. The authors note that, although such cases are rare, measuring a dog’s cortisol levels may help to prevent such situations from escalating to that point.
The conclusion of the paper—“living in a foster home is less stressful for a dog than living in a shelter”—is not earth-shattering. But, the paper does provide concrete evidence that could help to encourage support for foster care programs. Considering that there are millions of dogs entering and living in shelters each year, the more people that support foster programs or foster dogs themselves, the more we can ease the pressure on an already overtaxed system. The researchers suggest that future projects might look at whether there are differences between stress levels in a foster home and a permanent home.