Cat and dog fostering in Houston

Dog and cat foster home volunteers help save pets at the Harris County Animal Shelter in Houston, Texas.
By Nicole Hamilton

As the mother of two young girls who works at a bustling company and plays on a beach volleyball team, Sandra Alvarado doesn’t have much free time. But when a friend told her how urgent the need was for dog foster homes in Houston, Sandra immediately stepped up to help at one of the city’s largest shelters, Harris County Animal Shelter.

Had Sandra predicted that she would immediately start saving lives the day she picked up her first foster dogs, she wouldn’t have been exaggerating. That’s because each year, nearly 220,000 dogs and cats are killed in Texas shelters, simply because they don’t have safe places to call home.

Harris County is working hard to raise the save rate, but it needs help. That’s where Best Friends in Houston and dedicated foster volunteers like Sandra come in. Without them, many dogs at the Harris County shelter run the risk of never leaving the shelter. And even with all the volunteers, the need for more foster homes remains critical.

“Foster homes are the bridge between life and death for animals at risk of being killed in the shelter for space,” says Jessica Roper, foster manager at Best Friends in Houston. “Without them, we are powerless.”

Motivated to save Houston’s homeless dogs

While Sandra’s main motivation for opening her home as a foster volunteer was to help save lives, she quickly learned that when you foster a homeless pet, it’s a rewarding and memorable experience for many reasons.

For example, it’s been a great way of teaching her daughters both the importance of giving back to the community and what a big difference fostering makes by opening more shelter space for all dogs in need. So far, Sandra has fostered eight dogs from the Harris County shelter, and she’s loved watching their personalities unfold as soon as they walk through her front door.

Take her foster dog, Missy, for example. When Sandra first saw Missy at the shelter, the dog was shaking in fear at the back of her kennel. Sandra was scheduled to take home one foster dog (named Spikey) that day, but she ended up bringing Missy home, too.

At Sandra’s home, Spikey immediately felt at ease, and after a few days Missy also started to let her guard down. “She blossomed so quickly from the frightened girl at the shelter into a very sweet, very trainable, happy girl,” says Sandra, who documents her foster dogs’ transformations through video and photos that the shelter shares with potential adopters.

Young girl hugging Missy, a black and white dog with two different colored eyes

One person can make a difference

When volunteer Kimberly Bruhn learned how many animals in Texas were at risk of dying in shelters, she decided to foster dogs as soon as she moved to Houston.

She shares her place with an adorable puppy named Esme, who needed a temporary home to get stronger after recovering from parvovirus. As soon as she’s all rested, she’ll be ready to meet her forever family.

“She is super playful and has a favorite teddy bear that she chews on one moment and cuddles up against the next,” says Kimberly. “She has the most gorgeous eyes that look like blue glass. She has an adorable husky howl. She’ll sit on my lap in the evenings and just watch everything going on around her.”

Kimberly has loved every minute of cuddle time with Esme, but what keeps her motivated to foster dogs is knowing the impact she’s having on the lives of Houston’s homeless pets.

“When you foster a cat or dog in Houston, you truly are saving that animal’s life,” says Kimberly. “The magnitude of that really resonates with me. One person can truly make a difference.”

Esme the tan husky puppy with blue eyes, next to a stuffed teddy bear

How Best Friends is helping animals where you live

Don’t be afraid to get attached to a foster pet

Amy Raden, who has been volunteering at the Harris County shelter since 2016, says one of her favorite things about fostering dogs is watching their personalities shine once they get into a home.

“I love to see them transform with a loving hand,” says Amy. “So many of the dogs at Harris County just don't have enough time to find the right family, and the shelter environment can't truly demonstrate to visitors how awesome they are.”

Sometimes people tell Amy they could never foster an animal because they’d get too attached. “You do get attached, and it hurts when they leave,” Amy tells them. “But that attachment reminds us is that we loved the animals and mattered to them. And they mattered to us. What greater purpose is there in this world?”

Black dog Radar in a car's back seat with one ear up and one ear down

Any time is enough time to foster a dog

Shak Muhajir is fostering a dog named Jane, and he loves taking care of her. Because of work travel, he can usually only foster dogs for a short amount of time, but the foster team is happy to match Shak with a dog who needs a home for a week or two.

These dogs are either getting ready to be transported to rescue groups outside of Houston to find their forever families or, like little Esme, they just need a quiet and comfy place to rest and recuperate.

“Even if your time is limited you can make a difference,” says Jessica. “There’s no such thing as a traditional foster parent. We can work with anyone who wants to save a life, and Best Friends will provide all medical care and supplies you need — including crates, bowls and leashes.”

Fostering dogs help them thrive in forever homes

As for Spikey and Missy, the two dogs whose lives were saved when Sandra stepped up to foster them, they’ve both gotten wonderful second chances outside of the shelter.

Spikey was adopted after a short stay at Sandra’s house, and Missy joined up with other fellow Harris County shelter dogs on a transport to the Idaho Humane Society, a Best Friends Network partner.

Missy the black and white dog being petted by a person wearing a protective gown and rubber gloves

When Sandra thinks about Spikey, Missy and all the dogs she’s fostered from Harris County, she remembers the dogs she met the first time she walked into the crowded shelter. Overwhelmed by what she saw, she knew some of them would never receive the chance they deserved to see the shelter again from the outside.

“It was so hard. I wanted to save them all,” says Sandra, who eventually was consoled by fellow volunteer Justyna Eva. “One at a time,” Justyna told her. Even today, Sandra often recalls Justyna’s words.

Sandra says that, given the chance, dogs can make a rapid transition. “Just two weeks,” she says. “That’s all the time they need in a home to make it out alive and find happiness. It’s never easy to let them go, but I tell myself we’ve saved another life and now we need to make room for the next. I know in my heart that providing a temporary home is one step closer toward saving them all. It’s so worth it.”

Foster a dog near you

Photos by Sarah Ause Kichas, Sandra Alvarez, Kimberly Bruhn, Amy Roden and Best Friends in Houston