Colorado resident Mark Delman has provided a foster home for Midnite, Blackie, Oreo and Gotee as a way of saying thank you to the troops.

Delman, 65, took in the four cats for an Air Force couple deployed overseas because they needed a place to leave their animals when they went away.

"People’s pets are very, very important to them," said Delman, a cat breeder. "They should be able to come home to everything they left."

Figuring out what to do with Spot or Fluffy is one of the many stressful decisions military personnel face when they’re called to serve. During previous wars, pet owners deployed on short notice either had to quickly find someone to take their animals or leave them at shelters.

Animal shelters have still reported overcrowding since deployments for Iraq began. But this war marks the first time that pet fostering programs, like the MilitaryPets Foster Project and Operation Noble Foster, have been available to soldiers.

"People heard of servicemembers’ pain and anguish in giving up their animals and wanted to help prevent that from happening again," said Maj. Steven Osborn, chief of the Animal Medicine Division at the U.S. Army Veterinary Command. "This provides a better option."

The Army Veterinary Command, which handles vet medicine for the entire military, doesn’t have a formal pet plan, but does advise servicemembers on their choices, Osborn said.

The first and best option is to find a family member, good friend or neighbor to care for the beloved cat, dog, bird or fish of the house. But that doesn’t work for everyone — especially military personnel stationed far from home who are deployed with just 72 hours notice.

The last resort is generally leaving the pet at a shelter, meaning it will either be adopted or euthanized.

"Anecdotally, shelters are saying they are getting many of these critters, but no one has hard numbers. My guess is thousands," said Lisa Burgess, a Pentagon reporter for Stars and Stripes, who wrote an article on military pets.

But alternately, servicemembers can arrange for a foster family. If they have cats, they can search for a willing person in their area on Operation Noble Foster’s database — which is only for felines.

The organization’s director, Linda Pollack Mercer, said she generally has participants work out the details themselves, but offers advice when asked.

"The owners know best what the cat's personality is like," said Mercer, a cat breeder and the founder of FelineRescue.net. "Most of them just prefer to contact the different names in their locale and check them out themselves."

She advised owners to draw up a "cat resume" describing the animal’s health history, temperament and favorite foods. She also suggests creating a contract to delineate the specifics of the arrangement, such as who is responsible for payment and what to do if the cat gets sick.

If the military pets are dogs, birds, fish, horses, rodents or some other creature, then owners can find them a temporary home through the MilitaryPets Foster Project.

Steve Albin, creator of the project, said he matches pets and homes up and requires participating parties to sign a foster agreement.

"This is a way of being patriotic," Albin said. "This gives them full knowledge that they are going to be able to get their beloved pets back."

To date, there are 20,000 willing foster homes in the MilitaryPets' database and 700 willing cat-only foster homes on Operation Noble Foster's list, according to Albin and Mercer.

Of course, foster placement can be a delicate situation fraught with potential pitfalls. The animals might bite, fight with other pets in the house, be destructive or get injured or ill.

"I have to use all due diligence before I put two together and make sure everything works the way it’s supposed to work," said Albin. "So far, fortunately, we haven’t had any issues whatsoever."

Despite any problems that might arise, for many servicemembers, foster programs are a lifesaver.

"I’ve gotten lots of thanks from the military," said Mercer. "It’s heartwarming."