Almost every day I get emails from animal shelters asking me to look after kittens until they are old enough to be adopted. Shelters (the term I’ll use for both independent rescue and community facilities) are desperate for nursing homes to take what I call “tweans” – weaned but too young to survive in a shelter.
Gemma Smith, the administrative director of ASPCA Kitten Nursery in New York City, says nursing homes allow underage kittens to grow up against the diseases and excessive stress they may experience in animal shelters. Kittens grooming and socializing kittens and weighing them regularly to make sure the little furballs are on a healthy path. I know if I take these little guys I’ll be a lifesaver. You can be that too.
Choose a shelter
If you’d like to add a hero to your resume, contact your city / county animal shelter for information on how to care for them. Or talk to a member of staff at your pet store about independent groups that hold local adoption events. Attending these events will give you the opportunity to talk to volunteers and get information.
Every shelter and rescue organization has different guidelines. So, ask the shelter some of the following questions to see if it is right for you.
- How long should I care for the kitten?
- What are the specific needs of my foster kitten? (Frequent vet trips, medication, frequency of feeding, socialization.)
- Do you cover the veterinary costs?
- Where is your vet Where do I have to pick up medication? (If you have to drive 45 minutes every time the kitten needs shots or medication, I can assure you it’s a pain. I’ve been there.)
- Can I tell if euthanasia is necessary?
It is likely that you will provide daily supplies, as well as transportation to and from the shelter, veterinary clinic, and adoption events.
Build a Resort
Gemma says, “It is best to keep a new foster kitten separate from local pets so that they have adequate space to grow and play safely as they adjust to their new surroundings.”
Louise Holton, founder and president of Alley Cat Rescue and one of the pioneers of the TNR movement in the United States, says she should prepare a warm welcome for your incoming houseguest and set up an isolation room in a small bathroom or quiet cage that is equipped is with:
- Litter box
- Bed linen
- Hideout box
Since the isolation room sounds terrible, consider it a kitten resort. A one to three week resort stay (depending on the animal shelter’s instructions) protects your own pets from parasites and diseases the kitten may be carrying, and allows the kitten a quiet place to get used to the sounds and smells of your home. If you just let him in, he’ll feel overwhelmed. He will hide and potty wherever he feels safe.
Dr. Cynthia Rigoni of the All Cats Veterinary Clinic in Houston and the Houston Humane Society vet teach him to tolerate being touched by gentle neck scratches with 18-inch back scratches.
Because they’re so small, a small medical problem can quickly turn into a full-blown emergency. Dr. Rigoni says he should monitor the kitten every day. “If they eat, pee, poop and play, they are healthy.” Always keep an eye out for signs that your kitten is pooping (see sidebar above). If you work with an animal shelter or a rescue center, they will usually pay the vet bills if you arrange a visit to the clinic with them. Animal shelters have vets on their staff or agreements with specific vets. These vets offer deep discounts, while vets outside the network (to steal a term from the health insurance industry) charge full price. If you simply take the kitten to your personal veterinarian, you may have to pay the bill.
Avoid Foster Failure
The essence of caring for a kitten is to take care of them as if they were your own and then let them go. The attachment is a hazard to the performance.
Naming a pet is an intimate act and creates a deeper bond. I never name my carers, at least not names that matter to me. I call them Tabby, Callie, or Spot after a physical attribute or, better yet, ask the vet to name them.
Sure, it’s hard to say goodbye. Even after 2,500 goodbyes, I still shed a few tears. But I know he’s going to a happy home. There will always be another kitten that needs my help. If I keep this cutie, I need to look at these shelter photos and know that I could have saved one of those kittens. That’s a strong incentive to let him go.
When it’s 911 time
If you experience any of these 9 symptoms, contact the shelter’s veterinarian:
- Lose or maintain the same weight. Kittens under 6 months of age should put on 2 to 4 ounces a week, roughly a pound a month. If they don’t gain weight, something is wrong. Use kitchen scales to weigh the kittens.
- Bad appetite. This is often the first sign that a kitten is sick.
- Running poop. Same as vomiting.
- If Fluffy vomits more than twice in 24 hours or for several days in a row.
- Cough, sneeze, goopy eyes
- Pull up and release the skin at the center of the spine. It should snap back immediately. A second to come back is too long; The kitten is dehydrated.
- Loss of coordination
- Constant crying
Award-winning cat health and behavior writer and past president of the Cat Writers Association, Dusty Rainbolt has hand-raised over 2,500 bottle babies and tweans. Read in her books, “Cat Scene Investigator: Solve the Litter Box Puzzle and Find Your Lost Cat: The Practical Cat-Specific Guide to Your Happy Reunion”. More at Dustycatwriter.com.