SO YOU WANT TO HELP KITTENS...
That's great! Fostering is an extremely rewarding experience, and with the right tools and information, anyone can learn to save the lives of kittens. Below are my tips for successful fostering.
BEFORE YOU START
Before you start fostering, make sure that you're able to commit to the kittens' needs. Considerations:
- Is your household appropriate for young kittens? Is everyone you live with accepting of foster kittens? Do you have a space for them that is safe and easy to clean? Are you able to quarantine them from other animals?
- Does your schedule allow for kitten care? Depending on the age and health of the kittens, you may need to be available as often as every 2-3 hours. Will you be able to bring kittens with you to work, or arrange care for them when you are unavailable?
- Do you have the tools and information you need in order to successfully provide care to the kittens? Do you have a mentor, a veterinarian, a rescue coordinator, etc?
If you've answered these questions and feel prepared to take on the responsibility of fostering kittens, fantastic! Let's talk about how to get involved.
WHERE TO OBTAIN FOSTER KITTENS
There are several ways you might obtain a foster kitten. If you are interested in fostering kittens, here are a few ways you might begin:
- Contact your local shelter and let them know you're interested in fostering kittens. Many shelters have foster programs and will be thrilled to have your help. If your shelter doesn't have a foster program...
- Contact a local rescue group about fostering. Rescue groups can't pull animals out of shelters unless they have somewhere for them to go, so offering up your home will allow them to rescue animals from the shelter.
- You may find kittens outside and decide you want to help them. If this is the case, please make sure the kittens are truly orphaned before moving them. No one will be a better caregiver for kittens than the mama cat, so make sure that you're giving them a chance to stay with their mom.
- When to leave the kittens: if they are clean and plump, the mama is likely nearby. Watch for her and make sure they are being cared for. If so, leave them with her.
- When to take the kittens: if they are dirty, soiled, crying, or thin, they are likely orphaned and in need of rescue. If they are in an unsafe situation, such as being exposed to harsh weather or elements, it is appropriate to rescue them. Use your best judgment.
preparing for fostering
There are several supplies you will need when fostering kittens. For a list of essential supplies, visit the supplies page.
You'll want to prepare a home base for your kittens. It's important that this home base be quarantined from other animals, safe and kitten proof, and warm. Your home base should consist of:
- A small, climate controlled space with a comfortable temperature and a door that closes, where they can be quarantined from other animals
- A heating pad set on low, with a soft blanket covering it completely
- A soft blanket for them to lay on that is not directly on the heating pad (so they have the option of moving away from the heat source)
- Make sure the area is kitten proof -- you'd be amazed what trouble kittens can get into. For instance, you want to make sure there is not a trash can or toilet they can fall into, a curtain they can climb, a toxic plant they can eat, a small space they can hide or get stuck in.
- If the kittens are above 2 weeks of age, a shallow litter box with a small amount of litter
- If the kittens are weaned, a shallow water dish with fresh water (they will not know how to lap water until they are weaning, so you should not be giving them a water dish until they are at least 3-4 weeks and weaning.)
bringing home the kittenS
When you bring home kittens, the most important thing is to first understand what kind of condition they are in. If you have a sick or injured kitten in need of immediate care, take them right away to the nearest emergency veterinarian. A kitten needs emergency care if she is:
- Gasping for air, cannot breathe
- Suffering from a painful infection to the eyes or skin
- Bleeding from any orifice
If the kittens seem in stable condition, bring them home and follow these guidelines:
- Feed them
- Much of the time when you get an orphaned kitten, they will have gone too long without food. For this reason, you will want to feed them right away.
- Kittens 0-4 weeks with no mom will need to be bottle fed using a kitten formula. Never give cow's milk to a kitten -- this is very dangerous! Learn some helpful tips for bottle feeding orphaned kittens here.
- Kittens 4-5 weeks are weaning and can eat slurry, a combination of formula and wet kitten food. Learn about slurry here.
- Kittens 5-6 weeks plus can generally eat wet kitten food. Make sure the can says it is for kittens, and provide fresh water at all times as well.
- Show them the litter box ASAP
- Kittens above 3 weeks should be immediately placed into the litter box, so that they learn right away where to use the bathroom. If they are already peeing and pooping on their own, they should show interest in the box.
- If they are not yet pooping and peeing on their own (which begins around 3 weeks) you will need to stimulate them to go to the bathroom. Learn about stimulating kittens here. When they are learning to use the litter box, you can do this over the box so they associate the box with using the bathroom.
- It is recommended that you use a non-clumping litter, like Yesterday's News, when working with young kittens. This is safer for them in case of accidental ingestion.
- Show them their cozy spot
- Place them in the area where they can be warm and comfortable. Make sure they have access to the covered heating pad, but also a way to get away from it if they get too warm.
- Let them sleep -- kittens sleep a lot, especially neonatal kittens. Give them plenty of time to rest.
GETting THEM ON A ROUTINE
Get the kittens on a routine. Every few hours, you should be stimulating them, feeding them, and showing them their comfy spot so they can safely sleep. As they get older, you can factor in some play time. My recommended schedule is as follows:
Kittens 0-1 weeks: bottle feeding/stimulating every 2 hours
Kittens 1-2 weeks: bottle feeding/stimulating every 2-3 hours
Kittens 2-3 weeks: bottle feeding/stimulating every 3 hours
Kittens 3-4 weeks: bottle feeding/stimulating every 4 hours
Kittens 4-5 weeks: weaning and beginning to use bathroom on their own - feeding every 5-6 hours
Kittens 5-6 weeks: weaning, using litter box - feeding every 6-8 hours
Kittens 6-8 weeks: weaned, using litter box - feeding every 8 hours
Kittens 8 weeks +: make a spay appointment and adopt them out!
standard veterinary care for kittens
There are certain veterinary treatments that every single kitten should receive, as follows:
FVRCP vaccine is the standard feline distemper vaccine. This is a preventative measure against feline rhinotracheitis virus, calicivirus, and panleukopenia. Kittens receive this vaccine at 6 weeks of age, and then two boosters 3-4 weeks apart.
Rabies vaccine is required by law and can be given to kittens at 8-10 weeks of age.
- This is only necessary with kittens who have fleas or flea dirt.
- If fleas are present in kittens under 6 weeks of age, chemical treatments can be very dangerous. I recommend washing the kitten with dish soap. Make a ring of soap around the kitten's neck, then work the soap into the rest of the body with warm (not hot!) water. The ring around the neck will prevent fleas from migrating to the kitten's head, and all of the fleas will be trapped in the soap and will die.
- If fleas are present in kittens over 6 weeks of age, use a flea treatment that is designed for kittens and be sure that you have the proper dosage for the weight of the kitten. Overdosing a kitten on flea treatment can be fatal.
- The most common worms in kittens are roundworms and hookworms, so you will want to use a dewormer such as Pyrantel to deworm the kitten. Be sure to have this properly dosed by a veterinarian.
- If the kitten has fleas, she likely also has tapeworms. Tapeworms can be eliminated using a drug like Praziquantel. There are also over-the-counter tapeworm tabs available, but be sure you are dosing any medication you administer according to the weight of the kitten.
- It is recommended that an FIV/FeLV test be done on any kittens that will be adopted out so that the adopter can know the cat's status. That said, cats can and do live long and healthy lives even if they test positive, so do not let a positive result scare you. Learn more about FIV and FeLV here.
- EVERY kitten you foster should be spayed or neutered before being adopted into a forever home. Kittens can be spayed at 2 months and 2 pounds. Learn more about pediatric spay/neuter here.
NON-STANDARD VETERINARY CARE
Kittens are extremely vulnerable creatures, and you will likely encounter kittens that need a higher level of veterinary care. For anything urgent such as lethargy, trouble breathing, or injury, please take the kitten to an emergency vet. A veterinarian is the most qualified to support your kitten's health. However, there are some treatments that you may utilize at home. Here are the most common tricks you might need to know, and some tips on when to get a veterinarian involved:
- Dehydration is deadly in kittens, causing the organs to shut down. You can tell if a kitten is dehydrated by doing a simple "tent test." Pinch the skin on the scruff of the neck. If the skin immediately falls back into place, the kitten is hydrated. If the skin forms a "tent" and takes a moment to go back down, the kitten is dehydrated.
- One of the most important advanced skills a kitten rescuer should learn is how to administer subcutaneous fluids. Ask your vet to give you a tutorial, and you'll be equipped to start saving lives. This is the one skill that can make or break a kitten's chances, so please learn!
- If you don't have access to fluids, you can also help by syringe-feeding flavorless pedialyte to the kitten. This will help restore hydration and electrolytes to the system.
- When to involve a veterinarian: if you don't have access to subcutaneous fluids, or if the kitten is severely dehydrated.
- It's normal for a new kitten to go a day without pooping, as their body is adjusting to changes in food. However, if a kitten has gone more than two days without a bowel movement, you're going to want to start taking action.
- A small amount of mineral oil, found at any drug store, can be used to help loosening the bowels. Just a little spoonful added to the formula for a few meals can make a difference.
- When to involve a veterinarian: if a kitten has not pooped for more than 3 days, a visit to a veterinarian is necessary to check for blockages and other issues.
- Remember that diarrhea is often a symptom of a larger issue, so if it is persistent, you will want to take the kitten to see a veterinarian to test for parasites and other issues.
- When to involve a veterinarian: if acute treatment at home does not help after 48 hours, you will want to see a vet. A veterinarian can find the underlying cause, and can also prescribe a powder called Tylan to help kittens with diarrhea.
Fading kitten syndrome
- A kitten that is becoming lethargic or unable to breathe may be fading -- which can lead to death within minutes or hours.
- As an urgent procedure, check the gums for color. If they are dry or white, a small amount of Karo syrup can be applied to keep the kitten's blood sugar stable.
- If a kitten is too cold or too hot, you will need to slowly and safely get them to a comfortable temperature. Be careful, as doing so too quickly can be a shock to the kitten.
- When to involve a veterinarian: if you think the kitten is fading, you should immediately take her to a veterinarian. Read more about fading kitten syndrome here.
ADVertising your kittens
How you advertise your kittens can make or break your ability to get them adopted out quickly. Here are my tried and true tips:
- Start advertising early! Even though you should not adopt out the kitten until they are spayed and 8 weeks of age, you can start advertising them immediately. Many potential adopters will love being able to see the kitten at an earlier age, and will be willing to wait until they are ready to go. This means you'll be all lined up and as soon as they're spayed, you can pass them along to the adopter.
- Advertise far and wide! Make use of every outlet you have -- social media, flyers around your neighborhood coffee shops, posting on local listservs, sharing on Petfinder or Craigslist.
- What to include in your advertisement:
- At least one GREAT, well-lit, crisp and clear photo of the kitten, looking at the camera. The photo is the number one important piece, so make sure you prioritize getting a good one.
- Name, DOB, sex, location, any other details.
- A brief description of the kitten's physical and behavioral traits.
- One sentence about the kitten's story -- don't go on and on, but if she has an interesting or sad story, feel free to touch on that.
- Any important medical information.
- A list of treatments that will be completed before the adoption (ie: she will be spayed, dewormed, vaccinated...)
- A rough estimate of when the kitten will be ready for adoption (a date around 8-9 weeks of age.)
- Your contact information.
- A list of 3-4 mandatory questions that the person must answer in order to get a response from you:
- Who lives in your home? List all people and animals, including ages and descriptions.
- Have you had animals in the past? If they are no longer with you, please explain why.
- Describe a typical day for the kitten in your home.
- What will you do if you can no longer keep the cat? (***This is a trick question. The only appropriate answer is that the cat will never be given up, and is a permanent member of the family no matter what.)
Placing advertisements in as many places as possible allows you to cast a wide net -- then you'll have so many interested adopters, you can pick the one that will truly be best for the kitten.
kitten photography tips
- Use a high quality camera whenever possible -- not a cell phone. If you don't have a camera, ask a friend to help you.
- Use natural light. A flash isn't flattering -- so open up those windows and wait until the sun is high and you've got some nice warm light to capture all the kitten's features in a photo.
- If you're shooting in manual, increase the shutter speed so that the kitten's movement does not result in a blurry photo. You should be shooting at at least 1/60, but preferably above 1/250 to capture a clear image of a squirmy kitten.
- Choose a clean, plain background. No one wants to see clutter in a photo -- so make sure the kitten is truly the focal point.
- Get the kitten to look at the camera by using noise and toys to get her attention. You can use anything that makes a sound -- even crinkly paper. Hold it over your head to get her to look up, then quickly snap the shot.
finding the right adopter
There are several things to consider when interviewing adopters. Here are some of the questions I ask myself when determining if a home is appropriate for a kitten:
- Does this person have the time and energy to devote to an energetic kitten?
- Does this person understand the 20+ year commitment they are about to make, and are they prepared to care for this kitten for the rest of her life?
- Are there any small children or aggressive animals in the home that could hurt the kitten?
- Does this person agree to treat the kitten humanely, including never declawing?
- Will the kitten have a friend? If not, is the person willing to adopt a pair of littermates?
- Is this person willing and able to get the kitten routine and emergency veterinary care?
- Has this person given up an animal in the past, or are there any red flags that indicate they might give up an animal in the future?
FINALIZING THE ADOPTION
In order to finalize the adoption, you will want the person to sign a contract with you.
At the time of the adoption, the kitten should be healthy, spayed, and vaccinated. Any pending veterinary needs should be noted on the contract so that the person is required to fulfill those needs by a predetermined date.
A small adoption fee is appropriate to help you recoup the costs of care -- most people do $75 to $100 per kitten.
Saying goodbye might be hard, but if you found the kitten a great home, you can pat yourself on the back knowing that you saved a life. Saying goodbye is truly the best part of fostering, because it means you've opened your home up to be able to save even more animals. I always say I'm happy to see them, and I'm even happier to see them leave!
Be sure that the adopter has your contact information and let them know they can always update you on the kitten's progress. Receiving updates can make fostering even more rewarding, as you can see the positive impact you're having. Go you!