By Erin Butkovic, Cat Foster Caregiver
“We want a kitten!” I’ve never met a little kid who didn’t want a baby cat at some point or another. But a lot of work goes into making sure that a rescue kitten is well socialized by members of a trained foster homes. When a kitten is brought into a shelter or rescue group, usually it is very young. With so many animals to care for, a shelter isn’t the best place for a baby cat to grow up. A foster home is the place for these young animals to live, eat and play as they grow to the appropriate age/weight for spay/neuter surgery and get ready for a forever home.
We “cat”egorize these kittens by different ages, and each kitten needs special, devoted care.
From age 0-3 weeks: If the kittens are hours, days or less than 3 weeks old, we consider them “bottle babies.” Sadly, feral mother cats will run off when humans come around and leave kittens that can’t care for themselves. Most of the time, the humans don’t even know the mom is nearby and might take the kittens away when they are too young. Bottle babies need a special home in which care is provided for them around the clock—literally. The kittens need to be bottle fed with milk replacement and help eliminating/going to the bathroom since they’re too young for litter boxes. You can always tell a bottle baby foster mom because she will have a cat carrier and her kittens with her—and usually needs to plug in that heating pad for the babies too.
From age 3-8 weeks: As a kitten gets closer to 3 weeks old, it can start eating wet cat food. This age of kitten is just called “motherless.” Of course, if the mom is still with the litter, it is best for the kitten to continue getting her milk. A foster home is best for a nursing mother cat too—and the foster parent can keep the mom and babies until they can be separated from mom. But if mom is nowhere to be found, that’s when the foster home comes into play. Besides the wet food, kittens can start eating crushed dry kitten food to supplement. As the kitten’s teeth grow, it will eat more dry food. Wet food should be reduced to smaller portions 2-3 times per day as the dry food is increased. Kittens will also begin to use a litter box—a few small ones should be kept in the foster room for kitten use. Always use non-clumping clay litter with kittens as the clumping/scoopable kind can irritate kitten stomachs as they clean/lick the litter off their paws.
From age 8 weeks and older: Once the kittens are eating and using the litter box, the foster home becomes like a kitten day care center! This is a time where lots of toys, enrichment games and cat trees allow for hours of fun watching the kittens explore and play. One of the best moments of fostering kittens is when they climb to the top of the cat tree for the first time and don’t understand how they got there nor how to get down! It’s very important to continue to monitor the kittens to ensure that none contract any upper-respiratory illness symptoms, such as sneezing, conjunctivitis, etc. Kittens are more susceptible to this “common cold” of the cat world. Also, it’s important to check the litter box for any abnormal or even possible worms/parasites. If the kitten(s) show signs of illness or you spot worms/parasites in the litter box, contact your veterinarian/shelter’s veterinarian right away.
Shelter kittens are usually spayed/neutered when they weigh between 2-3 lbs. After surgery, the kitten will be ready to find its forever home, but therein lies what might be the hardest part of fostering—getting them back to the shelter or rescue group to find that forever home. The biggest drawback to fostering is being a “foster failure,” which happens when the kitten becomes a permanent part of your home! If this isn’t the case, know that the motherless kitten is going to go to a wonderful family to be the best friend to that little kid who screamed “I want a kitten!”
If you’re interested in fostering kittens, contact your local animal shelter to get more information about their foster program.