Be a Kitten Foster Volunteer

I have three foster kittens in my home right now: three adorable, talkative, affectionate Siamese kittens.

They meow when they see me, purr when I pick them up and weave in and out between my legs when I walk. They’re cuteness personified. Last year I fostered 35 kittens; these three are my first for this year and I expect I’ll foster the same number of kittens this year as I did last year.

A friend of mine who is also a foster volunteer said, “There is nothing braver than a kitten without its mother. So tiny, so helpless, so very fragile, and yet so brave.” That is why I foster kittens. I want to give kittens who need help the chance to live and to find loving homes.

When Kittens Need Fostering

Kittens end up needing fostering for any number of reasons. These three were brought into a shelter with their mother. She has suffered significant abuse to the point that her survival is still questionable although she’s receiving all the care and veterinary help she needs. Unfortunately, besides suffering physical abuse, she was also neglected and wasn’t fed well and neither were her kittens. At eight weeks of age she was still trying to nurse them, as food wasn’t provided for them even though she, herself, was starving. Once I brought her kittens home, the first thing I had to do was teach them how to eat because the only thing they knew how to do was nurse.

Not all kittens need help because of abuse, however. The mother cat may not have been able to feed her kittens for other health reasons; the kittens might have been separated from mom or someone may have seen a feral cat’s kittens and picked them up. The reasons are many and varied.

Shelters, however, are not always a good place for young kittens. They can be exposed to diseases their young systems aren’t ready to handle. Shelters can also be frightening places. Plus, kittens can’t be adopted to new homes until they’re eight weeks of age and many shelters are not equipped to keep kittens for three, four or five weeks. So most shelters will send out an email to cooperating rescues and let them know of available kittens. The rescue will pick up the kittens and then turn them over to a foster volunteer who can keep the kittens until they’re adoptable.

Want to Be a Foster Volunteer?

There are few hard and fast rules as to who can foster kittens and who can’t. I think it’s easier for people who have owned cats previously as felines are an interesting and sometimes challenging species. People who work at home, are retired or a stay at home parent might have more time here and there throughout the day to spend with a kitten. If you work long hours away from the house this might not be the right volunteer work for you unless other family members can help you.

You will need some dedicated time to care for the kittens. Young kittens who are still nursing (four weeks of age and younger) will need to be fed every two to three hours, and after being fed will need to be assisted to eliminate. This doesn’t take a lot of time but the cuddling afterwards can. Of course, playing with the kitten is way too much fun and that takes time too. Kittens over four to five weeks of age can eat on their own but still will need to be fed several times a day. They, too, need cuddling and play times. Scooping the litterbox also takes a few minutes of your time two or three times a day.

Fostering a kitten is much easier if you have a separate room to use for the kittens. Many people use a second bathroom as tile floors are easy to clean. Personally, I hate trying to catch a dashing kitten that is playing hide and seek behind the toilet or is bouncing in and out of the tub so I use an unused bedroom. I only have cat/kitten things in that room and keep it uncluttered so it’s easy to clean. I have a screen door on this room so if I want to see or hear the kittens but also want to keep them safe and confined I’ll just close the screen door.

Rescues Supply Most Materials Needed

The rescues I’ve volunteered with supply most (if not all) of the supplies I’ve needed. Food, litter, bedding and even toys are donated or purchased by the rescue and shared with the fosters. If you’re bottle feeding a young kitten, the formula, bottles, nipples and other supplies are also provided. Often, kittens this age need a heating pad with adjustable temperatures and this is also supplied. The rescue I volunteer for now also supplies a scale so the kittens’ weight can be monitored.

That doesn’t mean I don’t spend money on the kittens, though, and I think most fosters do buy some supplies for their kittens so make sure your budget can handle it. Last year I bought a couple dozen inexpensive towels for bedding and a dozen or so rubber backed bathroom rugs for under the litterbox. Of course, I had to get more kitten toys and some treats. These, and the other supplies I bought aren’t necessary, but they were items I wanted for the kittens and so I spent my money on them. Rescues generally don’t reimburse volunteers for these kinds of things but if the rescue is a non-profit, talk to your tax person to see if these costs can be a deduction come tax time.



Veterinary Care for the Kitten

Kittens who end up in foster care often didn’t get the best start in life. The mother might not have been healthy, might not have gotten good nutrition while pregnant and nursing or the kittens might have lost their mother too soon. Add in the potential exposure to diseases in the shelter (or to other cats if the kitten was born in a feral cat colony) and your foster kitten might need veterinary care.

Most shelters and rescues screen the kittens prior to sending them to the foster. The kitten may be bathed, checked and treated for fleas, wormed and vaccinated. After that, it’s up to you to watch the kitten for signs of other problems.

Parasites are common in kittens, as they are in puppies and other baby animals. Most rescues have de-worming protocols and will help you with that.

Anything different or out of the ordinary—sneezing, watering eyes, coughing, lack of appetite, soft stools and other changes from the normal—should be mentioned to the rescue’s veterinary point of contact. Once the kitten sees the veterinarian, then it will be your job to give the kitten the prescribed medication.

Routine Care Isn’t Hard

I usually have kittens from two to four weeks, depending on how old they were when they came to me. Most healthy kittens are adopted to new homes at eight to 10 weeks of age. During that time the kitten may have one or two baths and I’ll introduce the kitten to having her toenails trimmed. I also have a small, soft bristle brush that I use to show the kitten that brushing feels good. I’ll check the kitten’s mouth and teeth and handle her all over. Basically, I introduce her to all of the things her future owner will need to do on a regular basis to care for her. When kittens learn this lesson early, it’s much easier for both the kitten and her new owner.

I keep a notebook with information on each kitten. I track the kitten’s weight each week and any details that are important regarding the kitten’s health. I may also jot down characteristics the new owner might need including what toys this kitten likes and which food is her favorite. This is particularly important if I’m caring for a litter of three, four or five kittens. I don’t want to mix up the kittens or forget something important.

I also start teaching the kitten the rules of the world. She is not allowed to bite or scratch people. When she feels the need to stretch and scratch something, she’s to use the cat tree and not the furniture. She is to use the litter box to relieve herself and only the litter box. Houseplants and flowers in the vase are not toys. I teach all my foster kittens that if they come to me when I call, “Kitty, kitty, kitty,” they will get a good treat. Anything that I like my permanent resident cats to know, I teach my fosters.

Fostering is Tough But Rewarding

Fostering kittens isn’t for the weak. My first litter of 2015 was a litter of five, 2-week-old kittens. They were tiny and very sick and all five passed away. I only had them for a few days but was still heartbroken. They didn’t even have a chance to live and neither the veterinarian nor I could help them survive.

The other 30 kittens I fostered last year, though, were all adopted into new homes. Several of the new owners keep in touch, share stories of their cats and email me photos. It’s so rewarding to see them grow up to be well-loved, handsome cats that might not have otherwise survived. So, yes, fostering is tough, but it’s worth it.

The rescue groups I’ve volunteered for, now and in the past, treasure their volunteer foster families. After all, people who bring these tiny little beings into their homes and care for them are disrupting their lives and routine to do what is needed. Not many people are willing to do that. So if you, as a foster, need help, just ask. If you don’t know how to trim a kitten’s tiny nails, someone can show you how. If you don’t know how to give a kitten medication, someone can teach you how to do that too. If a kitten isn’t feeling well, ask for help right away. A tiny, sick kitten can go downhill quickly so get assistance even if you just think something is wrong.

Finding a Rescue Group

The easiest way to find a rescue group that takes in kittens for fostering is to talk to your local shelter. Ask which group uses fosters and which group the shelter prefers working with. If they work with several groups, that’s great too. Then get ahold of each group and ask questions. How does their foster program work? What instructions do they provide the foster volunteers? How much support, supplies, and help do they provide for the fosters? Which veterinary clinic(s) do they work with? What are their adoption procedures? What are the fosters expected to do?

Don’t sign on the dotted line to become a foster volunteer until you know exactly what your responsibilities will be and what help the rescue group will provide for you. Neither you (nor I) want you to be unpleasantly surprised later.

Here in southern California, kitten season arrives with spring. Two of my present kittens have already been pre-adopted together and will be leaving for their new home in a week. I’m pretty sure the third kitten will be leaving soon too. I expect some new little feline souls will be arriving soon after. I can’t wait to meet them.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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