Updated: Mar 5
Happy March! As we move into spring, we enter what I like to call “the best and worst time of the year” when it comes to cat and kitten rescue. Because I could talk about kittens all day, and I have more than a decade of kitten season experience under my belt, I’ve decided to kick off a blog series in order to help as many people help as many kittens as possible! In this series, I will discuss:
What is kitten season?
Opportunities for helping cats and kittens (including trapping and fostering)
Supplies needed for fostering kittens from neonatal to adoption age
Common kitten health concerns and preventive care schedules
What is kitten season?
While cats can and do give birth year round, if they are living outdoors in a region with cold and/or snowy winters, many of the kittens being born in the late fall and winter don’t end up surviving through to the spring. Come spring, cats who have survived the winter and are not spayed or neutered will resume breeding. In regions where there are a lot of unaltered outdoor cats, this means a major influx of kittens will be needing care, whether that’s through a shelter, rescue, or Good Samaritans. When no one intervenes, a few things happen. The kittens who survive illness and environmental dangers will eventually become old enough to start breeding, and in the mean time the parents will continue breeding as well. In many cases, kittens become sick or injured living outside and without intervention, they don’t make it.
Kittens born outside face many adversities. Their risk for illness increases when they’re born to mothers who haven’t been vaccinated, or mothers who are malnourished. Kittens are also at risk for being hit by cars, starving, developing flea anemia, overheating in the summer, ingesting chemicals such as antifreeze and rodenticide, acquiring viruses and infections, etc.
Why do I call this the “best and worst” time? Well, I love cats. I love kittens. Throughout the hardships of kitten season, there are usually bright moments. And who doesn’t love being around kittens?! At the end of the day, I understand, however, that the ultimate goal is to no longer have a widespread need for rescuing or fostering kittens because we will finally have a grip on pet overpopulation. In order to do this, we all need to play a role in ending pet suffering and overpopulation.
But how can you help?
There are a myriad of options and opportunities for helping kittens. Some of these opportunities will depend on where you're located, your access to transportation, your work schedule, etc. In general, the main forms of volunteering include fostering, trapping (TNR), fundraising, and volunteering at shelters and events. In this blog post, we'll focus on fostering. Stay tuned for further posts where I'll go into kitten health, TNR (trap, neuter, return) and other volunteer opportunities!
Fostering means taking in animals for a temporary span of time, and providing them with care. Some people end up adopting their fosters, but the ultimate goal is to create return foster parents. Most animal shelters and rescues need fosters all year round, but they tend to need even more foster homes once kitten season has begun. Every organization will have their own set of requirements when it comes to becoming a foster parent, but in general you'll start with an application. These are usually not daunting, so don't be discouraged! Once you're approved, they'll let you know when animals arrive who need help.
Things to consider when deciding to foster:
If you're a renter, are you allowed to bring animals into your home?
Where will you keep your fosters? Kittens can be kept in a home office or even a bathroom until they're off of quarantine, but adult cats may need more space. If you have pets of your own, it's imperative that you keep the kittens separate from your pets until they are done quarantining (a minimum of 1 week).
Kittens will need routine veterinary care every 2-3 weeks (vaccines and dewormer) which means you'll need to be able to take them to and from the shelter. If you're fostering kittens who are sick, they might need even more frequent visits to the shelter/rescue hospital.
If you're going to try your hand at bottle feeding, depending on age, the kittens will need to be fed every 2-6 hours. Bottle feeders are great for people who work from home for this reason.
Kittens are messy, and they eat a lot! While most shelters and rescues can set you up with starter supplies, not all organizations are able to replenish supplies throughout your fostering tenure. This means you may need to end up purchasing supplies for your kittens down the line. If this is going to be a deal breaker for you, make sure you ask about how often you can get more supplies from the organization.
Bringing home healthy kittens doesn't mean they will remain healthy. Be prepared that some kittens will "break" with illness after they've settled in.
The age and health status of your foster kittens will help determine how long they're going to be in your care. Most shelters and rescues will spay/neuter kittens at 2 pounds (approximately 2 months of age), so if you have bottle feeders, for instance, you can expect to foster them for at least 2 months. Conditions such as ringworm or severe upper respiratory infections can also lead to a longer foster commitment.
What supplies do you need for fostering?
kittens aged 0 -3.5 weeks (who are without their mother): bottles* for formula, kitten formula**, soft bedding, a safe heating element***. Additional items that I find helpful are unscented baby wipes, a Snuggle Kitty, and Miracle Nipples. * It seems wasteful, but I like to buy inexpensive bottles and remove the included nipple to swap it out with a Miracle Nipple. I have found that the ones that come with the bottle usually aren't effective. **Many people use KMR as it's widely advertised and is a bit more cost effective than some other formulas. A couple of years ago I switched to Breeder's Edge formula and I felt that my kittens experienced less gastrointestinal issues. If you can't get your hands on Breeder's Edge or can't afford it, KMR is still a fine alternative! Additionally, unless the kittens aren't tolerating the formula, it's best to stick to one brand/formulation than switch between as this will likely cause gastrointestinal issues. *** Very young kittens are unable to regulate their body temperatures. Because they don't have mom to snuggle with, we have to provide them with a way to stay warm. It's important to remember that no matter what kind of heating element you use, because very young kittens are unable to walk and move away if they're getting too warm, they can accidentally receive thermal burns. This risk increases when heating pads and hot water bottles are used.
kittens aged 3.5 - 4.5 weeks (without their mother): this is what I consider the "borderline" stage. Kittens of this age will begin learning to walk, and they will begin learning how to eat solid food. Once they're closer to a month of age they will begin going to the bathroom without stimulation. You should still have all of the above supplies on hand, but you'll also need cat litter and canned and dry food. It's also helpful to have some slip-tip syringes on hand to make a slurry to introduce the canned food to kittens. Many kittens will transition from a bottle, to a syringe, to eating on their own completely. Kittens of this age will also start learning how to play as they're exploring their environment. - Some foods that I like: Royal Canin Mother and Babycat canned, Royal Canin Mother and Babycat dry, Fancy Feast canned, Weruva canned, Purina Kitten Chow, Acana kitten dry. While these are not meant as a primary food source, I find Churu tubes to be a good tool for weaning kittens. - As far as cat litter is concerned, it's recommended to start kittens with a non-clay litter as they sometimes like to eat their cat litter. If kittens ingest clay litter, it can harden and become impacted in their GI tracts. This can make them very sick, and even lead to death. Therefore, I like to start kittens with corn cat litter (if they do eat it, it will digest). Some people will use shredded paper or paper pellets. - The shelter or rescue can often supply you with oral feeding syringes, but I like to keep a box on hand in my supply bin.
kittens aged 4.5+ (without their mother): weaning is usually completed between 4.5 - 5 weeks, but some kittens take longer than others to fully get the hand of things. At this age, kittens no longer need heat support. Once they're reliably eating on their own, they should have plenty of dry food (higher in calories) and canned food as well (I like to feed canned food morning and night). For more recommendations on food, litter, and toys, visit my Kitten Season Essentials list here.
In the next installment of my Kitten Season series, I will discuss common health concerns for kittens as well as preventive care schedules.