This time of year brings us warmer weather, lush new foliage… and kitten season. If cats are on your radar (and I suspect they are if you’re reading this), it’s nearly impossible to avoid stories from shelters and rescue organizations all over the world who are preparing for the imminent kitten-plosion. If you have the ability to donate your time, skills, resources, or money, now’s the time to get involved.
Since kittens require a lot of extra attention and have delicate immune systems, they can’t live in conventional animal shelters with their adult counterparts. Instead, kittens must live in foster homes. While most of the kittens that’ll be looking for foster homes this year will be old enough to have been properly weaned from their moms, your local shelter may have the opportunity to rescue some neonatal kittens too.
In the cat rescue world, “neonatal” refers to kittens who are under or around 4 weeks old. Rescued neonatal kittens are often orphans and require very dedicated foster parents who can give them around-the-clock care for the first few weeks of their lives. As you can imagine, it takes a very special person to volunteer for such a task.
That’s why my local rescue organization, Brother Wolf, recently teamed up with The National Kitten Coalition to educate the community about this crucial type of fostering. I encourage you to work with your local organization to bring similar workshops to your own community. In the meantime, here’s (some of) what I learned at mine.
1. Kittens can’t regulate their own body temperatures until they’re 3-4 weeks old – A kitten who hasn’t been orphaned will stay warm by cuddling with her mom and littermates. Without that, foster parents can help neonatal kittens stay warm with body heat, hand warmers, socks filled with rice (warmed in a microwave), or a traditional hot water bottle. Be careful to always place several layers of protection between the kitten and a heat source and never use a heating lamp.
2. Every neonatal caregiver should have a digital scale – A healthy kitten should be gaining weight every day (except when she is transitioning to solid food which may cause her to plateau for a bit), and weight loss can be one of the first indicators that something is wrong. Even the loss of an ounce is substantial for a 10 ounce kitten.
3. Kittens from different litters should be quarantined – Most people who foster neonatal kittens will only have one kitten or litter at a time. If you wind up with kittens from more than one litter, however, you should quarantine them in separate areas of your home for at least 10-14 days. The quarantine involves disinfecting/sanitizing everything that goes between each area, including your clothing. Keeping them separated will give you time to determine whether any of the kittens have contagious illnesses.
4. Kittens should be fed while they’re on their stomachs – Neonatal kittens can aspirate if they’re fed on their backs. Instead, kittens should be fed on their stomachs, which is closer to the way they’d nurse from a mom.
5. Neonatal kittens can’t use the bathroom on their own – A mama cat helps her babies pee and poop by stimulating them after meals. As a neonatal kitten’s stand-in mama, that’ll be your job. The kitten should pee a bit every time you stimulate, and she should poop once or twice a day.
6. Kittens require socialization – In order to get kittens ready to eventually be adopted, they’ll have to be properly socialized. Socializing will help them feel comfortable around humans and can make them more confident and affectionate cats. At the neonatal stage, socializing involves human interaction with both men and women, lots of touch and massage, and fun interactions with other kittens and cats (after a proper quarantine, of course).
Think you could provide a great neonatal foster home? Contact your local shelter or rescue organization to get involved!