Kitten at APA! Bottle Babies

Everyone loves kittens. We romanticize the idea of going to the animal shelter and bringing home a wee kittie or two to love and care for. But the reality is that shelters often struggle to care for kittens, and many kittens are euthanized. That was the inspiration behind the development of a kitten nursery at Austin Pets Alive in Austin, Texas.

“We started the nursery due to the hundreds of orphaned kittens that were being euthanized at our city shelter,” says Casandra Mensing, APA’s bottle baby nursing manager. With 30-plus kittens coming into local shelters daily, something had to be done. “We were given two-hour deadlines to save them," Mensing says. "And it wasn’t enough time to find fosters.” So in 2011, APA created a neonatal kitten nursery, where orphaned, unweaned kittens are fed and cared for by volunteers until foster homes are found.

Keeping Kittens Alive and Healthy

To date, APA has taken in more than 6,000 kittens. In 2013, the nursery achieved a 90 percent survival rate. So far this year, the shelter has taken in approximately 900 kittens.

But APA isn’t the only shelter making room for kittens. Other shelters are also saving tiny lives with dedicated kitten nurseries. In Los Angeles, Best Friends Animal Society’s No Kill LA program recognized that newborn kittens make up almost one-third of the cats euthanized in the city’s shelters every year. That’s because caring for kittens is labor intensive; some require feeding every two hours, around the clock. In addition, space can be an issue: Kittens living in a shelter environment are highly susceptible to disease and need to be isolated from other animals.

But just like APA, NKLA is making it work. A three-room kitten nursery shelters up to 100 kittens, from newborns to those 7 weeks old. Staff and more than 200 active volunteers keep the nursery running 24/7. Kitten season runs March through November, with occasional litters in December, January and February, says NKLA executive director Marc Peralta.

Volunteers Are Crucial

In Austin, more than 150 volunteers stepped up for nursery and foster training. APA nursery feeders go through a two-hour orientation that ends with a demonstration of how to feed an unweaned kitten. After orientation, the new feeders shadow experienced feeders who guide them as they put their knowledge into practice. Detailed charts help volunteers tell kittens apart, while a single, uniform procedure for tasks such as making food or cleaning cages eliminates confusion.

Mensing says APA’s success is due to volunteer-friendly protocols designed to enforce strict sanitation procedures that reduce the risk of disease transmission. “We make it easy for anyone to be able to become a kitten caregiver,” she says, “and we try to have the nursery set up for success.”

Hands-on training for NKLA’s nursery volunteers and foster caregivers is available several times a week most of the year. It’s an intensive process that covers sanitation, socialization, bottle temperature and more. At APA, foster parents get one-on-one training tailored to the specific litter they will be taking home. Training includes learning to feed, weigh, stimulate and medicate the kittens, as well as how to recognize signs of illness. A foster mentor team is available to answer questions or help with problems along the way.

Foster training is crucial because not all kittens stay in the nursery. Two-thirds of NKLA’s kittens go foster care, allowing the organization to house more kittens. Foster homes are important because they are less stressful for kittens than life in a shelter and they pose less risk of disease. Foster families are supplied with litter, formula and other necessities. In addition, in order to get as many kittens as possible out of the shelter and into homes, some are transferred to other organizations that have their own foster and adoption programs.

The budget for NKLA’s program is approximately $240,000 per year and includes staff salaries, formula, incubators, food, litter and other supplies. People who aren’t able to volunteer can contribute by donating supplies or money, Peralta says. The group’s goal this year is to save 1,800 to 2,500 kittens.

Health and Social Needs

At the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA, the kitten nursery takes in litters of stray kittens and litters relinquished by owners, as well as kittens from other shelters that don’t have the resources and infrastructure to care for them. It’s cared for nearly 5,500 kittens since opening in 2009. The nursery is run by 24 staff members and 20 volunteers and holds up to 250 kittens at a time. It’s divided into three areas: one for neonatal kittens (birth to 2 weeks), one for kittens 2 to 4 weeks old, and a third for kittens 5 to 8 weeks old. Once the kittens reach 8 weeks old or weigh 2 pounds, they can be spayed or neutered and put up for adoption.

Kittens are highly vulnerable to disease, so the medical team makes several rounds daily to check on them. “We constantly monitor these young kittens and provide any care they may need,” says nursery supervisor Jenny Bonomini. “We also have many protocols in place to ensure that diseases don’t spread.”

But nurseries don’t just meet kittens’ physical needs. The socialization period for kittens is early and brief, lasting only from 2 to 7 weeks of age. The handling and attention the kittens get while in the nursery helps make them more adoptable.

“Basically, it’s a safe haven,” NKLA’s Peralta says. “We bring them in, keep them warm, keep them fed, try to keep them healthy, try to find them foster homes and get them to the point where they … can go up on the adoption floor and find homes.”

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