Special shelter programs offer care and socialization for young kittens
By Kim Campbell Thornton and
Dr. Marty Becker
Does your shelter have a kitten nursery? It’s one of the trends in the shelter community’s efforts to save more animals, especially those who typically aren’t considered adoptable.
Kittens? Unadoptable? You’d be surprised. Young kittens are among the most at-risk animals in shelters. Kittens who are old enough to be adopted usually fly out of shelters, but those younger than 8 weeks have special needs.
Newborn kittens must be bottle-fed every two hours and are highly vulnerable to disease. They also require socialization at an early age. That’s more intensive care than many shelters have been able or willing to give. But some progressive shelters are responding to the challenge with kitten nurseries that save tiny feline lives until they’re ready for adoption.
At the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA, the program has nurtured nearly 5,500 kittens since 2009. The kitten nursery was born after a 2008 study found that 71 percent of treatable animals euthanized throughout San Diego County were cats and kittens. Of those, 38 percent were kittens younger than 8 weeks.
“We opened the kitten nursery in 2009 to save our community’s most at-risk animal,” says SDHS nursery supervisor Jenny Bonomini. The program operates in conjunction with other nonprofit and government agencies in the San Diego Animal Welfare Coalition.
With a 250-kitten capacity, the nursery has three designated areas separated by age: neonatal (newborns to 2 weeks); transitional (2 to 4 weeks) and socialization (5 to 8 weeks). The kittens receive round-the-clock care from 24 staff members and 20 volunteers.
“These tiny kittens are very vulnerable and their health can change hour by hour,” Bonomini says. “The medical team makes several rounds to the kitten nursery every day so we can constantly monitor these young kittens and provide any care that they may need. We also have many protocols in place to ensure that diseases don’t spread.”
Kitten nurseries may operate only part of the year or nearly year-round, depending on where the shelter is located. In temperate climates such as California, “kitten season” runs from March through November. In other areas, it typically runs from April through October.
“We get litters of stray kittens, owner-relinquished kittens and kittens transferred from other shelters who don’t have the resources and infrastructure to care for them,” Bonomini says.
Successful programs have enough staff to care for kittens round-the-clock in a warm and safe environment with good disease-management protocols. Other shelters with kitten nurseries include No-Kill Los Angeles (NKLA), Austin Pets Alive in Austin, Texas, and a coalition of First Coast No More Homeless Pets, Jacksonville Humane Society and Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services in Jacksonville, Fla. The nurseries not only save lives and provide cat lovers with well-socialized pets, they also attract positive media attention and volunteers.
A foster program increases the shelters’ capacity to care for kittens. When kittens can be placed in a foster home with trained volunteers, it frees up space in the nursery for additional kittens. At SDHS, volunteers learn how to feed and care for the kittens and receive all the supplies, equipment and support they’ll need, including food, bowls, bedding, toys, litter, and any necessary medication and veterinary services.
The nursery allows shelter staff to meet vital physiological and behavioral needs of kittens during a critical time in their development. Kitten brains have the greatest capacity for learning and memory between the ages of 4 weeks and 14 weeks, so the attention and handling they receive during their stay in the nursery helps them to become more sociable and self-assured. Once they reach 8 weeks and weigh 2 pounds, the kittens are spayed or neutered and made available for adoption.