Help Kittens Thrive, Right Meow
–by Courtney Wennerstrom
It’s Raining Kittens
While the term kitten season implies adorable abundance, for everyone in animal welfare, it describes too much of a good thing. At the exact second you are reading this, tiny felines are pouring into animal shelters all across the United States. Kitten nurseries–already at capacity and with their staff suffering from burnout and compassion fatigue–are running out of space and options for the daily deluge. Even more challenging is the fact that in warmer climates, kittens are not seasonal, but perpetual. They. Just. Keep. Coming.
Well-meaning cat enthusiasts and animal lovers exacerbate the obstacles animal welfare professionals face during kitten season by bringing litter after litter to their local shelters, usually under the misguided notion that they have been abandoned. Despite appearances, this is often NOT the case. Just like human moms, cats cannot watch their little ones 24/7. They may be busy hunting or simply hiding from humans. If a mom is not close by or within eyesight, this does not mean she has left her babies to fend for themselves. Taking kittens away from their mothers–or what we will call kit-napping–puts them in grave danger. It also places the burden of raising these babies on shelter staff who are overwhelmed and have to work extra hard to be good surrogate mothers.
If you have recently discovered a litter of kittens near your home, workplace, or favorite coffee shop–or just want to learn more about how to help kittens when you find them and advocate for their protection–this article is for you.
You’re Trying to do the Right Thing…but do NOT Kit-nap the Kittens
You’ve spied a pile of miniscule furballs crying for their mom. Your heart melts and breaks simultaneously, and you want to help! Believe me, we appreciate your compassion, and need more of it in the world! But there are steps to take before stepping in and things you should understand first.
Whenever possible, it is best to keep kittens with their mothers, especially during the first 5 weeks of their lives. Her milk contains antibodies and other important nutrients that help them thrive, and she has the patience, instincts, and ability to feed them properly and frequently. Momma cats are skilled at nursing their babies, which is good because it is a full-time job. Kittens under 2 weeks must nurse every two hours, and those 3-4 weeks, every 3-4 hours. A momma cat’s entire life revolves around mothering, but people have responsibilities, jobs, and all kinds of adulting to do, and most of us cannot get up all through the night to feed kittens.
In short, unless you are part-feline, caring for kittens is a pretty big deal–particularly for dedicated shelter staff. And before you think, yes, but it is their job to take care of animals, it’s important to understand what they tackle on a daily basis.
Most people know that shelter workers comfort lost pets, and reunite them with their families or match pets with adoptive families. But they have countless other responsibilities as well, including…arranging transport for adoptable pets to less crowded areas of the country; responding to disasters; rehabilitating sick and injured animals; fundraising; educating themselves on new best practices or advances in veterinary medicine, animal psychology, and behavior; working to engage the public in life-saving initiatives; investigating cruelty cases; organizing community events; improving the conditions under which animals are held; lobbying for better legal protections for animals; and striving to make big cultural shifts so we can entirely reshape the sheltering system at its core. If all of that were not enough, they labor with limited resources, improper funding, outdated laws and policies, inadequate pay, and all-too-often a lack of support from the government and/or their larger communities. And that just describes a typical Tuesday. So if we want to make a difference for cats, we cannot place the tremendous responsibility for raising kittens solely on shelter employees: we all have to step up, right meow.
Support your Shelters to Save More Cats: we can do it together
When my brilliant friend Emily Klehm became the Executive Director of South Suburban Humane Society in Chicago in 2007, they had taken in 1, 742 cats, but had what we call in the industry a live release rate of only 46%. This means that almost 1,000 of those cats–for lack of infrastructure, staff, and thoughtful policies–did not make it out alive. Emily knew she had to do something innovative and creative to turn these numbers around–and many of her colleagues agreed: something had to change. But how were they going to prevent cats from dying in shelters? Inspired by Dr. Kate Hurley’s presentation at the HSUS Animal Care Expo (the largest animal welfare conference in America), she sat down with key staff, board members, fosters, and volunteers to find meaningful solutions.
After extensive research, they discovered that kittens and feral cats were the most at risk of being euthanized in shelters. Emily and her team responded by implementing a barn cat program, hosting a regional cat medicine conference, revamping their adoption policies to be more inclusive, managing their intake, and especially by doing one simple thing: asking their community for support. Through transparency and communication, South Suburban Humane increased fostering and educated the public about the importance of leaving kittens where they are, and instead asked that they seek advice about when and how to intervene.. Read their gorgeous guide for helping kittens here. They also joined the Million Cat Challenge–a collaboration of over 1,000 shelters devoted to saving ALL the cats. Due to their remarkable thoughtfulness and hard work, Klehm and her staff have achieved a 94% Live Release Rate for cats who come through their doors. Now Klehm, in partnership with the Illinois Animal Welfare Federation and the American Association of Pet Parents. are sharing this very impuuurrtant cat-saving message with a wider audience, to raise awareness about how we can make the world a kinder, more beautiful place for kittens and the people who love them.
The Takeaway: It takes a village to raise kittens.
TIPS to help kittens today
- Don’t kit-nap any kittens! If you think you have found an abandoned litter, make sure they are warm and then call your local animal shelter for advice on how to monitor them. They will let you know what to look for and when and if to intervene.
- Foster a litter! Bottle babies–nursing kittens without mommas- need special care. If you have the time and energy, this is a wonderful way to save lives. You will need to do your homework and learn how to keep them warm, help them latch, and hold and feed them properly so they do not aspirate, choke, or get pneumonia. The Kitten Lady and the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison are amazing resources for learning how to care for kittens. They will also need shots and veterinary care, which many shelters will pay for if you open your home and heart to a bundle of kittens.
- Share this article across all of your social media platforms to warn others of the dangers of kit-napping.
- Get involved with your local shelters by donating, volunteering, or fostering.