By Christy Avery

During kitten season in spring and summer, the Seattle Animal Shelter (SAS) takes in numerous kittens that are too young to be adopted. SAS foster parents give orphans, weanlings and kittens with mothers a safe, comfortable place to grow until they reach adoptable age.

Here is a look at what it’s like to foster a mother with kittens, through the experience of SAS foster parent Joan, who teaches kitten care classes to new foster parents.

The first few weeks

When Joan brings home a mother cat with a newborn litter, she first creates a space for them in a bathtub in a spare bathroom. She lines the tub with bedding and leaves an open carrier, which serves as a den, at one end. A litter box, food and water are placed on the bathroom floor. The mother will typically only leave the bathtub to quickly eat, drink and use the litter box before returning to her kittens. The foster parent’s main job during these first few weeks, Joan explains, is to keep the mother fed and her litter box scooped, while she tends to her offspring.

Between three and four weeks, Joan will set a small litter pan inside the tub for the kittens. When the kittens start using the pan, Joan moves the family to the bathroom floor. She administers worming medicine, periodically weighs the kittens, and monitors their health. Kittens are vulnerable to upper respiratory infections, eye infections and diarrhea, and when problems arise, foster parents frequently seek the advice of other foster parents or “kitten care consultants” such as Joan.

Joan has endured the heartbreaking loss of six kittens in ten years of fostering; all came into her care with serious illnesses. “It never gets any easier to accept the losses,” she says. “I try to focus on the many that thrive and find homes.”

Getting ready for adoption

As the mother becomes restless and the kittens grow, usually at five or six weeks old, Joan moves the family to a larger room with toys and objects to climb. The mother will climb up onto the windowsill for a little alone time – that is, until the kittens are able to climb up there, too.

Joan socializes the kittens with her own cats, whom she calls “great kitten mentors.” Some foster parents introduce their kittens to dogs as well; this can help them become more adoptable. The kittens are placed for adoption around eight weeks of age, and are spayed or neutered before they go to their new homes.

While foster parents can become attached to the kittens and feel sad to see them go, they know that the adoption of a healthy kitten into a loving home is the happy outcome of their efforts. And foster parents are free to adopt one or more of their own charges.

A rewarding experience

When asked what advice she would offer to someone thinking of fostering kittens or cats, Joan replies that it is most important to realize that while fostering can be fun and rewarding, it is a real commitment. “It may be a volunteer job,” she explains, “but it’s a serious job. It can mean life and death for small kittens or a very ill cat.”

Fostering has other rewards as well. “I’ve met wonderful people who adopt the cats and kittens,” Joan says, “and though it’s a lot of work, I feel I’ve benefited greatly from my fostering experiences.”

The Seattle Animal Shelter Foundation (SASF) supports the work of the SAS foster cat program through grants that help pay for veterinary care and supplies. To help support the foster program, please consider donating to SASF. Interested in fostering kittens or cats? More information is available here.


Photo above: Lily, the beagle of kitten foster parent Emily Rieman, helps kittens become accustomed to dogs. Photo by Emily Rieman.