Get the facts: Foster vs. nursery

Kitten nurseries are a hot topic in shelter medicine right now. As more and more shelter jump on the bandwagon it is important that we examine the pros and cons of creating your own kitten nursery and determine what is best for your shelter.  Kittens season lasts from mid spring to early fall and many shelters find themselves overrun with kitten at this time. Traditionally, kittens are either euthanized or sent to foster care until they are old enough for surgery and adoption. Kittens are generally not housed in the shelter due to risk of developing illness and due to physical limitations such as sheer volume of kittens and their high requirements for basic care. Foster care has long provided free labor for cleaning, medicating, feeding and socializing kittens. Foster homes should only have one litter of kittens at a time, which means that they function as quarantine units. Sick and healthy litters are thus kept separate, which is important for reducing spread of infectious disease. Foster care also provides a home environment, to get kittens used to things such as vacuums, stairs and children. Some foster parents end up adopting kittens, or find homes for their foster kittens, which helps expedite the flow of kittens through the shelter system.


While foster care has been a staple for kitten rearing in many shelters, it does have drawbacks. Fostering hundreds of kittens means that you need a dedicated base of individuals who are available to take kittens. Some foster parents only take small numbers of kittens per year, or get burnt out due to emotional fatigue. Foster parents also have differing skill levels. Often shelters have a lack of caregivers who are comfortable–and available–to take bottle feeders or extremely sick kittens. Managing hundreds of foster caregivers is also a huge responsibility–foster coordination takes a lot of time and often requires several individuals to arrange check-ups, make calls and provide care to all the kittens in the system. For some shelters this is simply too much work, or their foster system is not yet developed enough to handle the current numbers of kittens coming through the door.

Enter the nursery. A kitten nursery is a physical location–often a room, trailer or building–which is used seasonally to house kittens. Nurseries are run by paid staff and volunteers, who provide 24 hour care to their patients, functioning much like an ICU in a veterinary hospital. Depending on the scope of the nursery, they may house bottle feeders, weaned kittens, and nursing moms in different rooms, or only provide housing for certain categories of kittens. Having 24 hour staff in short shifts means that instead of hundreds of foster care-givers waking up every 4 hours for bottle feeding, one person can feed the whole ward while the rest of the team sleeps. The nursery can be temperature controlled and all supplies are in one location. For obvious reasons, nursery staff need to be highly trained in kitten care in order to prevent milk aspiration, diarrhea and spread of contagious disease. This means that a supervisor needs to train staff and be accessible for any questions volunteers may have. Good hygiene and biosecurity is essential in nurseries in order to prevent outbreaks of diseases like panleukopenia, coccidia or ringworm. Nurseries also allow for great PR, and are a cause which many people may donate towards–perhaps those same people who didn’t donate to support the foster program or your shelter in general. That being said, nurseries can be costly to run due to increased labor time, utilities, and supplies, which are normally supplemented by the foster care-giver.


Overall, kitten nurseries are a hot new service which some shelters are providing. Foster care will remain a stable of kitten rearing in summer months, but for some shelters a nursery may be a more viable option. Knowing the pros and cons of each paradigm is essential for organizations thinking about making the switch. Remember to create protocols, consult with your veterinarian, and to provide training and support for all those involved–no matter what your kitten-saving strategy may be!

Check out the North Shore Animal Rescue League’s nursery, which includes great PR material including a live cam and information about some of the animal in their care.

Kitten Cuddling 101 by Allison Cowen

The following is a guest post by Allison Cowen, DVM class of 2016 at Cornell University.

When people ask me what I’m doing this summer I tell them I am playing with kittens, professionally. While this is by no means 100% true, it comes closer than most jobs could. Let me explain.

At some point during my second year in veterinary school I approached Drs Berliner and Scarlett with a proposition: “I want to do research at the shelter. Can you help me?” We sat down for several meetings with some of the Maddie’s(R) shelter medicine crew and the brainstorming began. The goal was to find a project that was do-able in several months, would be interesting, but most importantly would be relevant and helpful to shelters.

charlieIt was the second or third meeting when Dr. Berliner said “Wouldn’t it be nice to know how kittens grow in foster care and in shelters?” The answer was unequivocally “yes”, and so the idea was hatched, and we ran with it. I did a comprehensive literature review to see what information was out there regarding growth rates in shelter kittens and foster kittens. Nada. I looked for papers on disease occurrence and mortality in shelter kittens and foster kittens. Nada. In total, I found several papers that looked at these factors but only within environments that differ greatly from the shelter and foster environments, ie catteries, private homes, pathogen-free colonies, feral colonies, or in adult populations. But these are inherently very different situations.

The orphaned malnourished kitten with snot coming out of its ears, eyes, nose and feet that was found in a drainpipe may grow at a very different rate from the purebred Siamese kitten in the cattery being sung to sleep every night. So it would be nice to know, is the universally accepted “1-pound per month” rule for kitten growth even relevant for kittens under these disadvantaged circumstances? What is normal for a hungry worm-filled kitten, and what is worrisome? Our hope for this study is that we will establish a normal rate of growth for kittens in these two very unique situations (shelter and foster care), and be able to use this information when monitoring the health of future kittens. We are also tracking disease occurrence as well as mortality in hopes of being able to draw correlations between some of these variables.

And so my career as a kitten snuggler began.

In actuality though, there is very little snuggling that goes on, as I do not want to become fomite-number-one. My days typically go like this: wake up, tend to whichever foster kittens I have at my home (including weighing them in what I have affectionately dubbed “the kitten cup”), head off to the shelter. I get out my data recording forms (every kitten gets its own form) and the kitten cup and work my way through the shelter kittens following these important steps:

  2. Check to make sure I’ve got the ID number written down on the form matches the corresponding kitten (nothing worse than invalid data!)
  3. Pick up the kitten from the cage and try really, really hard not to snuggle it (by far the hardest part of my day)
  4. Place the kitten in the kitten cup, and jot down its weight
  5. Check its face for any ocular or nasal discharge
  6. Put kitten back
  7. Repeat all those steps for any kittens in the same cage
  8. Check its cage for stool quality, and also note how much they’ve eaten
  9. Take off gloves, spray down scale, and maybe even change scrub top if the kitten forced you to snuggle

cutieI do this for every kitten in the shelter every day that looks to be less than or around 8 weeks old. For the foster kittens, these responsibilities fall on the foster providers. Fortunately, Tompkins County SPCA has a really awesome and dedicated pool of foster parents, most of whom are more than happy to help with this and have been amazing about tracking each kitten’s weight, fecal quality, eating habits, and any disease and subsequent treatments. Much my day involves corresponding with the foster care providers, making sure things are going okay, and bringing them anything they may need – new forms, a scale, etc.

As someone who previously thought she was not a “research person” I can 100% tell anyone that whether or not you are a “research person” depends on what you are studying and whether or not you care. This has been an absolutely rewarding summer because I care about the project and am genuinely excited to see what our data holds. And of course a large part of what makes this project SO easy to care about is seeing the kittens day after day and knowing that these will be the beneficiaries of your research. I truly hope this information will be helpful in the future – helpful to shelter staff, to foster parents, to veterinarians, and most importantly to the kittens.

And lastly, a huge thank you to Drs Berliner and Scarlett, the Tompkins County SPCA staff, the dedicated foster parents, Maddie’s Fund, Morris Animal Foundation, and American Humane Association for making my summer wonderful.

Kitten season is coming!

4637520716_cecb325a07_zBrace yourselves, kittens are coming! In case you didn’t know, kitten season is upon us and shelters across the nation are already receiving their first batches of kittens. If your shelter or rescue hasn’t started prepping for kitten season then now is the time! After the winter solstice (Dec 21) queens will start going into heat and becoming pregnant, kittens may trickle in, but now is the time to begin preparing. Consider the pitfalls or bottlenecks from last year and how will your shelter tackle it differently? Now is also the time to begin stocking up on supplies and making sure leftovers from last year are still good. Some important items include warm kitten bins, tubs or cages, powdered milk formula, bottles with working nipples, gram scales and microwavable heating discs. Create a shelter wish-list and ask for donations from the community. Being very specific in which items, brands and quantities you require will make it easier for people to donate.

This is also the time of year to celebrate the wonderful people who make kitten rearing possible: foster parents! Begin recruiting new foster homes and refresh the memory of your long-time foster parents by throwing a Kitten Shower or orientation seminar. Ensure everyone feels comfortable with their roles—not every foster parent will be equipped to take on a dozen three day old kittens to bottle feed all night. That being said, make sure you know how many foster parents can handle kittens which are sick or require special care. It is important to provide education and resources for your foster parents. If you haven’t already, check out the San Francisco SPCA’s Kitten Foster manual! This gem is a great resource and answers pretty much any question a foster parent may have.

Make sure that your shelter has a system set up for provision of veterinary care, emergencies, and follow up appointments. Managing a large number of foster kittens and their people is a challenging and requires a lot of manpower. Every shelter should have dedicated individuals with specific roles to make this kitten season a success. The Animal Rescue League of Boston has a wonderful Foster on Deck program which helps with the flow of foster homes.

It is a lot of work, but preparing now will pay off in the end. Let us know what resources have worked well for your rescue or shelter group in the comments section below. Best of luck for 2014’s kitten season everyone!