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.

ASPCA/Cornell/Maddie’s 2014 Recap: Foreign Bodies in Shelter Dogs

Picture1This article contains a brief synopsis of information presented at the 2014 ASPCA Cornell Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Conference. This presentation was given this past July by Tiva Hoshizaki, BVSc, the Janet L. Swanson resident in shelter medicine at Cornell University, to the shelter staff and volunteer track.

Foreign bodies can gastrointestinal obstructions, which can be life-threatning in dogs and cats. Any item has the potential to be a foreign body. Most commonly we will see dogs eating toys, balls, fabric, rocks or plastics. Foreign bodies cause vomiting, inappetence, lethargy and even diarrhea. Many dogs in shelters develop vomiting and or diarrhea, mostly due to stress, viruses or dietary indiscretion. Dogs which have persistent or severe signs should be seen by a veterinarian for work up including x-rays and or ultrasound.

Surgery to remove a foreign body can be expensive, over $1500 in many cases! If your shelter can afford to take out a foreign body, then be sure to ask the following questions before you commit:

  1. How bad is it? The sicker the dog is, the longer the foreign body has been there, and the type of foreign body will all impact the prognosis. In uncomplicated cases 95% of dogs survive and do fine. In dogs with severe illness, such as septic peritonitis only survive about 50% of the time.
  2. How adoptable is this dog after surgery? Some dogs are already beginning to deteriorate in the shelter. Are there concurrent medical or behavioral issues which may make this dog unadoptable in the future?
  3. Will your shelter be able to manage this dog in the future? Dogs who get foreign bodies are more likely to get them again in the future. That means this dog needs supervised time with toys, special toys, special bedding, and a special adopter to take them home. Will you be able to monitor and prevent a future surgery?

Picture12There are a variety of factors that inhibit ingestion of a foreign body such as the item itself, the dog, and the environment. The item itself is not always a dangerous object, although can pose life threatening consequences if not addressed in a timely fashion. Some dogs are classic offenders like the inquisitive puppy who just loves to eat rocks while out for a stroll, or the larger breed who unknowingly gnaws off and swallows a piece of your child’s Tonka truck. These dogs can make even low-risk toys into a foreign body. Conversely, some dogs go their whole lives playing with high-risk items and never require surgery. Most importantly, is the setting and environment of the shelter. Dogs are in high stress situations, with often minimal exercise and enrichment. While a certain dog may do well with toys at home in a supervised setting, a dog in a shelter setting may relieve its anxiety by shredding and eating its blanket! When making decisions about risk, remember to consider all three factors: DOG, TOY and ENVIRONMENT!

A brief word about toys and their relative risks. The highest risk toys are those which are cheap plastics and fabrics. They are easy to destroy and often have appealing squeakers which are the perfect size to become lodged. Avoid the bargain bin at pet stores, as these cheap toys aren’t worth the time and effort. Moderate risk items include rawhides, dental chews, balls, rope toys and tough fabric toys. The slightly edible toys are great fun, but can be swallowed if they are the wrong size for the dog, or if they are broken into smaller pieces. While edible bones and chews are good for dogs in a home, use them with care in the shelter! The lowest risk toys include the hard plastics and rubbers, or super tough fabrics. These toys include treat dispensing cubes, Kongs, “dental” toys, and other items designed for “tough” chewers.

Once again a reminder: Any item can become a foreign body. Any dog or cat can develop a foreign body. There are no hard and fast rules–you must judge based on that individual animal’s risk with that item and its environment!

Picture13The prevention of foreign bodies require communication between staff, daily monitoring of animals and their items (remove broken items!), awareness, and teamwork. Here are some other suggestions which you could implement in your shelter:

  • Do daily rounds!
  • Make foreign body prevention part of volunteer orientation and staff CE
  • Ensure there is a question on your owner surrender form about foreign bodies, and a complete medical and behavior history
  • Provide adoption counseling for potential adopters with a history of FB ingestion
  • Use a shoe rack with labeled slots for each toy, so that at the end of each day, all toys are put away and accounted for
  • Include appropriate toys and treats on the animal’s cage card
  • Use homemade shelter enrichment items which are completely digestible such as kibble, broth ice blocks, or treats in paper bags or egg cartons. Avoid making fabric or plastic bottle toys!

Do you have any other ideas of how you can prevent foreign bodies in shelter dogs? Please post below with your ideas!