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.

It takes a village, and not just “animal people!”

Animal shelters need a lot of help — and different varieties of help.  Most volunteers who walk into an animal shelter are “animal people,” and flock to spending their time walking dogs or socializing cats.  And certainly this is an important activity for shelter animal welfare.  However, in this day when animal shelters are getting smarter about business practices and are being held to higher standards of care, the needs of an animal shelter are diverse and complicated.


As an extreme example, one of our favorite local humane organizations recently managed to open a new 15,000 square foot facility largely on the backs of volunteer labor.  While the foundation and the majority of plumbing, HVAC, and electrical were contracted, many jobs were performed by dedicated and talented volunteers.  Carpenters, craftspeople, painters — they came from all sorts of backgrounds and skills.  The work was constant and the days long, but the results are nothing short of spectacular for this small community. Led by the amazing Georgie Taylor, the Humane Society of Schuyler County and the animals in their care are certainly blessed in this holiday season. Many more pictures of the process are available at their website (


The new year is a grand time for resolutions, and a great time for recruiting new volunteers to serve what may be non-traditional roles in your shelter. Think outside the box and strategically about training new volunteers for the new year:  with guidance, volunteers can sew projects, deep clean shelter areas, plant flowers, shovel snow, write letters, make follow up phone calls, produce adoption videos, wrap surgical packs, process paperwork, recruit spay/neuter clients. . . and the possibilities go on.

And of course, when it comes to an animal shelter, everyone can raise funds!  I love to see the stories with kids who have collected donations for the animal shelter in lieu of birthday gifts.  What a fabulous way to learn the value of giving, and making a difference in your community.

Happy holidays everyone. May you find your shelter rich in determination, compassion, and gifts this season.

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!