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Wanted: Loving Foster Parents

By: Alex Lieber

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Your clock is set to wake you up every 3 to 4 hours for the regular feeding. Afterwards, you help the kitten eliminate wastes, keeping her clean and healthy. Then there is medicine, if she's sick, to give at regular intervals, regardless of your personal schedule or time of day. The most important ingredient – love – is the easiest part of the job.

After 10 weeks, you willingly give up the healthy, happy kitten to a loving home, and repeat the process again. This is the normal course of a foster parent.

It's almost a cliché to say that people don't adopt cats – they adopt us. Sometimes they walk up to our doors as if to say, "I'm home! Let me in!" and expect entrance into our lives; other times they just capture our hearts with one wistful look.

But a kitten under 10 weeks old just isn't ready for adoption. They need time with their mothers in a secure place, or they need the helping human hand until they are healthy and old enough to be adopted. This is where foster care comes in.

Organized by local animal shelters, humane and rescue organizations, the foster care program gives newborns a fighting chance of being adopted into loving homes. Foster care is usually not possible or desirable in local animal shelters, which do not have the room or the budget to take care of newborns. In addition, the "institutional" environment of an animal shelter raises the risk of respiratory infection, for both the newborns and the general population.

Not for the Faint-Hearted

Becoming a foster parent is not something to jump into without careful thought. The newborns are fostered with their mothers whenever possible, but often the mother is missing. This means the human foster parent must fill the role, an arduous task that can be as difficult as taking care of a newborn baby, according to Allan Siegel, public educator for the Broward County Animal Care and Regulation Division, in South Florida. "They're so small and helpless," he explains. "It is a lot of hard work, and we make sure people know that."

The rewards are intangible, but they do exist. The hardest part, says animal care specialist Marcie Perry, is giving up the kittens after weeks of seeing to their every need. "That's really the hardest part for first-time foster people," she explains. "Some do adopt, but then we may lose that person as a foster home."

The need for caring foster homes is real. Every spring and early summer, shelters are bombarded with pregnant cats and abandoned newborn kittens. Programs around the country vary, but all provide direction and help in hand-rearing kittens. Foster parents often supply the food, cat litter, flea control and kitten milk replacer. Milk replacer designed specifically for kittens is only to be used in lieu of their mother's milk. Some people try to use cow's milk or human baby formula, but that is dangerous to kittens. Some programs, such as that in Multnomah County, in Oregon, require a foster parent to take a formal day-long course to learn the basics of hand-rearing a kitten.

The Fundamentals of Fostering

The following is a summary of what it takes to foster an orphaned newborn. For in-depth information on orphaned kitten care, click on Orphaned Kitten.

You should have on hand the following: a heating pad, soft towels, nursing bottles and a gram scale to weigh kittens, in addition to kitten milk replacers.

For the first 4 weeks, newborns cannot regulate their temperature well, and they are susceptible to respiratory infections. These infections can spread to your resident cats. You should keep the orphaned kitten in a separate room, away from other pets. They should also be kept in a warm environment, about 89 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week. The temperature can decease during the second week to 81 F to 84 F.

If a heating pad is used to provide a warm environment (instead of a light bulb or heat light), cover the pad with a blanket or towel. The pad should cover only a portion of the cage or area the kittens are kept in, to allow them to get away from the heat if it gets too hot.

Orphaned newborn kittens should be fed milk five or six times a day if you use a bottle, until they reach 4 weeks of age. Then feeding can be reduced to about four times a day. It's better to feed smaller amounts more frequently than large amounts infrequently. Overfeeding is worse than slightly underfeeding. For that reason, you shouldn't use an eyedropper. (Rigid droppers can injure the soft tissue in the mouth.) Kittens can be fed by a stomach tube, but most people prefer the bottle.

After each feeding, the kitten should be stimulated to eliminate waste. The mother accomplishes this by licking the urogenital area, but this can be simulated with a moist, warm cloth.

After 3 weeks of age, the kitten should be able to eliminate on his own. You can also introduce solid foods mixed with water or the milk. Pan-feed a thin gruel made by blending an approved kitten food with milk formula (1 part dry food with 3 parts formula or 2 parts canned food with 1 part formula). Gradually thicken the gruel using less liquid until about 6 weeks of age, at which time you should offer the kitten an approved kitten food four times daily.

Foster parents need to log the kitten's weight, appetite, amount of formula fed, urination and defecation frequency. Newborn kittens should weigh between 90 grams to 120 grams, and the weight should double in the first 1 to 2 weeks.

The most common signs of illness in newborn kittens include:

  • Persistent crying
  • Failure to gain weight
  • Decreased activity
  • Decreased muscle tone

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