Spring and summer bring a flood of kittens to shelters all over the country. Many people don’t understand that kittens can’t live in the shelters like their adult counterparts. Because of their delicate immune systems and need for more constant care and attention, kittens must be fostered until they are old enough to be adopted. As you can imagine, the need for dependable and loving foster homes is a crucial part of saving the lives of stray kittens.
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I took in my first litter of foster kittens. All I knew was that the shelter I worked for (Whiskers Animal Benevolent League in Albany, NY) was struggling to find homes, and my big ol’ bleeding heart couldn’t say no. I firmly believe that the best way to recruit great foster parents is to be upfront about what is required — both the good and the bad. So what is fostering really like, once you get past the cuddly sweetness? Here are four things I’ve learned over the years.
The level and type of time and energy will vary a lot depending on the specific litter, but the requirement will always be there whether you are fostering very young kittens who need to be bottle fed every few hours or older kittens who will want constant stimulation.
A few years ago I took in a litter of five six-week old siblings. They were able to eat solid food, they were litter box trained (mostly), and they had plenty of playmates among themselves. I naively thought it would be a piece of cake. I soon found out that I had wildly underestimated the amount of energy they would have. They set me straight the first night as I cooked dinner. There were only five kittens, but suddenly it felt like 30. Two kittens pawed open a cupboard and systematically pulled all of my Tupperware into the center of the kitchen. The smallest kitten clung to my pant leg, begging to be scooped up while I stirred my pasta. The shyest kitten timidly sniffed the kale stems on my cutting board. The largest and most rambunctious kitten yowled from the top of my fridge once he discovered he couldn’t find a way down on his own. This wasn’t a temporary moment of chaos; this was a summary of almost every moment I had with these kittens for the next five weeks.
As you can see from my cooking story, kittens require a lot of space to run around, wrestle, and be wild. They will take up an amazing amount of space for such tiny creatures. They will also need some private space, like an extra bedroom, if they are still nursing or if you live with other animals or small children.
When I took in that first batch of kittens, my dear elderly cat, Pippi, was still alive. She didn’t necessarily hate them, but they overwhelmed her. At 17 years old, she was at a point in her life where she valued calmness and predictability above all else. For her, the new frenetic energy was a bit much. I solved this problem by creating a relaxing and cozy private space for her in my bedroom where she could lounge and sleep without being pounced on.
My other cat, Nora, on the other hand, loved them so much. She was a little over a year old when the first batch of kittens came, and she loved every minute of having new friends to play with. Nora, whose nickname is Naughty Nora due to her history of antics, loved teaching the kittens all of her tricks. One time, after noticing how oddly quiet my home had become, I caught Nora sitting in the middle of the living room, attempting to tear open a bag of treats with her teeth.
The kittens, all five of them, sat in a circle around her, studiously engaged in Naughty School.
I went into fostering my first litter with the knowledge that I couldn’t add any more permanent cats to my family. I thought that clarity would make it easier when it was time to give them up. The reality, though, is that when you spend weeks or months caring for creatures, it’s hard to part ways, even when you trust the adoption team to find great homes for them. This unintentional attachment is so common it even has a term, “foster failure,” for when a person adopts the cats who were supposed to be temporary. One of my cats, Ida, came to me in exactly that way. I took her in as a foster as she healed from a major surgery, and I never let her go. I just couldn’t bear it.
As kitten season unfolds, I hope my experiences will help you make a guided decision about whether you are a good fit for fostering. Even with all of the chaos, juggling, and heartbreak, I’d do it all again. Building connections with kittens, watching them grow, feeling them nuzzle into me when they’re sleepy — it’s worth every second of chaos and frustration. Nothing beats the feeling of knowing I was able to protect and care for them while they got strong and independent enough to find forever homes.
If you feel like you’d be able to provide a stable and loving foster home, please contact your local shelters and rescue organizations. Who knows, your big ol’ bleeding heart may save some lives!
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About the author: Andee Bingham is a freelance cat writer from Asheville, North Carolina. She lives with her two sweet and sassy cats, Nora and Ida, and occasionally fosters others. When not snuggling with or writing about cats, Andee loves to read, write fiction, and explore the mountains. Learn more about Andee at her website and Dear Nora.