Kitten Nurseries Save Lives

Newborns and very young kittens are often in a high-risk group at shelters if they require extra care. Kitten nurseries can fulfill a life-saving need.


When Executive Director Marc Peralta strolls through the No-Kill Los Angeles adoption center and sees all the cute kittens, he remembers when they were just one or two days old, so tiny that they fit in the palm of a hand. The kittens are graduates of NKLA’s kitten nursery, the beneficiaries of a life-saving trend in progressive shelters: nurturing the most vulnerable and unadoptable animals until they are ready for homes.

Many kittens are euthanized

Kittens might seem to be the most highly adoptable of animals, but the reality is that thousands are killed every year in shelters because they come in at too young an age to be adopted. In Los Angeles, for example, 7,200 of the animals euthanized in 2011 were neonatal — newborn — kittens. In 2008, research showed that 71 percent of treatable animals euthanized in San Diego County were kittens and cats; of those, 38 percent were kittens younger than eight weeks old. Both NKLA and San Diego Humane Society and SPCA opened their kitten nurseries in response to those statistics. Other cities in which kitten nurseries are thriving include Austin, Texas, and Jacksonville, Florida.

“Kitten nurseries take lifesaving to the next level for animal shelters,” says Martha Smith-Blackmore, DVM, vice president of animal welfare at Animal Rescue League of Boston and a faculty member for the shelter medicine program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “Newborn kittens are precious and delicate. By providing a dedicated care space and caregivers, animal shelters can save vastly more lives for the most vulnerable animals.”

Extra care is needed

Newborn and very young kittens have special needs. They often require bottle-feeding every two hours, every day. They are highly prone to infectious disease, and they require early socialization if they are to develop good relationships with people.

“These tiny kittens are very vulnerable, and their health can change hour by hour,” explains Jenny Bonomini, nursery supervisor at San Diego Humane Society and SPCA. “The medical team makes several rounds to the kitten nursery every day so we can constantly monitor these young kittens and provide any care they may need. We also have many protocols in place to ensure that diseases don’t spread.”

Besides the primary goals of keeping them warm, healthy and fed, all of the attention the kittens receive from a variety of people has another very important benefit. It helps to make them better pets. The socialization period for kittens begins at two weeks of age and ends at around seven weeks, according to Professor Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, of Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, who specializes in animal behavior. That’s well before they go to new homes, so getting them accustomed to being handled will ultimately help them to be more social and, therefore, more adoptable.

In temperate areas such as California and Florida, kitten nurseries are open year-round. Kittens start arriving in March and the nurseries are usually at capacity through November. The nine-month period is known as kitten season. Things slow down in December, January and February, with only a few litters here and there, Peralta says.

At capacity, NKLA’s three-room nursery holds 100 kittens, from newborns to seven weeks old. Their average length of stay is 28 days. The goal is to get them to two months of age or two pounds, at which time they can be spayed or neutered and make their debut at the adoption center.

When possible, the kittens go to foster homes to be cared for. Being in a home is less stressful and holds less risk of exposure to infectious diseases. It also allows the kittens to become accustomed to home life at an early age. NKLA works with other rescue organizations to place kittens in foster homes, allowing them to take in more kittens at their nursery.

Recruiting volunteers

Introductory programs — called kitten showers — help to recruit volunteers. NKLA has more than 200 active volunteers, meaning they put in at least four hours a month at the kitten nursery. Once volunteers sign up to work in the nursery or provide a foster home, multiple hands-on training sessions are available weekly that cover such issues as disease prevention, bottle-feeding and socialization.

Running a kitten nursery requires full-time staff, a large network of volunteers and foster homes, and purchases or donations of food, formula, litter and other items such as incubators. That might seem like an expensive and impossible task. At NKLA, the kitten nursery budget totals $240,000 annually, but not every municipality is as sprawling as the City of Angels.

Other shelters don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to instituting a kitten nursery. Peralta explains that the already successful programs can provide anyone with the tools they need to get started. It’s a win-win, he says.

“It’s a really great way to engage volunteers, enhance adoptions, and get more people through your doors — which also helps the rest of the animals in your facility get a little attention and potentially get a home as well.”— Kim Campbell Thornton


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