SPECIAL SHELTER PROGRAMS OFFER CARE AND SOCIALIZATION FOR YOUNG KITTENS
By Kim Campbell Thornton and Dr. Marty Becker
Does your shelter have a kitten nursery? It's one of the trends in the shelter community's efforts to save more animals, especially those who typically aren't considered adoptable.
Kittens? Unadoptable? You'd be surprised. Young kittens are among the most at-risk animals in shelters. Kittens who are old enough to be adopted usually fly out of shelters, but those younger than 8 weeks have special needs.
Newborn kittens must be bottle-fed every two hours and are highly vulnerable to disease. They also require socialization at an early age. That's more intensive care than many shelters have been able or willing to give. But some progressive shelters are responding to the challenge with kitten nurseries that save tiny feline lives until they're ready for adoption.
At the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA, the program has nurtured nearly 5,500 kittens since 2009. The kitten nursery was born after a 2008 study found that 71 percent of treatable animals euthanized throughout San Diego County were cats and kittens. Of those, 38 percent were kittens younger than 8 weeks.
"We opened the kitten nursery in 2009 to save our community's most at-risk animal," says SDHS nursery supervisor Jenny Bonomini. The program operates in conjunction with other nonprofit and government agencies in the San Diego Animal Welfare Coalition.
With a 250-kitten capacity, the nursery has three designated areas separated by age: neonatal (newborns to 2 weeks); transitional (2 to 4 weeks) and socialization (5 to 8 weeks). The kittens receive round-the-clock care from 24 staff members and 20 volunteers.
"These tiny kittens are very vulnerable and their health can change hour by hour," Bonomini says. "The medical team makes several rounds to the kitten nursery every day so we can constantly monitor these young kittens and provide any care that they may need. We also have many protocols in place to ensure that diseases don't spread."
Kitten nurseries may operate only part of the year or nearly year-round, depending on where the shelter is located. In temperate climates such as California, "kitten season" runs from March through November. In other areas, it typically runs from April through October.
"We get litters of stray kittens, owner-relinquished kittens and kittens transferred from other shelters who don't have the resources and infrastructure to care for them," Bonomini says.
Successful programs have enough staff to care for kittens round-the-clock in a warm and safe environment with good disease-management protocols. Other shelters with kitten nurseries include No-Kill Los Angeles (NKLA), Austin Pets Alive in Austin, Texas, and a coalition of First Coast No More Homeless Pets, Jacksonville Humane Society and Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services in Jacksonville, Fla. The nurseries not only save lives and provide cat lovers with well-socialized pets, they also attract positive media attention and volunteers.
A foster program increases the shelters' capacity to care for kittens. When kittens can be placed in a foster home with trained volunteers, it frees up space in the nursery for additional kittens. At SDHS, volunteers learn how to feed and care for the kittens and receive all the supplies, equipment and support they'll need, including food, bowls, bedding, toys, litter, and any necessary medication and veterinary services.
The nursery allows shelter staff to meet vital physiological and behavioral needs of kittens during a critical time in their development. Kitten brains have the greatest capacity for learning and memory between the ages of 4 weeks and 14 weeks, so the attention and handling they receive during their stay in the nursery helps them to become more sociable and self-assured. Once they reach 8 weeks and weigh 2 pounds, the kittens are spayed or neutered and made available for adoption.
How to predict
a pup's future size
Q: I want to adopt a puppy from the shelter, but is there any way I can know how big he'll grow to be? I've always heard that puppies with big paws will grow up to be large adults. Is that true? -- via email
A: When you don't know a pup's background, adoption seems like it will be a matter of closing your eyes and crossing your fingers that he won't grow up to be the size of Marmaduke, but there are some guidelines that can help you make a good choice for your lifestyle and home environment.
First, look at a puppy's overall proportions. If a small puppy looks as if he hasn't grown into his body yet -- for instance, he's awkward and gangly with a head that looks too large for his body and a tail that seems unusually long -- there's a good chance that he will be a large dog at maturity. Puppies that are going to be small as adults tend to mature more quickly, so their bodies look properly formed at an earlier age.
It helps if you have some idea of the parents' background, or even just one parent's background. If you know that a pup is the offspring of a pug and a beagle, you can generally rest assured that he's not going to weigh much more than 30 pounds at maturity. Puppies born to a German shepherd mother and an unknown father will likely be their mother's size, give or take a few pounds and inches.
Just remember that there are no guarantees when it comes to genetic poker. If a big dog isn't in the cards for you, bet on a sure thing by adopting an older puppy whose size at maturity is easier to predict, or choose an adult dog so that what you see is what you get. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton
Common household items
can poison pets
-- What's most likely to poison your pet? The folks at the Pet Poison Helpline report that in 2013, the substances that generated the most emergency calls regarding dogs -- in order of frequency -- were chocolate, Xylitol, NSAIDs, over-the-counter cough, cold and allergy medications, rodenticides, grapes and raisins, insect bait stations, prescription medications for ADD/ADHD, glucosamine joint supplements, and silica gel packets and oxygen absorbers. For cats, the culprits were lilies, household cleaners, flea and tick spot-on products for dogs, antidepressants, NSAIDs, prescription medications for ADD/ADHD, over-the-counter cough, cold and allergy medications, houseplants such as philodendron and pothos, household insecticides, and glow sticks and glow jewelry.
-- A wire fox terrier named Sky is top dog after taking Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show last month. Wire fox terriers have been awarded the title 14 times in the show's 138-year history, making them its winningest breed. Fox terriers come in two varieties, wire and smooth, with coat type being the only difference. Dating to the 18th century, they are bold, active and curious, with a strong love of digging and barking. They weigh 15 to 20 pounds and adore their people, but can be scrappy with other dogs and predatory toward cats.
-- A stray chocolate Labrador retriever in Toulon, Ill., found a new life and new purpose at Toulon Rehab and Health Care Center. In 2008, when he wasn't adopted and his time was up at the shelter, his future looked short and bleak, but Sue VanDeRostyne, administrator of the senior living community, decided to bring him to work with her as a facility companion dog. Residents loved him and now he spends his days making rounds, helping out with therapy sessions and just generally spreading good cheer. Last month, the TRHCC honored him for his companionship with a pet food and supply drive. Donations went to the Henry County Humane Society in nearby Kewanee. -- Kim Campbell Thornton
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.