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What You Need to Know About Becoming a Kitten Foster Parent

By Leah_Pet on Jun. 27, 2017

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Have you considered becoming a kitten foster parent? Perhaps you’ve been thinking about how you'd like to add a cat or kitten to your family but can’t currently adopt one. Or perhaps you already have pets but want a rewarding way to help other animals in need. Either way, fostering is a win-win situation that you may want to consider. Here's how to do it:

Why are fosters needed?

You may think that kittens are so darn cute that they’d never have any trouble finding homes. That can certainly be true for the lucky ones. However, during kitten season, the sheer number of mother cats, babies and orphans entering shelters and rescues is staggering. Unfortunately, there is not nearly enough room for all of them. This is where foster homes come in.

Shelters can be stressful places for any cats, but for mother cats and her kittens, it's especially nerve-wracking. Instinctually, a mother cat craves a calm, quiet, safe place to raise her litter, essentially the exact opposite of some crowded animal shelters. In addition to the strange noises and smells, these moms are correct in thinking the shelter may not be the best place to raise their young. With the many other animals coming and going, it’s possible for kittens to catch illnesses like upper respiratory infections, cat herpes and bordatella.

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Opening your home up to be a foster gives these little guys (and gals) a fighting chance at finding their forever homes.

Another bonus for being a foster parent is that you get to play with your litter of kittens (yay!) on a one-on-one basis, providing critical socialization skills that will ensure they grow up liking people and, often, other pets. Referred to as their “prime socialization period,” kittens are most adaptable between the ages of two weeks and seven weeks old. With gentle playtime and exposure to various sights, sounds, people and animals, foster kittens tend to grow up much more friendly and less fearful than kittens that have not been properly socialized. 

What do you need to become a foster?

First and foremost, it’s important to realize fostering isn’t a long-term commitment but it is an intense short-term commitment. You’ll need a compassionate heart, basic knowledge of proper cat care, and adequate free time to care for your kittens (including taking them to and from veterinarian appointments and adoption events as needed). You'll also need a quiet place in your home where they can safely be isolated from the rest of your household while they’re getting settled. And, you must be able to legally have cats in your home. As nice as fostering feels, it’s not worth getting evicted if your landlord doesn’t take kindly to a litter of kittens living in your house.

If you’re working with a rescue, many will provide the food and supplies you need to get started. However, if they don’t, a high-quality, nutrient-dense food is a must for both the mother cat and her babies (once they’re ready to start weaning). You’ll also need a cozy bed, food and water bowls and a litter box with non-clumping litter. It’s also a good idea to create an enclosed spot for your kitten family, such as a box with sides that are high enough to keep the kittens in while allowing mom to jump out.

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What happens when you first bring them home?

When your kitten family arrives, make sure to keep their welcoming party low-key and quiet. The kittens may not be quite aware of what’s going on but the mother cat will be stressed out from all the moving around. Keep your new arrivals confined to one room in your house so they’re not overwhelmed. If you give them full run of the house, the mother cat may end up relocating her brood to an area that feels safer to her but isn’t what you intended. I speak from experience, as we once fostered a cat family who managed to hide behind our washing machine for the first couple weeks at our house. Rather than disturb their peace, we ended up going to the laundromat until they were ready to move into the box we had built for them.

Keep fresh drinking water and plenty of food available in a place that’s easy for the mother cat to access. She will be hungry! Nursing a litter of kittens burns an enormous amount of calories, so it’s best to have a premium dry food available to her 24/7. Giving her canned food is also beneficial, as she can use the extra hydration and protein it provides.

To help keep things cleaner, consider lining your kitten family’s box with several layers of bedding. This way you can take out the top layer to be washed while keeping things comfy and smelling like home to them. Luckily, the mother cat will begin teaching her kids how to use a litter box pretty early on. Most begin playing in and using the box at around three to four weeks of age.

Don't expect to initially interact too much with your kittens (if they’re very young). Once they reach two or three weeks of age, you can start gently petting them and getting them used to human contact. Mother cat will need a few breaks from nurturing her family, so be sure to give her lots of pets and snuggles too when she manages to sneak away from her mewing brood. As the kittens get older and more agile, you’ll be able to play with them more and let them safely explore other areas of your house. 

Alternative foster opportunities

As fun as they are, sometimes fostering a family of kittens and a nursing mother can be a bit of a handful. If you’re not sure if you’re ready for it, try fostering an adult cat instead. Homes are needed for them year-round and by fostering an adult, you’ll give him a chance to show you his true personality instead of the nervous or frightened persona he may display in a shelter. This allows you to paint a more accurate picture of what a wonderful pet this cat may make and give him a much better chance at finding the perfect fit in his future forever homes.

Another option is becoming momma cat yourself. Many times rescues are in need of people willing to bottle feed orphaned kittens who no longer have access to a nursing mother. However, as this requires a much deeper level of cat expertise and intense time commitment (such as constant bottle feedings every 2-3 hours), it’s best to start with a litter of kittens and their mom for your first few foster experiences.

So…are you ready?

The first step to becoming a foster parent is to contact an animal rescue or shelter in your community and let them know you’re available to help out during kitten season or throughout the year. Your local Petco is a great resource in getting connected with these groups. Most stores partner with one or more reputable area cat rescues who can fill you in the particulars of volunteering with their group. Check with your nearest store’s manager for their contact details or stop by during one of Petco’s Adoption events, which are held every month. You can find your store’s next event here.

One last thing: What if I become a foster fail?

Many times the sheer adorableness of your foster kitten family can become unbearable. It may be one or two whiskered faces in particular that catch your eye, or the loving relationship between the last kitten to be adopted and his sweet momma. Or maybe the adult cat you’ve fostered really begins to grow on you. You start to tear up at the thought of them finding new homes and you can’t imagine your household without them in it. If you’ve got the space and resources to adopt; then CONGRATS on your newest family members. You are officially a foster fail. Don’t beat yourself up, as this is most likely one of the most fulfilling fails you’ll ever have. In fact, it’s one you’ll enjoy for a lifetime.

If you’ve fostered cats before, feel free to share tips below on how to make the experience as fun and rewarding as possible for both cats and humans. Or if you’ve become a foster fail, there’s no shame in admitting it. Everyone loves happy endings!

Ready to foster? Here’s a list of questions to discuss with your local shelter or rescue:

1. Do you provide food, litter, supplies and medication if needed? If not, what do I need to purchase to fulfill your rescue’s requirements?

2. Do you need to check out my home and/or my current pets before I begin fostering?

3. How long should I expect to foster this cat or cats?

4. What type of time commitment is expected, outside of normal care provided in my home? For instance, will potential adoptees need to be screened by me and/or visit my home to meet the pets?

5. In the event I can no longer take care of my current fosters, do you have backup fosters ready to step in?

6. What should I do if a medical emergency arises with my foster wards?

7. Who pays for medical bills if needed?

8. Do I need to bring my fosters to your rescue’s adoption events?

9. Who do I contact in an emergency and is it OK to call at any time, night or day?

10. Can I adopt one or more of my fosters if I fall in love with them?

Have you been a foster parent for kittens before? Tell us about your tips and experiences in the comments below.

Read how volunteers help save animals' lives.

We all know that cats love food, toys and a clean litter box.

They also like to enjoy sweet cat dreams in a fresh, clean bed.

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About the Author
  • As a child Leah used to write in her journal about how she’d like to be an animal when she grew up. As luck would have it, she grew up to be a writer who writes about animals instead. She has worked in veterinarian clinics, had pets of all types and has fostered many cats and dogs. Currently she lives with two cats named Irma and Yuyu and feeds a bevvy of semi-feral neighborhood cats.
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