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First Pets: Hello, Kitty

Try out a kitten for a couple of weeks when adopting a cat is too big a commitment

I'm one of those people who can't walk past a dog on the street without stopping to say hello. My kids, though, often find dogs to be a bit much: too barky, too jumpy, too too. Cats, however, are satisfyingly small, soft, and quiet. My exuberant 2-year-old, Stella, is especially appreciative of feline charms; every time we see a neighborhood cat, Stella psychotically shrieks "Ditty DAT!" until her 5-year-old sister, Lila, or I affirm that we've also noted said kitty cat. And when one neighbor recently adopted a kitten — a pink-pawed, buttermilk-scented creature that perched adorably in her knitting basket — Stella's need for kitty lovin' could no longer be denied.

Except we already have a dog — a dog who doesn't like cats. And we also have a sneezy, wheezy extended family. My husband, Chris, wasn't convinced that our house required any feline energy. I agreed. And yet ...It's not that we need another pet, exactly, I said to Chris. What we need is just a kitten visitor. A houseguest. I knew this fantasy was actually within reach. My friend Lisa, who is on the board of our local animal shelter, told me about kitten fostering. Sometimes, she said, stray kittens are too young or too feral to be adopted. Lisa's shelter goes to great lengths to avoid euthanizing; instead of disposing of kittens that may take weeks to become adoptable, it searches for foster homes. "But we have a dog," I reminded her. No problem, said Lisa — the kittens need to be sequestered in a small, enclosed room anyway. "But Chris and I work full time," I countered. Again, not a problem; with the exception of newborns, kittens are charmingly self-sufficient. Intrigued, I spoke with a shelter worker: The bare minimum of socialization time was a mere 10 minutes per kitten, twice a day. Ten minutes? It takes longer than that for Stella to put on her shoes.

Feeling optimistic, I put my name on their list. And a few days later, we got the call: A litter of semiferal kittens had been found under someone's porch. Unlike true ferals, who have never lived indoors and have no experience with people, these kittens would allow some human contact, but they needed more socialization before they could be adopted. Most of them had been placed in foster homes already, but one, a little gray tiger, was still at the shelter. Could we? For just two weeks or so?

We could.
Spirits ran high as we drove to the shelter, the girls singing about kittens losing their mittens. The happy glow continued when we arrived, as several kittens were adopted right before our eyes. When we brought home our foster kitten, though, I began to have doubts. The shelter had named her Daisy, a cheerful, friendly-sounding name, but so far she was falling well short of it. Positioned in the farthest, darkest reaches of the crate, two little eyes shone warily at us. "Hi ditty! Hi ditty dat!" Stella called into the crate, hopefully. Daisy hissed back, flicking her baby tail.

And then something unexpected happened. From the start I had thought of this fostering experiment as really being for Stella, my easygoing, happy-to-meet-ya animal lover, rather than her shyer, more reticent older sister, but it was Lila who rose to the occasion. Lying on her belly in front of the crate, she reached one small hand in and let it rest a few inches away from Daisy. In her sweet, high voice, she began to singsong: "It's okay, baby. It's okay. It's okay." And the kitten, who had thus far in her short life been physically and emotionally starved, stretched her neck forward the tiniest bit to inspect Lila's hand. Lila didn't move. I was stunned by her patience — this moody child of mine, known for tossing her artwork to the floor in fits of frustration. Now she approached our furry urchin with a compassion that made a lump rise in my throat. And slowly, slowly, the kitten responded.

In a few hours, the hissing ceased. In a few days, Daisy stopped hiding when we came into her room. We left dry food out for Daisy all day, but in the mornings and evenings the girls took turns setting wet food down for her — a special treat that encouraged her to eat in our presence, a huge milestone for a semiferal kitten. As she ate, Daisy would steal sidelong glances at the girls sitting still and quiet a few feet away (this in turn marked a huge milestone for Stella, who finally learned to whisper, or, as she put it, "heespa"). I allowed Lila to help me scoop out the litter box, which had multiple rewards: It provided the scatological fun of mining for "treasure" as well as lessons in caretaking and responsibility.

The days sped by. The first time Daisy batted playfully at one of the toys Stella dangled in front of her, we all cheered — and then quieted when we saw her ears flatten in surprise. But when she relaxed enough to let Lila hold her — Daisy was letting us hold her! — she erupted in a loud purr, rolling over to allow us the honor of rubbing her impossibly soft belly. "Such a kitten. Such a kitten," Lila whispered intimately, and I recognized the way I speak to the girls at night, when I stroke their hair. Such a big girl. I sat next to this not-so-big girl, her knuckles still dimpled with baby fat, watching her handle the kitten with a natural grace I didn't know she possessed.

Are you thinking this story ends with us adopting the kitten? Well, it doesn't. Two weeks later, we gently packed Daisy in her crate and drove her back to the shelter as planned. This time our trip was markedly subdued. I wasn't sure that Stella really got that this was good-bye (she kept referring to all the shelter kittens as "Daisy"), but I could tell from the way Lila was clutching my shirt that she did. As we were leaving, Alanna, the adoption counselor, called out: "Hey, could you do this again? We can usually find adoptive families for the kittens, but we can't always find foster families." I looked down at Lila, whose small face broke into a smile for the first time all afternoon.

Fun Facts

  • A cat's whiskers help it judge whether a space is too small to pass through.
  • Being nocturnal, cats prefer to sleep all day and race around like crazed fur balls all night. (Can you Ferberize a kitten?)
  • A cat's instinct to "knead" laps stems from kittens kneading moms' nipples to stimulate feeding. Take it as the compliment it is.

Tiny, Tinier, Tiniest
Fostering kittens can take anywhere from a few days to a few months. The work involved depends a lot on how young and tame the kittens are:

  • Newborns often come with a mother cat, in which case mama does most of the work. You provide food, water, and a litter box.
  • Older kittens (sans mama) need food, water, litter upkeep, and hang time with you and your family — at least 10 minutes per kitten, twice a day.
  • Orphaned newborns require the most care: bottle-feeding at two-hour intervals, medicine to keep their eyes from being infected, stimulation to go to the bathroom, and grooming. At around 4 weeks, kittens are ready to use a litter box; simply place them in the box after each meal until they get the idea.
  • Feral kittens need a special socialization regimen; a truly feral cat instinctively sees a human as a predator, so it takes time and patience to show her that people are on her side. It's ideal for kittens to get used to young children (with supervision); the more relaxed they are with kids, the more adoptable they will be.

Contact your local animal shelter to see if there's a foster program in your area, or go to pets911.com.

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