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You’d never guess what occupies the 7,000-square-foot warehouse opposite the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA in California: Paws Nursery, a real-life “cat’s cradle” for orphaned kittens. Opened in April 2009, its goal is to save more of the treatable animals at the highest risk—kittens under 8 weeks old.
“Everybody was saying, ‘Don’t do it, we’ve tried, they’re unsuccessful, you’re gonna have a high rate of euthanasia,’” says Renee Harris, executive vice president. Naysayers thought it would result in behaviorally unsound kittens, predicted there wouldn’t be enough homes for them, and that even if there were, it would result in fewer placements of adult cats.
None of those fears have come to pass. In fact, adult cat adoptions increased, and although 80 percent of kittens are underweight for their age, and many are dehydrated, hypothermic, or both upon admission, the nursery has an 89 percent live -release rate overall—and it’s 100 percent for kittens who are healthy and treatable.
The orphan nursery is off limits to adult cats. Queens live at the shelter’s north campus nursery with their kittens, who are weaned starting at 6 weeks, or earlier if the queen or kittens are sick. SDHS has found that kittens left with their queen actually have a higher mortality rate, double that of the orphaned population. Kittens who remain with the queen are much more likely to become ill with URI.
The orphan nursery is divided into three age-based areas. The first is for neonates (0-2 week-old) and “transitional” (2-4 week-old) kittens. The second space provides quarantine for newly admitted transitional-aged kittens and socialization-aged kittens 4-8 weeks old. And the third is a post-quarantine socialization area for those 4-8 weeks old. To ensure that kittens in each area are only exposed to each other, nursery caregivers work exclusively in one area, and items—bedding, toys, dishes, litter boxes, etc.—stay in their designated areas. Items are cleaned in a shared kitchen, but they’re returned to their area before items from another area are cleaned. Laundry is washed and dried in the same machines, but loads are separated by area.
Litters stay together, with a maximum of five kittens per condo, and singletons are always paired up with another kitten right away so they’re never alone, regardless of health. Putting unrelated kittens together has its medical risks, but Harris believes that pairing kittens is critical to encourage normal kitten behavior.
Kittens are housed in cat condos with heating pads. Harris says that while there were concerns about the kittens getting too hot, they don’t: A covered heating pad, kept at medium heat, is placed on the floor of the cubby, with a segment of the pad pulled up against the wall to leave a 2-inch, nonheated space. The pad is also covered with a bed, typically a small donut type, and a baby blanket is put over the bed.
Kittens go from the nursery to fosterers. If kittens will be bottle-fed, nursery staff makes sure they’re nursing well before sending them to foster homes. Fosterers are divided into the same three age groups, and litters—by birth or by shelter placement—stay together for fostering. Neonate fosterers turn their kittens around every two weeks, avoiding the loss of the kittens’ special neonate needs for the full eight weeks. At 2 weeks old, kittens advance to transitional fosterers; at 4 weeks they go to socialization fosterers. If no age-appropriate fosterers are on hand, kittens return to the nursery until one becomes available.
During kitten season, the shelter averages almost 2,000 kittens younger than 8 weeks of age. When the nursery closes from December to April, adult cats occupy the facility until kitten season begins again.
Many shelters and nonsheltered rescue groups may not be able to set up a bona fide nursery, but its housing and care protocols may help shelters and nonsheltered rescue groups save more lives. Harris is happy to share her experiences, and you can check out the shelter’s basic feeding, housing, care, and treatment protocols.