by Laird Durham
It’s kitten season at the Napa County Animal Shelter, an annual event from late spring to fall. This year’s drought kept the rains away, but it brought a flood of kittens to Napa’s feral cat population. Eighty kittens, so far, have been brought to the shelter.
From birth through eight weeks, kittens need constant care and training. Eighty kittens would swamp the shelter. Coming to the rescue are more than 30, volunteer, foster homes who raise the kittens, one at a time, or in litters of as many as five, until they are old enough to be brought back to shelter in shifts to be spayed or neutered and socialized enough to be put up for adoption.
Rarely is the mother cat a part of the foster-home package. 95% of the time the kittens are orphans, so the foster homes nurse the orphans with a special milk-substitute from bottles or syringes.
“We are indebted to the foster homes,” says Kristen Loomer, Director of the Napa Animal Shelter, holding an armful of kittens. “The foster homes keep the kittens alive and train them to be adoptable.” This year, especially, Kristen is looking for more foster home volunteers. The Napa Animal Shelter provides veterinary care for the foster home kittens, and all of the food and health supplies needed by them. If you might like to foster kittens in your home, give Kristen a call: 707-253-4382.
While kitten season peaks in the summer, the Animal Shelter’s dog adoption program goes on all year. Last year, the center arranged for the adoption of 900 dogs, and cared for 500 stray dogs, half of them returned to grateful owners. Many of the kitten foster homes have adopted dogs from the shelter.
Diane Matuszewski has been giving kittens a foster home for six years, along with Bitsa, her kitten “foster dog”, himself a 4-year-old rescue dog from the Napa animal shelter. Diane says Bitsa loves kittens. Diane and her husband own and operate FlexWineTours.com from their home office. Although the tour business operates 7 days per week, Diane is able to look in on the kittens several times a day, and wean them, train them to use the litter box, and socialize them so they can be neutered and put up for adoption when they are
This is Diane’s fourth foster litter, three of which included the mother cat. Her present charge is a mother cat Diane has named Minni Purrl, who is still a kitten herself, and her two babies, one male, one female, which Diane took in when the kittens were just 3 days old. After two weeks, one of the kittens is still nursing. The
other is starting to eat solid food. “I put some in his mouth and he found out it tasted pretty good,”
Diane insists “it is really easy to be a kitten foster home”, especially when the mother comes with the litter. “Baby kittens need to be fed about every two hours,” she says, “but only for a few weeks.” Because she believes it helps keep her foster kittens calm, Diane streams spa music all day through her computer in the kittens’ sanctuary, a room that doubles as Diane’s winery-tour office.
Diane also is a volunteer dog walker at the Animal Shelter, and helps train volunteers.
Last year, Hector Badillo and Chris Trujillo gave foster care to 37 kittens. This year that record may be broken. Right now, the men are fostering just one kitten, 3-4 weeks old – the only survivor of a litter abandoned by a feral cat under Napa bushes and discovered by a passer-by who brought the starving kitten to the shelter.
Chris named the kitten Lily. Hector said that after only three days he had tamed the kitten from feral behavior (hissing and attempting to claw) to eating solid food, using the litter box, and lying down with the partners’ rescue dog, Seija.
“This is the biggest reward of kitten fostering,” Hector said. “Watching a semi-feral animal become well-behaved and companionable.” He said that when you feed a kitten – especially from a bottle – the kitten quickly becomes attached to you and likes to be cuddled.
Hector is an animal technician with the Napa Animal Shelter where he has been providing care and training for the shelter’s animals for five years. Because of his special skill, Hector usually gets the kittens that are the most troubled in behavior or health.
Chris is a student at the San Francisco Art Academy. His and Hector’s daily schedules don’t overlap, so one of them is home almost all the time. At the rare times when the kittens would be alone, Hector takes advantage of his job and brings them with him to the shelter.
“When we have a litter of several kittens,” Hector said, “they all have different personalities. When one learns to eat solid food, or use the litter box, the rest will often follow.” Kristen Loomer agrees. “No cat is like another,” she said. “Every one of them is unique.”
Hector added a twist: “There is usually a trouble-maker in every litter, and it seems like that is the one the rest of the litter wants to follow.”
Fostering kittens is a family affair for Cynthia and John Hamilton and their son, Josh. Although Cynthia is the primary care given, John and Josh pitch in when Cynthia is volunteering at the Napa Animal Shelter. The Hamilton’s have been fostering kittens for two years and, so far, have fostered ten litters, the largest with five kittens, and only one has included the mother cat. One litter of four kittens was not really a litter; all four of the kittens were unrelated and were of different ages. Two of the four were “pretty wild”, Cynthia said.
“The oldest kitten in that bunch helped me out by ‘teaching’ behavior to the younger and wilder ones,” Cynthia said, such as using the litter box, keeping themselves clean, and behaving socially.
In July, Cynthia fostered two kittens, one of them a “Hemmingway kitten”, with five toes instead of four on her rear paws, and seven on the front paws. Technically called polydactyls, the many-toed cats, also called “mitten cats,” were popularized and raised by Ernest Hemmingway.
A rescue dog, a black lab named Cricket, and an adult cat, named Savanah, are part of the Hamilton foster family, and help with socializing and training. Savanah was a foster kitten, and was slated to go back to the Napa Shelter but, Cynthia said, “John became attached to her, so she stayed with us.”