13 pro tips for fostering kittens

So, you’re about to foster kittens for the very first time. Whether you’re taking home tiny kittens who need bottle-feeding or kittens old enough to eat on their own, you’ve probably received some instructions about proper kitten care to keep your charges safe and healthy. But did you know that once your foster kittens climb up onto your lap for a nap (and they will), you’re not going to want to budge? Or that four a.m. wake-up calls are actually pretty awesome?

You’re about to discover the joys of fostering kittens, and to help you as you embark on the adventure, we’ve compiled a list of tips from experienced foster volunteers. Every year, Best Friends directly helps save the lives of more than 60,000 cats and kittens, and we help save even more with our network partners. What makes all that possible? Fostering.

Orange tabby kitten with a yellow fleece toy hanging in front of him

“Kittens in foster care get more playtime, more freedom to roam and run, and more human interaction and socialization,” says Nicole Wisneskie, the lead at the Best Friends Kitten Care Center in L.A. “And kitten fostering allows us to focus our energy on the very fragile kittens who remain on-site. It also frees up kennel space so we can care for even more kittens. We absolutely couldn’t do without our amazing foster families.”

To collect helpful tips for new foster families, we reached out to volunteers with Angel City Pit Bulls, a Best Friends Network partner. That’s right: This dog rescue organization also saves kittens, because the need is that great. Recently, we caught up with Poly Veitzer, Natalia Gladys, Carol Asher and Krystle Busch, who are all seasoned kitten foster volunteers with Angel City Pit Bulls’ thriving kitten foster program. Here are their words of wisdom about caring for kittens.

Litter of five kittens, some standing on a cardboard scratcher

1. Save cardboard boxes for kitten play forts. Seems like we’re all doing a little more online shopping these days. If you’re fostering kittens, those delivery boxes can be repurposed into places for kittens to curl up, hide away or play in. Feeling crafty? If the box is big enough, transform it into a little cat house.

2. Before you sit, have a strategy. We predict a 99.9% chance that a foster kitten (or a few) will settle into your lap just when your Zoom meeting gets started — and end up taking over the meeting. Ditto for the moment when you’re sitting down for movie night. Before you get glued to your desk or couch, be ready. Have within reach everything you’ll need for the next hour or two — your phone, maybe some snacks and a drink, the remote, your laptop. Trust us, you’re not going anywhere.

[Angel City Pit Bulls advocates for big dogs and little kittens to help L.A. reach no-kill]

3. Make friends with the alarm clock. If you’re fostering newborn kittens, you’ll soon be familiar with waking up every three or four hours to feed them, which means that your beauty sleep is going to have to wait. You won’t mind, though. As soon as hungry little kittens wiggle those ears while they nurse, your heart will melt a little and you’ll fall back asleep fast, knowing you’ve just done something good.

Tiny neonatal kitten sleeping in a yellow blanket

4. Hit the thrift store for towels. Things are about to get messy. Be prepared with easy-to wash items you can throw over the couch or use as snuggly bedding. Poly recommends bath mats from IKEA, and thrift stores are a great place to find low-cost items. You can use puppy pads in a pinch, but we recommend cloth that can be washed, so you can use it again, and again, and again.

5. Get creative with available space. You don’t need much space to foster kittens. In a pinch, they can stay in a large dog crate or a playpen, at least when they’re very small. Once they learn how to walk and run, they’ll want to leap, tumble and play, so give them space to stretch their legs. If your kittens can’t have the run of the house or a room of their own, at least let them out of their enclosure to run and play for a few hours each day. Pro tip: Bathrooms are great kitten fostering rooms.

6. Keep a close eye on your fridge. The refrigerator is an exciting place for kittens. When you open the door, they’ll peer inside and if you aren’t careful, they’ll climb inside, too. They’re also tiny enough to fit behind it, so if you’re letting them loose in the kitchen, be on the alert.

Three little kittens swaddled in cloth like burritos

7. Turn them into “purritos.” Krystle recommends wrapping kittens like a burrito to make it easier to administer medicine or feed a kitten who’s fussy. Bonus tip: If it’s long and wide enough, the fabric can be fashioned into a hammock for kittens who have a cage. Just tie the ends securely to the sides of the cage and let them climb in and cuddle up.

8. There can never be enough toys. Poly suggests choosing toys that you can bleach or throw in the dryer. “Dryers can kill all kinds of bacteria and fungi,” she says. “I have dryer balls and kittens love those, and of course they can go into the dryer.” She also recommends purchasing cardboard scratching pads and cutting them in half, for double the use. Natalia says, “Can’t find it in your budget to buy kitten toys? That's not a problem. They love playing with ribbon, crumpled-up paper and boxes.”

9. Introduce them to your home slowly. When you bring the kittens home, keep them in a small, comfortable and quiet space at first. Natalia advises, “It’s a big world and just hearing, smelling and seeing this new world is a great big leap for these babies.” The kittens’ world can slowly expand as they feel more comfortable, but it’s perfectly OK to keep them in a small room the entire time you’re fostering if that’s what works best in your home (especially if you have other pets who prefer keeping their distance from rambunctious kittens). No matter where they stay, be sure to play with, pick up and cuddle the kittens every day. It sets them up to be people-loving and cuddly cats.

Person playing with a wand toy with a kitten

10. Keep it clean. Poly says, “Buy the best hand vacuum you can afford. Treat it like the lifesaving item it is. Love it and care for it like a child.” You’ll also want to invest in a good broom and cleaning supplies, including bleach and vinegar. Be prepared for a lot of litter-box scooping.

11. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. When you foster kittens, you can expect the unexpected. Every litter you foster will bring joys and challenges. “There is always more to learn,” says Poly. “Don't be afraid to ask questions ─ lots and lots of questions. Seek out advice if anything looks amiss. And trust me, with each litter something will always look amiss.”

[Newborn puppies need a lot of extra love and care, too]

12. Give shy kittens extra cuddles — and extra tasty food. When an animal growls or hisses at you, that’s usually your cue to back off, but with a scared kitten, touching her may be what she needs to feel less afraid. Even completely unsocialized kittens can turn around quickly and become purr machines if you handle them often and bring them yummy food. Chicken baby food is especially helpful with shy kittens. Offer your kittens a dollop of it on a spoon and stroke them while they eat.

Four kittens lined up and eating out of individual bowls on a blue mat

13. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. Whether your idea of self-care is a walk around the block, a glass of wine or a little online shopping (remember to save the boxes!), it’s important, when you’re fostering kittens, to take care of yourself, too. “You will get overwhelmed and stressed and swear all you do is clean up poop,” says Poly. “Just step away from the kittens for a minute, take care of yourself, and then go back, sit down on the floor and laugh.”

Ready to help save lives and have fun doing it?

Fostering kittens makes you feel good because you’re doing good.

Foster kittens in need where you live

Read more:

Here’s an adoption update from the world’s cuddliest cat

Two kittens plus three boys equals a house full of love

Volunteering helps a teen’s confidence bloom

Photos by Molly Wald, Lori Fusaro, Sarah Ause Kichas and Sheila Chatterjee