The kittens are coming

Roughly March through April is kitten season. Read what Best Friends is doing to save the littlest shelter kittens.
By Emily Douglas

The Byrds sang: “To everything … There is a season.” And to that, the kittens say, “Yes, and ours is right now.”

Last month, as they do every March, fuzzy little babies began arriving at shelters around the country. The kittens are coming, and their arrival means more than just photo after photo of triangle-eared munchkins.


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Is kitten season a real thing?

Each year from roughly March to October, animal shelters experience a drastic increase in the number of kittens arriving on their doorsteps. But the reality is that thousands of vulnerable kittens enter our shelter system every single day of the year. And while the idea of kitten season might give you the warm fuzzies, thousands of them arriving all at once cause an unbearable strain on shelter resources and space.

“Kittens under eight weeks of age are the largest population of pets dying in our city shelters,” says Marc Peralta, executive director of Best Friends‒Los Angeles.

Kitten nurseries to the rescue

As perfectly adorable as they are, newborn kittens have extremely delicate immune systems and very few shelters are equipped to help them survive. Enter Best Friends’ kitten nurseries ― state-of-the-art kitten facilities in Salt Lake City and Kanab in Utah, Los Angeles and New York City that are staffed 24 hours a day by specially trained caregivers and volunteers.

The New York kitten nursery opened just this week, along with a new pet adoption center in SoHo. Since the first nursery opened in Los Angeles in 2013, Best Friends kitten nurseries have cared for more than 12,600 newborn kittens. And while the idea of kitten nurseries may sound a little odd, they provide lifesaving care and are a critical piece of Best Friends’ plan to make America no-kill by 2025.

Saving homeless pets in Salt Lake City

The state of Utah is working to achieve statewide no-kill status for cats and dogs by 2019. In fact, no-kill status has already been reached for dogs, and Best Friends’ primary kitten nursery in Salt Lake City is key to achieving that same goal for cats.  

“In Utah, we won’t achieve no-kill without saving the most vulnerable animals entering our shelters. And for us, that means kittens,” says Arlyn Bradshaw, executive director of Best Friends‒Utah.

“Our shelter partners around the state do amazing work to save lives, but young kittens simply don’t have the immune systems to survive in a shelter environment. Our kitten nursery, which is actually more of a clinic than a nursery, provides a safe and sterile environment where orphaned kittens receive the care they need to survive and ultimately get adopted.”

In 2016, Best Friends kitten nurseries provided more than 3,900 newborn kittens with a second chance at life. In 2017, we’re anticipating helping more than 4,500. And so far this year, the very first kittens counted in the Salt Lake City nursery have had a lot to say. The kittens, dubbed “The Brady Bunch,” are just the beginning of a very busy year to come.

Newborn kittens require round-the-clock care

Newborn kittens are a super needy bunch, and understandably so. They need to be fed, cleaned, weighed, given fluids, administered medication if necessary, and tracked in terms of their health and growth. Many of them arrive with illnesses like ringworm and feline panleukopenia (feline distemper), the latter a life-threatening condition for cats that young.

“It can be a big challenge to keep some of these babies alive. We do a lot of supportive care and really work to address all of their symptoms,” says Janette Nevils, the cat care manager for Best Friends‒Los Angeles.

“Our nursery operates 24 hours a day. Our youngest kittens have to be fed every two hours and the older kids, who are transitioning from bottle to gruel, are fed every four to six hours. They’re a delicate population and their health can change rapidly, so we’re checking on everyone constantly.”


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The nurseries also have “Mom and me” care rooms available when nursing mothers and their kittens arrive at the shelters. In those instances, it’s always better for the mama cat to be there to clean and feed her babies, assuming everyone is healthy. And once her wee ones are big and strong enough to be weaned, mom can find a loving home of her own through the pet adoption center.

Animal welfare volunteer or bottle-feeding superhero?

In addition to the dedicated staff working at the Best Friends kitten nurseries every day, a passionate and devoted army of volunteers, dubbed “bottle-feeding superheroes,” makes the lifesaving magic possible.

Janette says, “It’s not just the staff who run the nursery. We rely so much on our nursery volunteers. At our L.A. nursery, we have around 250 active volunteers at any given time.”

Lawrence Nicolas, the adoptions and animal care manager for Best Friends‒Utah, agrees that volunteers play a critical role at the nurseries. “One of the biggest challenges we face is just having enough volunteers available to help feed all of the kittens around-the-clock,” says Lawrence. “We have more than 150 nursery volunteers during peak kitten season.”

And they’re still looking for more help. In fact, the Utah nursery is offering kitten nursery caregiver internships.

Carol Maul has been volunteering at the kitten nursery in Salt Lake City since it first started. “The absolute best part of being at the nursery is seeing the kittens find good homes and knowing that they’ve all been spayed or neutered and won’t be creating any more unwanted litters,” she says.

John Tella, another Salt Lake City volunteer, devotes countless hours to feeding and caring for the kittens.

Caring for kittens is like getting free therapy

Roya Dehghani and her sister, Tina, have been volunteering at the L.A. kitten nursery since 2014. “Time stands still when I’m volunteering there,” says Roya. “It’s a total live-in-the-moment experience. You think about nothing else but the kitten you’re with at that moment. Not only is it free therapy, but you’re also doing important work and helping save lives. And if that’s not enough, what would be better than being surrounded by tiny, adorable kittens?”


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Raising awareness to save more tiny lives

One of the biggest challenges during kitten season — aside from finding enough volunteers to bottle-feed and care for all those little fuzz balls — is educating community members about the reality facing newborn kittens in shelters.

People are always eager to welcome a new kitten into the family. In fact, most adopters are lining up at the door for the chance to take home a new bundle of feline joy. But very few people realize just how much time, love and effort goes into saving newborn kittens and getting them ready for adoption.

In Best Friends’ newly opened pet adoption center in Manhattan, the kitten nursery is housed right inside the center and is visible to the public. The nursery has viewing windows that allow visitors to watch as volunteers and staff care for the kittens, giving them a window into the vulnerability of newborn kittens and what they can do to help support one of the most at-risk groups of animals in shelters across the country.

Best Friends and our more than 1,800 shelter and animal welfare partners around the country are working each and every day to create new lifesaving programs for these fuzzy babies.

The kittens are coming, and they’re ready to take over our hearts and minds.

Here’s what you can do to help

Volunteer or sign up to foster kittens in Los Angeles, Utah, or New York City. Or find a shelter or rescue organization near you that needs help.

Donate. Can’t volunteer but still want to help? Kitten nurseries run on donated funds and supplies.

Adopt. Opening your home to an adoptable kitten or cat saves that pet’s life, and helps make space for another cat in need.

Spay or neuter your cats, and help with the trap-neuter-return of community cats. Spay/neuter programs prevent countless kittens and cats from flooding shelters each year.


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Main image by Lori Fusaro