Kitten nursery at Salt Lake County Animal Services

As long as I’ve worked in animal welfare, reducing the number of cats killed in shelters has been a challenge. With the creation of the Feral Freedom program, we helped show why feral cats don’t belong in the shelter – and what keeping them out can mean for save rates. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. One of the biggest challenges for Salt Lake County Animal Services and our Salt Lake–based Best Friends–Utah team is to dramatically reduce the number of cats being killed in the shelter.

Salt Lake County is certainly not unique in this regard. As a community marches toward no-kill, it’s often found that saving dogs is easier than saving cats. Dogs are more likely to have some type of ID, a tag, license or microchip. A missing dog triggers a search more quickly than an outdoor family cat who doesn’t show up for a day or two. Also, folks looking to acquire a new dog are more likely to adopt from a shelter than those acquiring a cat. Most people get their new kitty from a neighborhood litter or by taking in a stray rather than adopting a cat from a shelter.

Another tough reality is kitten season. Anyone in the “business” of animal welfare dreads the several months each year when kittens seem like tribbles from TV’s “Star Trek,” multiplying at exponential rates. Facebook is full of doomsday-like status updates as rescuers prepare for that stretch of the year that is most taxing on resources and the heart.

Compounding the problem is the fact that un-weaned kittens arriving at a shelter without a mother are very fragile and highly susceptible to respiratory and other bugs floating around the shelter environment. Kittens get their immunity through their mother’s milk. No mom, no immunity. They also require ’round-the-clock feeding and attention. If such kittens don’t get out of the shelter and into some type of supporting environment, they will be killed because most shelters are not staffed or equipped to manage their special needs for the weeks needed to get them out of the woods.

In Salt Lake County, as elsewhere, kitten season has meant a seasonal spike in shelter deaths despite heroic efforts of rescuers, fosters and bottle baby feeders.

Even with an extensive foster network, very young orphan kittens – a few hours to a few weeks old – need to be stabilized outside the shelter environment. It’s a very specialized set of challenges.

We knew we needed to act to reverse that trend and to save as many kittens as possible, which would mean a significant reduction in killing in Salt Lake County shelters.

So, how in the heck do we do all of that?

In partnership with Salt Lake County Animal Services, Best Friends created a kitten nursery. The high-level reason is to keep as many kittens as possible out of the shelter environment completely. That way, for the reasons cited above, the kittens have a significant chance of avoiding the diseases that pose such a high risk to them at such a young age.

The nursery certainly is not fancy, just a 12 x 44–foot trailer in the parking lot behind the shelter. But it’s enough to offer these freshly born balls of soft fur a chance.

None of this would be possible without volunteers. Lots of them! It takes a lot of man (and woman!) power to care for an estimated 500 kittens in 2013 alone. The tiniest kittens need immediate care, and hand-feeding every two hours. Some part-time paid staff is necessary, but 300 dedicated volunteers do the bulk of the care during two-hours shifts, 24-7.

The nursery is a safe haven that has proved itself from day one, as kittens as young as a couple of hours old are rushed in and provided the care they need. Any sign of disease is caught early. That means medication can help not only save one kitten, but prevent others from catching the same illness.

Once stabilized, kittens are moved to foster care as quickly as possible for continued bottle-feeding or for safety and socialization as they grow to the two-pound threshold for a healthy kitten to be fixed and adopted. As the program has developed, time-saving routines and efficiencies have been identified and incorporated to ensure that the operation is as effective as possible.

The impact is obvious – rather than the usual big spike in killing, there has been an increase in lives saved in Salt Lake County. Every life counts, even the ones whose eyes have not yet opened.

So, whether it’s hands-on care, being a foster parent and allowing space to open up at the nursery, or even simply donating supplies to the effort, each person’s contribution is critical to the overall success. Next year, we believe we can double the goal and save 1,000 kittens!

Together, we can Save Them All!

Get involved in this program and help us save kittens! Please consider donating, volunteering or fostering.

Julie Castle with Sunny the dog
Julie Castle
Best Friends Animal Society