What I’ve Learned by Fostering Over 150(!) Cats
Over the past eight years, I’ve fostered over 150 cats. Trust me, I know that’s a considerable number. But I’ve always had a soft spot for animals, especially ones in need.
Case in point: In 2003, one of our cats, a large male named Chase, brought me a baby bat the size of a half-dollar, which I tried to feed overnight until I took it to a nature center two hours away the next morning. After Stellaluna, named for the children’s book, grew, the naturalists released her back into the wild. It felt good to have a small part in saving her.
Back in 1996, Chase had helped us with our first neonatal kitten, found inside a warehouse. We named her Chessie, and she became a part of our family. Although Chessie wasn’t a foster kitten, it was through that experience that I learned how to bottle feed and take care of a newborn kitten, while Chase taught her cat necessities like playing and using the litter box. It was sweet to watch.
Fast-forward to 2014. My family — my husband, three children, and I — were driving home from church and I was scrolling Facebook. Our local humane society had a litter of five kittens that needed fostering. It seemed like fate because we were almost to the shelter’s exit, so we turned off. I was expecting to see bouncing, playful kittens, but instead, the carrier contained five tiny, day-old balls of fur. I was shocked at how little they were. So little, in fact, that it was difficult to tell what type of animal they were. Their eyes were closed, and their bitsy ears were folded over. Caring for them included round-the-clock bottle feedings, much like newborn babies — times five. I got pretty adept at learning how to hold two bottles and feed two kittens at once.
As the kittens grew, so did our love for them. They learned how to walk, use the litter box, and eventually eat solid food. They made us laugh with their antics as they bounced their way through our home, but then the time came when they were old enough to leave. This is the one thing that seems to keep people from fostering: attachment. It’s one of the reasons that we adopted two and found homes for the others from the first litter. Letting go is understandably the most challenging part.
Over our years of fostering, I’ve learned that I’m only a step in the process. After all, I don’t have 150 cats. I have realized that kittens should be able to roam free and have human interaction instead. If folks didn’t foster, kittens would be confined to a cage until they were old enough to be adopted, which is at eight weeks of age and weighing two pounds. By opening up our home, we can provide a loving environment at the beginning of their journey.
We’ve also fostered a few pregnant moms, which is an experience all its own. The first mother we had, Millie, gave birth to her kittens while we were gone for the day. I came home to see her proudly licking her little brood until I saw her stand up, turn over, and give birth to another kitten who effortlessly slid out, still in its transparent sac. I was envious of the easy labor and delivery, and it was fascinating to see all of Millie’s instincts kick in as she cared for her demanding, tiny babies. When they got a little older and didn’t need her as much, she regularly claimed a spot on the table to find relief from her kittens and have time to herself. I could totally relate.
Oh, and we’ve helped socialize feral cats who were terrified of humans. Shiloh was a solid black cat who bit through my finger the first time we met, and both Venus and Serena — dilute calico sisters who looked nearly identical — climbed the walls to get away from me, even though there was nothing to hold on to. Seeing skittish cats slowly turn from fear to trust is perhaps the most rewarding fostering experience.
Throughout the process, I’ve also learned to be more selfless, because sometimes the needs of our foster kittens outweigh any inconvenience, lost sleep, or the fear of letting go. I’ve done small things, like transport cats to the spay/neuter clinic and keep kittens for a weekend while their long-term foster goes out of town. Then, I’ve done hard things, like exhibit patience with extremely feral cats and care for kittens with medical needs, such as blindness or severe upper respiratory issues. Assisting them filled my heart with joy many times over.
Currently, we have five cats, which I still realize is a lot, but I consider that a low percentage of “foster fails” (fosters that you end up giving a permanent home) based on the amount that has gone through our home. Besides Piper, our current crew was named for their kitten attributes: Little Boy, Wooly Bear, Agent Buff, and Alcatraz. (At 18 pounds, Little Boy is now the exact opposite.) And they are lazily keeping me company as I write this. My full house is a busy, yet comforting one. Although we’re maxed out on permanent residents, we’re ready and waiting to help others and prepare them for their forever homes.