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August 1, 2011

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Fostering Compassion

By: Janet Velenovsky

It’s kitten season! This is the time of year when shelters and rescues are inundated with adorable little balls of purring fur. As I type, a three-week old female named Regina sits on my shoulder, nestled into my hair, occasionally nibbling on my ear lobe. Regina is a marbled tabby with big teal blue eyes and a small but persistent voice. When she’s unhappy or hungry – which happens about every three hours -- she lets me know. Mostly, though, she wants to cuddle and be rubbed.

Candy, the other three-week old female I’m fostering, is quite the opposite; she’s a bold one. Mostly grey with white feet, a touch of white around her mouth and really bright blue eyes, she is more active, and nearly fearless. She’ll make a toy out of anything, and is quite willing to crawl all over my golden retriever, Piper. My dog Piper is in seventh heaven. Though she is 5 years old and spayed, she thinks she has babies to care for. I’ve had her since she was a pup, so I know she’s never been pregnant.

Piper has always been a rowdy tomboy who runs fast and plays hard. Seeing her gently lick the kittens and carefully supervise their every move brings tears to my eyes. I’ve never seen this side of her before.

Piper and Regina

I’m a foster mom - again - for the next 5 weeks or so.  I’m happy to be helping the Richmond SPCA with a tiny portion of the heavy workload they have at this time of year. This is dangerous territory for me; I’m a 6-time foster failure. 4 cats and 2 dogs have come into my home over the years for foster care – and never left.

I have taken a lot of good-natured ribbing for those facts and, I guess, I deserved it. This time, it has to be different. We have 4 dogs and a 12-year-old resident cat, so I need to keep their needs first in my mind. To that end, I have concocted a mythical family for Candy and Regina in my mind; two little girls, ages 7 and 10, who are ready for their first pets. They are loving parents-to-be that are willing to put some time and effort into raising fur kids, understanding the responsibilities and rewards that come from caring for animals.

In this scenario, my job is to socialize these tiny kittens into healthy, happy, well-adjusted ten-week old kittens that will then be ready for their new home. Kittens, like puppies, learn new things best while they are young. After a certain age, their “flexibility” to accept new experiences, sights, sounds, and tastes diminishes.

For kittens, the optimal time for early socialization is somewhere between three weeks and nine weeks of age, according to the American Association of Feline Practitioners. (Read more at Giving kittens a wide range of careful exposure to gentle dogs, many different ages and types of people, other healthy kittens, car rides, household noises, varieties of surfaces, elevator rides, transportation in carriers, and bathing will make them better able to cope with all the things that life may bring.

Gentle handling, including touching ears, tails, tummies, feet and teeth will make grooming and medical care easier for the cats as adults. This is a great age to acclimate them to harnesses and leashes, to play with lots of different toys, and introduce them to scratching posts.

Regina and Candy

One of the greatest challenges is that many kittens don’t get adopted by their families until they have past this “learning window” of nine weeks. So, as a foster mom, my job is to do a lot of introductions and activities while Candy and Regina are in my care.

That’s why I brought them to work with me today, and why they will get several other outings in their few weeks with me. I sure hope that nice (imaginary turned real) family with the two young girls will appreciate how well-socialized their new kittens are.

And, whether they notice or not -- Candy, Regina, and I will have enjoyed our time together!

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