The Real Heartbreak of Fostering Kittens
When I tell people I foster kittens, they respond by exclaiming, “I could never do that! It would be too hard to give them up for adoption!” While, yes, it is a little heartbreaking whenever I have to part with my little friends, in the past few weeks, I’ve learned that fostering can be so much more difficult than simply saying, “Good-bye” to a kitten as she goes to her new forever home.
I have been fostering kittens for nearly 10 years. Whether they are angry ferals or abandoned bottle babies, I will take in anyone small enough to live in my bathroom for a few months. I feed, scoop, administer medication, socialize, deflea, deworm, bathe, and often adopt out strays that come to me from the streets or from my local rescue organization. Hundreds of kitties have pooped on these floors over the years, but the past few weeks have been so much more nightmarish than ever before.
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In mid-August I returned from an eight-week national tour (I am a singer/songwriter/creative type). After a week or so of regaining the trust of my own disgruntled cats (they miss me when I’m gone!), I received a call from my local foster organization. They know that my doors are always open to the furry little friends while I’m home.
A pair of siblings whose mother had been mauled by a dog were in need of care, so I raced over to the shelter to pick them up. They were weak and sickly, and the woman handing them to me callously remarked, “There are no heroics when it comes to kittens. If they die, they die.” I know shelters tend to struggle financially, and they can’t afford to have a vet attend to every sick kitten. Fifteen to 27 percent die of fading kitten syndrome before they reach nine weeks. Still, I didn’t think it could happen to us. Out of our hundreds of previous fosters, only one had ever died.
Sadly, it wasn’t long before the wee Icarus began fading. He refused the kitten replacement milk. We orally squirted as much sugar, water, and food into his mouth as we could, but a day later he passed away. By the way, the term “fading kitten syndrome” is a bit misleading. Icarus did not simply fade quietly. It was a heartbreaking process of gasping and cries, and I held him on my chest and gently stroked him as he died.
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After Icarus died, we needed to find buddies for Penelope so she wouldn’t be alone. We were put in contact with another foster family who had a litter of six kittens that had been found in a trash can. But before we could even pick them up, Penelope also faded and passed away. Heartbroken for the second time that week, we ended up taking in the entire litter of six bottle babies. We quickly bonded and gave them beer-themed names: Pliny The Elder (my husband’s favorite beer), Rogue, Abbey Cat, Hefe, Bock, and Barley Wine.
They were a hot mess, except for Pliny. He was the oldest (from another litter), most well-behaved kitten with a great personality. Pooping in the box was his specialty, and he taught the rest of his kitten mates the advantages of wet meat and good hygiene.
We had them a few weeks when the unthinkable happened. One evening while I was taking a shower, I heard the petrified yells from my husband. “F*ck. F*ck! I stepped on a kitten. IT’S BAD. IT’S REALLY BAD!” I tore open the shower curtain to see Pliny The Elder being placed in the bathroom sink. I won’t get into the graphic details, but it was the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen. I cried aloud in horror.
It was quickly clear to me that our dear little friend was not going to survive, and my husband’s friend rushed him and Pliny to the ER while I stayed behind still dripping wet to clean up the blood. I cried so hard, equally for Pliny and for my husband, who I knew was going to be utterly distraught. Within minutes of my meeting them at the emergency vet, they had taken X-rays and made the recommendation for euthanasia, to which we agreed. The kitten’s skull was fractured, and the brain was swelling.
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My husband, Michael, was completely beside himself. You know, I often call him the crazy cat lady and call myself a lazy cat lady. He is the one who will wait up until 2 a.m. to trap a feral kitten. He is the one who wakes up in the middle of the night to feed babies who need milk every few hours (I am a delicate flower who really needs a full night of sleep). He is the one with the selfless spirit who rescues six orphaned bottle babies without second thought. So when I say this man was distraught, I am talking depths of despair that I had never seen before. That night I could only cry and attempt to console him knowing how he was blaming himself, despite my assurance that it was only an accident.
One week later, just as the horrific images of Pliny that would flash into my mind were subsiding, Abbey Cat, the runt of the litter, took a sharp turn for the worse. All of the remaining kittens were suffering from severe diarrhea and were on their second round of dewormer meds and antibiotics. One morning I awoke to find Abbey’s body postured and stiff, and she was barely breathing. Poor little Abbey’s fragile body just couldn’t keep up with the amount of fluids being lost.
Two hours into pushing fluids and holding her, I had to leave for work, but Michael stayed behind to be with her when she died. However, by lunchtime Abbey was still clinging to life! Our cat lady foster boss stopped by and administered subcutaneous fluids with a needle. It couldn’t hurt at this point. Soon after a tiny glimmer of hope appeared when Abbey could pick up her head and drink from the bottle! Vigilantly we pushed fluids and tried to coax her into eating, but by the next afternoon it became clear that Abbey Cat was fading again.
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Determined not to lose another one, we brought her to our local animal hospital. The doctor was kind, but blunt. After a thorough inspection, she recommended that we push our efforts towards her healthy siblings and euthanize Abbey because there was not much they could do that wouldn’t be tantamount to torture for our tiny friend.
And this, this is hardest part of fostering. Having to decide at what point do we let them fade away? When are we pushing too many fluids or administering too many pills? Should we take extreme measures to keep them alive, or let nature take its course? We face these questions at any age when a beloved pet is clinging to life, but there is something so tragic when it’s a life that has barely had a chance. Mother Nature surely would have taken Abbey by now if we were not intervening.
We decided that we would continue to try to help Abbey survive. Abbey wasn’t well, but her loud cry told me it wasn’t time just yet. The veterinarian recognized Michael from the previous week’s tragedy, and I think she saw our determination to give Abbey Cat all the care that we could. She supplied us with an arsenal of medications, butterfly needles, fluids, oral syringes, and critical care wet meat.
It’s been five days, and Abbey is making a slow but steady recovery. She isn’t robust and playful like her siblings, and we still are administering subcutaneous fluids, but she is eating and pooping on her own. Abbey Cat waddles out to my feet when she hears me call. Her cry is loud and clear. Still, the fragility of her existence is visible when you see how much healthier and bigger her siblings are. I could be anthropomorphizing, but I feel like she is happier when I hold her. She seems to thrive when I put her in a new environment to stimulate her. We are administering fluids once a day under the scruff, and I will keep at it until she is drinking on her own.
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I don’t know if she will still be alive as you read this, but I do know that we will have given her a fighting chance. If she makes it, the family who adopts her won’t realize the little miracle before them. The hardest part will not be the letting go, the hardest part will be dealing with the stress, heartbreak, depression, and anxiety that we experience when caring for these little creatures.
I was once told “There are no heroics when it comes to kittens.” Fuck it. Maybe I’m not a hero to any kittens. If anything, they save me. Despite the difficulties, they give me the greatest of joys while reminding me of life’s fragility. So there are heroics in kittens. Every single one of them is a precious, furry, awkward, smelly little hero to me.
Awesome photos courtesy Matt Pilsner Photography.