Open Admission at the Cute Factory: Saving Kittens and their Mothers at San Diego Humane Society

Kittens are also one of the most adoptable groups of animals. For example, at the Nevada Humane Society in Reno, Nevada, kittens are often adopted within hours of being put out on the floor even in the busy summer months. 

Kittens are at Risk in Most Shelters

That’s why its shocking to think that of all the cats and kittens entering shelters each year, only 55% will make it out alive.  Many of those killed with be neonatal kittens.  Neonatal kittens are kittens that must either nurse from a mother cat, or be bottle fed around the clock by humans. 

The San Diego Humane Society has led the way with an innovative approach that has made its jurisdiction one of the safest places in the U.S. to be a kitten.  

Nursery workers, vets and staff all work to save kitten lives.

In 2009, they were the first to pioneer what has become a key component of life saving nationwide: the kitten nursery. (To be fair, another kitten nursery, this one located in Austin Texas, opened a few months after San Diego opened theirs).

The term “neonatal” specifically means kittens from absolute new borns up to 4 weeks of age.  Besides being too young to eat solid cat food, they can’t regulate their own body temperature, and their immune systems are not developed yet making them highly susceptible to disease. 

The mother cat supplies all of their needs for the first four weeks.  Replicating all that she does is hard work for a mere human, but kind hearted and hard working humans can do it.

A worker bottle feeds an orphan kitten.

Shelters can recruit foster care givers for the task, but in shelters located in warm climates there is a year round supply of kittens and fosters may not always be available when they are needed. Once such fragile animals are admitted to a shelter its better to have somewhere one site that can take them immediately. 

San Diego’s kitten nursery of 2009 was a much smaller operation.  Aside from professional managers, the care givers were all volunteers. Despite such humble resources, the nursery immediately saved a lot of kittens and was considered a big success.  However, they were “limited admission” that is, they only took in a certain number of kittens and had to turn away others.  

The Nursery Takes the Next Step

In 2012, the nursery became open admission, meaning that it takes in any needy kitten and none are turned away. To accommodate the greater numbers, the nursery made some changes. 

Now the nursery only works with the youngest kittens: those under four weeks old.  After this age kittens are able to eat solid food and they are transferred to foster homes.  To make sure there is always a place for a kitten in need, the San Diego Humane Society also has foster care givers who can take care of kittens under 4 weeks of age in case the nursery is full.

Keeping Kittens and their Mothers Healthy

Today the nursery has a capacity of 125 kittens and up to 10 mother cats with nursing kittens.  Like all aspects of the nursery, there is nothing more important than the health of feline inhabitants. 

The biggest concern for neonatal kittens is disease and body temperature.  Kitten’s immune systems are not fully developed and so they are extremely vulnerable to disease.  They can’t regulate their body temperature so orphaned kittens are kept warm on heating discs.

Nursery Manager Jackie Noble looks over kitten charts.

Nursery supervisor Jackie Noble says “people often think that the most important thing to do when they find a kitten is to feed it, but really it’s to keep it warm.”  In years past fewer people were aware of this, but since there is more information available online about how to care for orphaned kittens, more people try to keep kittens warm before they bring them into the nursery which means they arrive much stronger.

The Kitten Nursery Today

The nursery is located in a spacious warehouse divided into two cat condo areas for kitten care. A third area with crates is for nursing mothers and kittens.

For the human caretakers, the environment is kept lightly air conditioned.  All the orphaned kittens live in cat condos, with the smallest kittens spending most of the time on their heating discs in the smaller (and warmer)compartment of the condo. As they get bigger, they can venture out into the larger compartment.

Preventing Disease

Staff who work in one kitten area never enter the other area.  They wear sterile gloves and gown and must be careful to keep the tools used for the kittens sterile.  Feline Panleukopenia (Feline Distemper) is the disease that is most feared.  This disease was a major killer of immature and young adult cats until 1950 when a vaccine against it was developed. Today the disease presents itself in animal shelters, community cat colonies and parts of the world where cats aren’t vaccinated.  Kittens less than 16 weeks of age are the most vulnerable to it. 

The nursery is divided into two parts that are kept completely separate

Working in the second part of the kitten nursery.

Today the kitten nursery has a paid staff that works around the clock.  Volunteers help the staff but no longer care directly for the kittens.  The Humane Society employs veterinarians who regularly make the rounds in the nursery and watch any kittens who are not thriving.

San Diego Humane Society continues to expand its reach in the community and hopes to be able to provide a safety net for kittens for an ever larger portion of San Diego County.

A kitten enjoys solid food after her bottle.

Kitten Nurseries Nationwide

Since San Diego’s kitten nursery was a success, more shelters are starting them.    The most basic starting component is simply a space that can be kept sterile for kittens.  The National Kitten Coalition has a free Kitten Nursery Manual and since San Diego’s successful pioneering efforts in 2009, grants are also available from national groups looking to help people start nurseries around the country.

I honestly can’t think of a cuter way to save shelter pet lives.

A lucky San Diego kitten.

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