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Kitten Nursery is a trailblazing success

Posted: July 21st, 2017 | Features, Pets, Top Stories | No Comments

By Joyell Nevins

San Diego Humane Society takes in 10,000th kitten

“Awwwww.”

That is the sound most often made by visitors to the Kitten Nursery at the San Diego Humane Society in Mission Valley. The nursery, dedicated to the care of kittens under four weeks old, was the first of its kind in the country when it opened in 2009. And it’s still going strong. In June, the nursery accepted its 10,000th kitten, named Nova by a city-wide naming contest.

The Kitten Nursery’s 10,000th rescue was named Nova by a city-wide vote. (Courtesy SD Humane Society)

The nursery originally opened in response to the large amount of young kittens being euthanized locally. Much of its initial funding came from a grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The problem was the shelters in the San Diego area were just overwhelmed — their resources were not adequate for the growing cat population. Plus, for the first couple weeks of their life, kittens require constant care: feeding every two hours and bathroom stimulation.

“These little kittens had nowhere to go,” Nursery Supervisor Jackie Noble said. “There is no better feeling than [knowing we’re] saving their life.”

You’ve heard of the bat phone? At the nursery, they’ve got the “kitten phone.” It’s linked to a private number given to shelters in the area. The public is encouraged to bring any kittens they find to their local shelter. Then, if the shelter does not have the appropriate resources, they will call the nursery.

When the nursery first opened, Noble visited surrounding shelters to provide the number and training for working with the babies. She shared how to tell their age from body clues such as teeth, ears and eyes, and what to do with the kittens before nursery staff arrived.

Once the kittens are brought to the nursery, if the litter arrives with its mother, they go into the mom and babies section. The kittens without their mom go into the orphan section. Staff highly recommends people bring in the mothers with the litter when they can.

“Our mom cats are amazing,” Noble said, adding, “If you don’t bring the mom in, she will likely go back into heat and have another litter.”

The orphaned kittens are paired with two to three littermates and given their own cubicle or cage (depending on age and size). The staff and caregivers have found many ways to make the cages comfortable, from baby toys to heating pads to neck pillows that form a “kitten nest.”

“We have lots of creative uses for household items,” Noble laughed. “Every year, we learn something new.”

The kittens get a color-coded feeding schedule (neonatal, transitional, or socialization), and an individual file for staff to record their bathroom movements and other pertinent details.

Since the youngest ones get fed every two hours, the nursery is staffed 24/7 while it’s open for the season (April to November — apparently cats’ mating preferences seem to follow the weather). It takes 20 employees and 150 active volunteers to make that happen for the 125–200 kittens housed at any one time.

With so many kittens coming and going, the nursery is very conscious of preventing the spread of disease. Kittens go through a quarantine process upon arrival, and are always held away from the body during feeding and checking time. Staff also keep a close watch for bacteria and viruses such as ringworm.

Once the kittens are eating on a less intensive schedule and are going to the bathroom on their own, normally at about four weeks old, the foster parents step in. The San Diego Humane Society as a whole has more than 500 foster parents for their animals.

In the nursery, they have approximately 20 fosters that can work with the kittens that need feeding throughout the night, and 35 to 40 fosters that work with transitional age kittens (four–eight weeks old).

“Our fosters are amazing,” Foster Supervisor Ben Campos enthused. “For some, it becomes quite an addiction!”

Since fostering is often a revolving door due to circumstance or location changes, Campos is continually looking for people willing to care for the kittens for a short amount of time. Training is provided, and unlike the strict restrictions at the nursery, cuddling is encouraged.

“I love fostering. They’re so sweet, it doesn’t feel like work,” Kamila Stedz said.

Stedz is both an employee at the Humane Society and a foster parent (currently fostering the litter of Nova, the 10,000th kitten). Since her role as an employee engagement administrator doesn’t involve much work with the animals themselves, she calls fostering a way to get her “fur fix.”

At eight weeks old and/or about 1.8 pounds, the kittens can be spayed or neutered by the Humane’s veterinarian and go onto the adoption floor. But they don’t stay on the floor for long.

“They get adopted so quickly!” Noble exclaimed. “San Diego appears to love kittens.”

In fact, so far this year the nursery has boasted a 90 percent success rate of kittens making it from admittance into a permanent home. In 2016, the end-of-year rate was 85 percent — within a .2 percent of the ASPCA country-wide rating.

The nursery has been a major contributor in the “Getting to Zero” initiative, a partnership between seven local shelters to prevent healthy or treatable animals from being euthanized in San Diego County.

In fact, the nursery has been so groundbreaking and successful that it’s drawn the attention of other shelters across the country. So far, 20 other similar nurseries have been built since San Diego’s inception. Most recently, a shelter from Michigan sent representatives to San Diego to visit the nursery with the goal of incorporating one in their own area.

“We’re the trailblazers,” Noble said. “It’s rewarding to see the impact across the country.”

Want to help?

If you are interested in fostering or volunteering at the shelter, the first step is to fill out an application through the “How You Can Help” portion of sdhumane.org.

If you want to donate items, the nursery has an Amazon Wish List registry under “San Diego Campus Kitten Nursery.” They are also continually accepting towels and pillowcases (used to feed and clean the kittens) and consumable items such as formula. The nursery is also collecting scales for the foster parents, as the kittens have to be weighed every day.

Need more cuteness?

Stay connected to the nursery through the Purina Live Kitten Cam, which is attached to one of the nursery cages at all times, right on the bottom of the Humane Society’s homepage. You can also like the San Diego Humane Society on Facebook to see the “Kitten O’ the Day” post — every day a different kitten is featured from the nursery.

For any other information, visit sdhumane.org or call 619-299-7012.

—Freelance writer Joyell Nevins can be reached at joyellc@gmail.com. You can also follow her blog Small World, Big God at swbgblog.wordpress.com.

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