How to foster kittens (part 1)
As I write this post, my own foster kittens are galloping around my kitten-proofed kitchen. Their sweet little mews, ferocious wrestling matches, and daredevil leaps over the tunnel toy are making it hard to get anything done. I could watch kittens all day. Seriously.
If you are thinking of fostering kittens yourself, I want to say thank you. Wanting to help another living thing is a very generous impulse and the world needs more people like you.
Kittens are F-U-N, but taking care of kittens is time consuming and a lot of work. So, you need to be sure that your schedule, household, and lifestyle can temporarily make room for the demands of growing kittens before jumping into fostering.
Let’s talk about what’s involved in this post. In Part 2 of our fostering series, "How to care for and feed your foster kittens," we’ll discuss the nitty-gritty, day-to-day work of taking care of foster kittens.
What is kitten fostering?
To foster kittens is to give them a temporary home where they will be safe, fed, and cared for until they are old enough and healthy enough to be adopted out to a loving family.
Typically, foster parents will keep the kittens until they are adopted out to their forever homes when they are eight weeks old. In a perfect world, kittens would stay with their mother and littermates until 12 weeks. But by eight weeks a kitten is typically independently eating, using the litter box, and big enough to be spayed or neutered.
Adopting out fostered kittens at eight weeks instead of 12 makes room in foster homes for the next litter of kittens who might otherwise be euthanized in overcrowded animal shelters.
It also saves a financially strapped shelter or rescue the cost of an additional month of food and other supplies. Shelters typically cover the cost of raising the kittens while they are in your home. You provide the love and the elbow grease.
Why not just adopt out kittens when they are younger than eight weeks?
Kittens who are younger than eight weeks are not yet old enough for their forever home.
Younger kittens require intensive and often specialized care. They require frequent feedings, sometimes by hand, constant monitoring, and, in some cases, medical care. Most families, regardless of their love for cats, are not prepared to provide this level of care for a pet.
Kittens also need the company of other kittens to grow up to be well-socialized cats. Humans are not a good substitute for other kitten friends or siblings. Only kittens can teach each other, for example, how much biting is still “all in good fun” and when biting has gone too far.
For this reason, many shelters will ultimately only adopt out two kittens together to prevent “single-kitten syndrome” in which adult cats, raised without the company of their own kind, develop behavioral problems such as aggression, or litter box problems.
So, your kittens need each other while they are learning what it means to be a cat, especially if they are being raised without their mother to instruct them.
Why can’t kittens just be raised at the shelter?
Why bother with foster homes for kittens? Shelters know better than anyone how to raise kittens, right?
Shelters are not equipped to raise young kittens
Raising motherless kittens is a very intensive, around-the-clock enterprise, and shelters, which are often underfunded and understaffed, are just not able to provide the kind of care that kittens need. And few shelters have overnight staff.
An unweaned kitten cannot survive without round-the-clock care, and most shelters will, unfortunately, euthanize them on the day that they are brought in. A large number of the more than half-million cats who are euthanized each year in the U.S. are kittens younger than 8 weeks old.
Young kittens don’t do well in a shelter environment
Young kittens don’t have fully developed immune systems, and kittens who find themselves in need of human care may already be suffering from other health problems that make them extra vulnerable. They are susceptible to disease, exposure to which may be unavoidable in a shelter environment.
Kittens need the socialization that only foster parents can provide
Kittens also need human socialization, especially if they are to become friendly, confident adult cats who enjoy living with people.
Kittens’ minds are wide open to new experiences between two and seven weeks of age. The window is still open until about 14 weeks of age, but it’s most effective to expose kittens to new things when they are younger than seven weeks old.
Kittens require frequent handling, and exposure to all kinds of sounds and objects: pots and pans clanging, doorbells ringing, the vacuum cleaner running. They should feel all kinds of textures underfoot, and become familiar with ordinary household objects. This is nearly impossible to accomplish in a shelter.
How do you know if you are ready to foster a kitten?
I applaud your willingness to open your heart and home to a litter of kittens who needs you.
Before you embark on this new endeavor, be sure you are at a place in your life where you can meet the needs of demanding kittens. Ask yourself these questions:
Do you have a place to keep kittens safe that is clean and temperature controlled?
This could be a spare bathroom that no one uses, but without a shower curtain or trash can, and with the toilet closed.
It could be a spare bedroom, but without a lot of furniture kittens could hide under, knickknacks, or plants.
I like to keep kittens contained in a kitty playpen (more on this below) in my office, but allow the kittens supervised playtime in my kitten-proofed kitchen.
Are you able to quarantine your kittens from other household pets?
Adult cats may not welcome kittens in “their” home, and indoor/outdoor cats could bring in diseases that would be dangerous for fragile kittens.
Even cat-friendly dogs could inadvertently step on a tiny kitten. Conversely, kittens could be carrying parasites that they could spread to a household dog or cat.
Having other pets doesn’t preclude you from being qualified to adopt, but you need to be able to separate your personal pets from your foster kittens.
Do you have room in your schedule for kitten care?
Very young kittens need to be fed every two to three hours. Older foster kittens might need a couple of meals when you’d normally be at the office. I find that my foster kittens, who are eating all the time, need their litter box scooped and freshened every couple of hours, sometimes more frequently.
Working a full-time job doesn’t mean you can’t have foster kittens. But you will need to arrange to have a trustworthy person come in during the day to care for them.
How do you become a foster parent to kittens?
There are two ways to become a foster parent to kittens: by finding kittens outside you want to help, and by participating in a foster program through a local shelter.
What should you do if you find kittens outside?
If you find kittens outside, your instinct (if you’re anything like me) will be to scoop them up and bring them inside. But don’t, not yet.
First make sure that the kittens are truly orphaned. There is no one on this planet more capable of raising a litter of tiny kittens than their own mother. But mom has to feed herself if she is to feed her babies, so kittens who may appear to be abandoned, may just be waiting for their mother to return from a hunt.
Before bringing the kittens inside, take a look at them. Kittens who are clean and look well-fed are probably being well-cared for. Watch for their mother to return.
Kittens who are crying, who are ragged or thin, are probably orphaned. Kittens who are in an unsafe place, or exposed to bad weather, may also need your help.
How to become a foster parent through a shelter
Your experience with local shelters will vary depending upon where you live in the country.
In many places in the United States, there are well-run shelters with formal foster programs in place. Most will be thrilled to have your help. You’ll have to fill out an application, and you may be subject to an interview and possibly a home visit.
In some parts of the country, shelters are overwhelmed with discarded animals and a litter of kittens may be yours for the taking. You won’t have support of any kind from these shelters: you’ll supply the food and veterinary care, and be responsible for placing the kittens yourself when they are ready to be adopted. But you’ll be saving many tiny lives.
I volunteer for a shelter in Massachusetts where we only get a limited number of litters of motherless feral kittens a year. The shelter is strict about vetting potential foster families. If you live in an area like mine, filling out an application online might not be enough.
I had to earn the trust of the shelter by becoming a regular shelter volunteer. Through my volunteer work, the staff got to know me and witness the level of care that I could provide to cats. When I showed an interest in fostering, they were happy to have my help.
This is not only a good strategy if you’re not having any luck getting a response from your application, it’s also a super-fun opportunity to get involved in rescue.
What you will need to foster kittens
(*This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.)
If you are fostering kittens through an official program, you may be able to borrow some or all of these items from the shelter. Many shelters, like mine, also provide food. But these are some of the items you should have on hand from Day 1:
You will need to transport your kittens to and from the shelter and/or vet. I like this one by Petseek because it’s roomy enough to contain several growing kittens, and because it opens on top. I hate having to reach all the way into the back of the carrier to grab a squirmy kitten while the others scurry out. This carrier is collapsible, too, so you can put it away between kitten seasons.
Old towels and blankets
You will need quite a few to line the playpen, to use as soft bedding, and to line the carrier. Kittens can be messy. I find myself running a load of dirty towels at least once a day.
Even if your kittens are too small to use a litter box right now, they will need one soon. These boxes by Van Ness are small, but perfectly sized to fit in the playpen I mention below, and to allow short little kittens to step over the sides. It's made of a very slippery plastic, which makes it easy to clean.
Even though they are relatively easy to clean, I buy a couple of them anyway. They’re very inexpensive and sometimes I just like being able to throw a particularly filthy litter box away.
I prefer unscented, non-clumping litter for young kittens. Like human babies, kittens put everything in their mouths, including litter. It’s theoretically possible that clumping litter could clump in a kitten’s tiny digestive tract, causing an obstruction. This old-fashioned clay litter by Tidy Cats does the trick.
Literally any scoop will do. I’m providing a link to a popular scoop on Amazon here to save you the trouble of shopping.
I shovel kitten poop and wet litter into these small bags, which I dispose of every single time I scoop. You can use grocery bags, or any other means to dispose of dirty litter. Kittens poop a LOT and I find myself scooping very, very frequently throughout the day. I just don’t like having to scrounge around for a bag.
You will need at least two very shallow bowls for water and dry food. If you decide to feed wet food in bowls (I use paper plates) you will need at least one more per kitten, more if you don’t want to handwash bowls after every meal.
This one by Durapet is only 1.25 inches tall and has a non-skid base. In this post about the best food and water dishes, I state that I prefer USA-made stainless-steel bowls, but I haven’t found a USA-made bowl that is shallow enough for tiny kittens.
Cats may be clean, but kittens can be shockingly messy. My current litter has gastrointestinal problems and there is mushy poop on every surface.
Amazon doesn’t allow me to link to them, but you can search for REScue Disinfectant Wipes, which are safe for animals. Note that they are VERY expensive. I use Clorox Wipes, because I go through hundreds of wipes every week, but am careful to rinse surfaces with plain water after disinfecting.
A playpen can be a lifesaver when you’re raising kittens. When they’re inside and zipped in, you’ll always know where they are. Even if you’re keeping kittens in a spare bathroom, the playpen is handy to use to contain the kittens while you’re cleaning up their regular digs.
I keep my kittens in the playpen in my office where I can keep an eye on them all day (and take one out to hold every now and then). I like knowing they’re safe inside when I go to sleep at night or leave the house.
I’m linking to the exact 48” playpen by EliteField that I use. Feel free to get one that is larger, but I wouldn’t go any smaller. Kittens grow fast.
My shelter provides me with another wet kitten-food brand, but the kittens like this one by Royal Canin so much I buy it with my own money. It’s a very nutritious food. You can also use the Mother & Baby Cat formulation, which is a little softer, for younger kittens who are just learning to eat solids.
I like to keep a bowl of dry kitten food (for kittens on solid food) available at all times. Kittens need to eat whenever they’re hungry. Royal Canin also makes a dry Mother & Baby Cat formulation.
Whatever wet or dry food you buy, make sure it's designed for kittens. It will say "for kittens" right on the package. Kitten food contains more calories, protein, and fat than adult-cat food to support their rapid growth.
If your kittens aren’t already old enough to eat solid food, you’ll need to feed kitten milk replacer like this one by PetAg, which closely mimics the milk a kitten should be getting from his mom.
Don’t feed cow’s milk or goat’s milk to kittens because these alternative milks don’t contain enough protein, fat, calcium, or phosphorus for kittens.
Note that I often add kitten milk replacer to an older kitten’s wet food if I feel that the kitten isn’t gaining enough weight so this is a useful product to keep around, even if your kittens are already weaned.
Follow the instructions on the container for mixing exactly. Keep any leftover milk replacer in the refrigerator. Throw it out after 24 hours.
If your kittens aren’t yet eating solid food, you will need a nursing bottle.
You will need to keep track of your kittens’ weights, to be sure that they are growing properly, and to help calculate the dosages of medications. This baby scale by Beurer will do the trick.
I personally use a food scale like this one by Nicewell because kittens are small enough to be weighed on a food scale and because I like appliances to do double-duty in my house (and my human babies are all grown up). I put an old shoebox on the scale, zero it out (any food scale that you use should have a “tare” or zero-out feature), and plop a kitten in.
Your kittens will probably start out with fleas. This is a fact of feral kitten life. This comb will help you remove living fleas, dead fleas, and flea dirt.
If your kittens are very young, you may need to provide a heating pad for extra warmth. This microwaveable heating pad by Snuggle Safe does not have a cord, which could be chewed by a curious kitten.
Kittens love everything. They are not yet jaded by “boring” cat toys. Crinkle balls, springs, these weird little tubes, and a fishing-rod toy are a good place to start. My current batch of kittens cannot get enough of this Tower of Tracks by Petstages and this tunnel by Homeya.
Because I make them, my kittens always get an assortment of fun boxes to play with, but the one they seem to like the most is my Monster Cheese Wedge. Watch one of my foster litters playing in one here:
Working in a cat shelter, I think I’ve seen every kind of scratching post on the market. This scratching post by SmartCat is not only my favorite, but it’s the favorite of many of the shelter cats. It’s extremely sturdy.
Are you still interested in fostering? What to do next
I hope you’re still interested in fostering kittens, or if you’ve decided that this is not the right time for you, that you’ll consider doing so at some later point in your life. It’s a whole lot of work but also a whole lot of joy squashed into a few very intense and memorable weeks.
If a litter of orphaned kittens have found you, or if you’ve decided that you’d like to become a foster parent to a litter of motherless kittens, read Part 2 of this series, "How to care for and feed your foster kittens," for more practical advice about the day-to-day care required for your new babies.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 “Single-Kitten Syndrome.” MEOW Cat Rescue, 2 Aug. 2020, https://meowcatrescue.org/resources/adoption-considerations/single-kitten-syndrome/.
 “Pet Statistics.” ASPCA, https://www.aspca.org/helping-people-pets/shelter-intake-and-surrender/pet-statistics.
 “Kitten Socialization.” The Anti-Cruelty Society, https://anticruelty.org/pet-library/kitten-socialization.
 “Library.” UW Shelter Medicine, https://www.uwsheltermedicine.com/library/resources/can-goat-milk-be-used-as-a-milk-replacer-for-puppies-and-kittens.