Temporary Kittens: 8 Steps for Fostering Adorable Fluffballs Now

Porter and Ponyo, my first fosters

Fostering is the perfect pet solution for frequent travelers. With only a 2–8 week commitment, you can continue that jet-setting lifestyle without the guilt of lonely pets back home. However, this isn’t “free for all totally perfect now I have kittens” world; you will have to do some work. So make sure you’re prepared before moving ahead:

  • Weekly/biweekly appointments: you will need to take the kittens (and mom if you get her!) in for vaccines or other checkups, plus any emergency appointments if problems arise. Yes, they will help find a time that works for everyone, but if you have a rigid schedule that doesn’t allow for emergency appointments if needed, maybe this isn’t for you.
  • Separate space: no, foster kittens can’t just live in your apartment freely as “normal” pets might. These are mischievous babies without all their vaccines yet, so they need a safe, sanitizable space to call home. Most use a kitchen or bathroom, but kitten cages can work too. And if you already have pets but want to foster anyway, make sure you can keep separated. Fosters aren’t allowed to interact with other pets (they could get sick!).
  • Some costs: while most supplies will be provided, you will be responsible for a few. If you’re strapped for cash, you might not want to spend it on kittens.

Still want in? Here’s what to do:

1. Find your local SPCA or other shelter

San Francisco’s SPCA foster page is here, but nearly every city will have a shelter with a foster program. Make sure you follow their specific instructions. The following will likely be true across the board, but double check and don’t quote me if you get it wrong ;)

2. Attend Orientation

For me, this was two, two-hour sessions, both on the weekend. Here you’ll learn the details of what will be required of you as a foster parent. If at the end of the session you think this maybe isn’t for you, that’s fine (and kind of the point). Just make sure you attend with your eyes wide open and don’t trick yourself into thinking “that won’t happen to me.”

3. Let them know when you’re available

Just because you went to orientation, doesn’t mean you’re getting kittens the next day. The shelter team will likely want you to sleep on it so you can fully absorb the responsibilities you’re about to take on. You also need to make some decisions like: are you ok with mom+the full litter (mom does a lot of the work but she’s a grown, possibly shedding, cat)? What about bottle babies w/o mom (depending on age, you could be up as much as every 2 hours to feed them)? Sick kittens? How many at a time can you handle? Just make sure you know your limitations and then send an email to your shelter team letting them know when and for how long you’re available and what of the scenarios I described (or better, of what they list) you’re game for.

4. Get Supplies

Most foster programs will provide you nearly all the supplies you’ll need, but not every bit. Some things you’ll be responsible for on your own (and you should get these before picking up the kittens):

  • Litter box. I recommend something with high sides to limit cleanup.
  • Litter. Generally unscented clay litter (for some reason kittens take a while to realize this isn’t food…)
  • Toys. If you want to use them across litters, they’ll need to be essentially bleach-able. Otherwise free but disposable options include empty toilet paper rolls, wine corks, cardboard boxes, etc. Corks and hair ties were a big hit with my first kitties, so don’t feel bad giving them the free stuff. Just don’t leave anything they could hurt themselves on (like strings) in their space if you’re not there.
  • Food and water bowls: Normal bowls work fine for this, just make sure they’re low enough kittens can get their tiny tiny heads in there!
  • Bonus: if you’re paranoid and have some extra money to spare, a wifi camera is great for peace of mind. Just make sure everything is out of reach and maybe don’t do this if it’s not a spare bathroom…

5. Prepare the Space

Time to sanitize (but don’t do this until you know you’re getting kittens, it’ll just get dirty again!!). Whether it’s your first litter or in between, you need to make sure their new home is clean from top to bottom. Kittens like to lick everything, and as they get bigger, climbing will be a big interest, even if it’s not possible (why aren’t these smooth walls grip-able???). For bathrooms/kitchens, thoroughly vacuum out any corners and crevices, and wipe down the floors and walls (yes walls, at least up to kitten/cat reachable heights, which is higher than you think) with a mild bleach and cold water solution (your shelter will likely have specific instructions for this part, so please follow theirs to the letter).

You’ll also want to remove kitten hazards. Toilet paper holders within reach (and the toilet paper!!), trash cans, and shelves/bins will all be game for exploration and possibly getting stuck. For example, cloth bins stored on shelves above the toilet became a great scratching post for mom my first time around. Also watch out if your vanity or other cabinets are easily opened because they will find a way in.

Once all the bad stuff is gone, now it’s time to add in the good! You’ll get a carrier when you pick up the kittens, so just remove the door and that’s a great cave for them (plus since they’ll be used to it, it’ll be much easier to get them back in when it’s time for a vet visit). Otherwise, towels and old sheets are nice to have for a soft, cozy place to hang out or just figure out how to walk! You’ll want to keep the food and water bowls as far apart as possible and watch out for anything near the litter box, it’s likely to get dirty. Again you’ll probably get specific instructions on this from your shelter, so just follow those as much as you can.

6. Pick up kittens (and provided supplies) when you get the word

Once you get the word from your shelter team, it’s time for the fun to begin! Head on it to pick up your kittens and all the provided supplies. This will likely include wet and dry food, some treats, a scale, paperwork, and the best part: poop sample containers! That’s right, I’ve been keeping the good stuff from you. Don’t be surprised when they just hand you a cage and a bag of supplies, that’s pretty much all that’s involved in the hand off. Make your first appointment before you leave if you can.

7. Daily Grind

Play, weigh, and occasional appointments. This will be the majority of your time together. Every day you should weigh your kittens (at approximately the same time each day) to make sure they’re gaining weight and progressing as expected. You’ll likely have a sheet to fill out with this info included with your paperwork. Anyone that isn’t gaining weight, or worse, losing weight, should be flagged to the shelter team. This is also how you’ll know when it’s time for their forever home. Once the kittens reach ~1kg, they’re ready to be spayed/neutered and go up for adoption.

Once the kittens start using the litter box, you’ll need to watch out for diarrhea as it’s a sign of illness/dehydration which can be a big problem for kittens (that’s where those poop sample containers come in). If they’re too young and don’t have mom, you’ll be even more involved! (Overshare: apparently mom licks their butts to stimulate these things and then basically eats it. No mom=your turn! Don’t feel the need to eat it though…) But assuming everything goes along nicely, you’ll just need to clean out the litter box once or twice a day.

And if it wasn’t obvious (if so, maybe don’t do this?), you’ll be feeding the kittens each day. You should follow the shelter’s instructions on how much and how often you should feed them, especially if you get bottle babies, but generally there will be a can or two of wet food per day and a constantly available bowl of dry food. And of course, make sure that water bowl is clean and full at all times.

Apart from any better safe than sorry visits, you’ll also be taking the kittens (and mom) in for vaccines and checkups about once every two weeks. After vaccines in particular you’ll want to keep a closer eye on them for a day or two to make sure no one has a bad reaction. One of mine would lose weight for a day after vaccines, but gain it back the following day. Make sure you schedule the next appointment at the end of your current one. Farther out means more flexibility with times and you won’t forget!

You should also use this as an opportunity to do a thorough cleaning of the kitten space. Litter will eventually get everywhere, not to mention accidents, food, etc. While you should be spot cleaning as you go, doing a thorough cleaning every time you go to the vet will help keep everyone happy and healthy. If someone is sick, you may need to do this more often. Just make sure you’re using pet friendly, non-toxic cleaners. We’re trying to keep these guys healthy, not kill them!

Last, the fun part. Hopefully you’ll have more than one kitten so they can entertain each other while you’re away, but you should still make sure to engage with them at least 2 hours a day. Our goal as foster parents is to make sure they’re ready for their forever homes, so try not to teach them bad habits, like using fingers as toys (I’m looking at you Matej!!!). This is when you can bring out wand toys or other toys that they might find a way to hurt themselves on if left unattended, just take them with you when you’re done! You should also pick up and pet the kittens so they’re used to human contact. There’s nothing quite like having these little babies pass out on your lap for a nap either.

Also, suddenly you’ll find that you’re much more popular with your friends. New people are actually a good thing, just make sure to brief them on the rules and wash hands before meeting the kittens. Kids are fine too, just remember babies+babies means someone’s bound to do something wrong by accident, so keep a close eye. But remember, other pet visitors are still a no-no!

8. Return or Foster Fail

Once the kittens all reach 1kg, it’s time for them to find a forever home. If you’re dedicated to fostering, this simply means making an appointment to return the kittens and leftover supplies. You’ll have some paperwork to fill out including descriptions of their personalities and anything else prospective parents should know about how amazing they are, but that’s about it.

However, if you’ve decided you just can’t let these critters go, you (and maybe even your friends!) do generally have first right of adoption. In this case, just let your shelter team know and you’ll drop them off to be spayed/neutered, and pick them back up the next day. Foster failing (aka adoption) is the best kind of failure.

It can be sad, but so worth it

The end goal of any foster is for these kittens to find a loving forever home. I know it might be hard to let them go (we probably talked about adopting them 10+ times and I still miss them), but just remember they are so cute they’ll be snatched up in a second. Ours lasted on the website for maybe a few hours and never even got to take advantage of their glamour shots (which if by some chance you happen to be the person that adopted these kitties, I have many more like those at the top I can send your way, along with free pet sitting for life).

I know I started by listing all the selfish reasons for fostering (aka temporary pets for a busy schedule), but just remember, you’re also doing a great thing for these babies. If it weren’t for you, they could be stuck at the shelter for weeks before they’re big enough for adoption. So when you feel like you just can’t let them go, remember, there are lots more kittens sitting in the shelter, looking for a home to grow up in, temporary or not.

And now, gratuitous kitten pictures:

Sorry these are fuzzy, kittens are hard to keep still