Fostering Kittens 101: What to Expect When Fostering a Kitten · The Wildest

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What to Expect When Fostering a Kitten

Besides plenty of cuteness, of course.

by Elizabeth Laura Nelson
Updated April 29, 2024
Relaxed girl holding a black kitten near her face.

So, you want to foster a kitten — or maybe a whole litter of kittens. Maybe you’re considering becoming a cat parent but want to try fostering first, or maybe your lifestyle isn’t compatible with long-term pet parenthood at the moment, and fostering feels like a good fit instead.

Whatever the reason you’re opening your home and heart to a kitten in need of some TLC, you’ve got questions, and we’ve got answers. Read on for tips for fostering kittens, and find out what you need to know about becoming a foster kitten parent.

How to find available kittens to foster

Finding kittens to foster isn’t too difficult, especially if you live in a big city. Your local animal shelter is bound to be in need of foster parents, especially during “kitten season,” which runs from roughly March to October, when the weather is warm and shelters tend to be overrun with kittens brought in by people who have found them on the street.

Data from a 2019 study showed that cats five months old and younger represented nearly half (48 percent) of all cats brought into shelters, and a quarter (24 percent) of all shelter intake. (Shelter Animals Count, The National Database) — and the study authors say these numbers are likely higher, “given that many kitten programs operate in shelters, rescues, and foster-based organizations not providing statistics to national databases.”  

”Eighty percent of kittens born in the United States every year are born outdoors on our community streets,”  Hannah Shaw, aka Kitten Lady told The Wildest in 2023. A humane educator and The New York Times bestselling author, she’s rescued and rehabilitated hundreds of kittens. “The vast majority of kittens in animal shelters are brought in by everyday people [who found] them outside,” she said. Reach out to your local shelter and tell them you’re interested in fostering a kitten, and they’ll be able to connect you to rescue groups if they don’t have any current fostering needs.

Of course, if you happen to find a kitten or a litter of kittens who appear to be in need of rescue, caring for them yourself is the best option — if it’s feasible for you. (Not sure if you’re foster parent material? Here are some common reasons that fostering may not be for you.)

“The kittens who are entering the shelter ideally should only be kittens who have no other option,” Shaw added. She’s passionate about empowering people to care for kittens themselves, rather than surrendering them to a shelter that may not be equipped to care for them.

Before you take the kittens, however, make sure they’ve truly been abandoned. Shaw said that if the kittens are clean and look well fed, their mother is likely to be close by and caring for them. If, on the other hand, they are crying, dirty, and thin, they are probably orphaned. If they are exposed to harsh elements or otherwise unsafe, it may be best to rescue them. Make a judgment call.

Fostering kitten options 

Single kitten 

Fostering a single kitten may seem easier for a couple of reasons. For one thing, you’ll need fewer kitten-fostering supplies. Kittens have big appetites (you won’t believe how much such a tiny creature can chow down, and how fast), so you’ll save money on food. You’ll also be able to lavish all your love and attention on one kitten, rather than dividing it up among several sweet babies.

That said, kittens like to have companionship — and a human companion just isn’t the same as another kitten. “In order to become well-socialized cats, kittens need to learn appropriate behavior from one another,” the experts at Meow Cat Rescue write. “You can provide attention and love but there is simply no way you can replicate the play behavior of the species.”

A kitten who is fostered alone may become aggressive or develop other behavioral problems. There’s even a name for this: single-kitten syndrome. The shelter says that “single kittens adopted into homes without other young cats” were often returned after things didn’t work out in their new home.

Litter of kittens

Fostering a kitten litter, though it will cost more in food and litter, is a wonderful thing to do if you can swing it. The kittens will play together, cuddle up to sleep, and teach each other the ropes of appropriate cat behavior. If you’re worried about the cost, know that many rescue groups and shelters can help by providing food, litter, and other essentials to foster parents.

When you reach out to a shelter or rescue group, let them know whether you’re open to fostering just one cat, if you’re able to take a litter of kittens — or if you can take a mama cat and her kittens.

Kittens and mother cat

If you have the option to foster kittens along with their mother, this is ideal. “It’s much easier to foster when you have the mom,” Shaw says. “It’s better for the kittens, too. If they’re under five weeks old, then we wanna try to keep them with mom, because they are dependent on nursing.”

What do foster families need to provide?

This will depend on the shelter or rescue organization you’re working with; even if you’re fostering kittens you found on the street yourself, you’ll want to consult with an organization that can advise you and possibly provide you with some supplies.

Of course, the more supplies you can provide yourself, the better — but don’t let worry about cost be too big a stumbling block. Many people who can’t foster kittens themselves are happy to help out by donating food, litter, blankets, and other essentials. Reach out to neighborhood groups and ask, as well as connecting with a local shelter or cat rescue group. Resources are available to help you out!

Supplies required for fostering kittens

When you bring home your foster kitten, or kittens, you’ll want to have a few kitten-fostering supplies ready, Shaw says:

  • A shallow litter box with a small amount of litter, for kittens older than two weeks

  • A shallow water dish with fresh water, if they are at least three to four weeks old and weaned (younger kittens don’t yet know how to lap water and need to be bottle-fed)

  • A heating pad, set on low, with a soft blanket covering it completely

  • Another soft blanket for them to curl up on (so they have a non-heated option)

Of course, you’ll also need food. Consult with the shelter or rescue organization you’re working with, or reach out to a veterinarian to determine what kind of food is most appropriate. This will depend on the kittens’ age, health, and any special needs they may have, so it’s important to get advice from a professional.

Time commitment for fostering kittens

Fostering kittens is a time commitment. Little ones can’t be left alone for long — and maybe not at all, depending on their age and how vulnerable they are. “Depending on the age and health of the kittens, you may need to be available as often as every two to three hours,” Shaw says on her website.

She recommends considering whether your schedule and work situation allows you enough time for fostering a baby kitten. If you work remotely, that’s helpful, but if you need to go into the office, arrange for someone to care for them when you’re not around.

Kittens are ready to be adopted once they are eight weeks old, after they’ve been spayed or neutered. So depending on how old the kittens are when you bring them home, you may be looking at about a two-month commitment. (Of course, if your kitten or kittens turn out to be “ foster fails” then it’ll be more like 15 to 20 years.)

Kitten-proofing your home

Fostering kittens doesn’t mean you’ll need to go to great lengths to kitten-proof your entire home. Rather, you’ll want to create a safe space for the kitten (or kittens), where they can be kept separate from any other animals in the home and they cannot wander around and get into trouble.

If you have a litter of foster kittens, you may want to set up a cage or playpen where they can safely be enclosed. Shaw says you want to do this in a small, climate-controlled space with a door that closes. “Make sure the area is kitten proof — you’d be amazed what trouble kittens can get into,” she says on her site. “For instance, you want to make sure there is not a trash can or toilet they can fall into, a curtain they can climb, a toxic plant they can eat, a small space they can hide or get stuck in.”

Caring for bottle-fed kittens 

Fostering a baby kitten is certainly more work than fostering an older kitten; if you’re fostering a newborn kitten, they’ll need to be bottle-fed until they’re old enough to eat wet food.

Bottle-kitten fostering is its own skill set, and you’ll need the proper supplies. Never feed a kitten cow’s milk or other dairy products — use kitten formula (not human baby formula!) bought from a pet supply store. You can pick up a bottle for kittens there, as well. Shaw has a tutorial on bottle-feeding kittens, here, that shows you the basics.

Caring for older kittens

Older kittens won’t need to be bottle-fed — but they still need plenty of attention. From ages two to seven weeks, trainer and animal expert Karen Chapdelaine (CPDT-KA) says it’s critical to teach kittens social skills.

“The key is to provide a lot of positive experiences for your kitten with all sorts of people, objects, and experiences,” she says. “That is not the same thing as simply exposing your kitten to a variety of experiences. Good socialization involves good experiences, not just varied experiences. Kittens who are well-socialized are more likely to develop into adult cats who do well with other cats, dogs, children, adults, and being handled.” She cautions, however, to make sure you do not overwhelm or frighten your kitten.

What to expect on your first day with the foster kitten 

One of the biggest first-time kitten fosterers questions is, “What will the first day with my foster kitten be like?” The answer largely depends on the age of your foster kitten — a bottle-fed kitten will need more intensive attention than a kitten who can eat wet cat food on their own.

If your foster kitten is very small or sick, be vigilant and provide constant care. It’s important to have people you can ask for help and advice, whether that’s a veterinarian, staff at a shelter, or other experienced cat rescuers.

Bringing home the foster kitten

When you bring your foster kitten home, make sure you have the supplies outlined above, including a soft blanket, litter box and litter, water dish, and food. Have a space prepared where the kitten will feel comfortable and be safe from other pets, kids, or potential hazards they could get into.

Expect an initial adjustment period, where the kitten may be timid or anxious, requiring patience and a calm environment. Be prepared to provide proper nutrition, veterinary care, and socialization. Kittens may need time to adapt to new surroundings, but as they become comfortable, their playful and curious nature will emerge. Fostering involves nurturing and building trust, and it’s common for foster kittens to form strong bonds with their caregivers. Be ready for the potential emotional attachment, as fostering often leads to considering adoption.

Your first day with the foster kitten

Assuming your foster kitten or kittens are stable and in good health, Shaw says, the first thing you’ll want to do is feed them. Once they’ve got food and water down, show them their litter box and the cozy spot you’ve created for them (remember the soft blanket covering a heating pad, and the extra soft blanket without heat?).

Kittens sleep a lot Shaw adds, so while you want to keep an eye on them, you also want to let them rest.

Your first night with the foster kitten

As stated above, kittens like to sleep — so you’re more likely to have trouble nodding off than your foster kitten. Depending on their age, you may need to wake up and feed them every couple of hours; keeping them in a crate near your bed makes this easier and may help you feel more comfortable falling asleep. Knowing you’re nearby to hear any cries or labored breathing (in the case of a very young or sick kitten) will be comforting for you both.

Helping your foster kitten get adopted

Shaw recommends advertising your foster kittens right away, long before they’re available to adopt (at about eight weeks). Take good photos of the kittens, give some info about their age, circumstances in which they were found, name, any health conditions — whatever people may want to know, and will spark interest in the kittens. You can advertise on social media, neighborhood boards, flyers, Petfinder, and Craigslist.

It’s very important to vet any potential adopters! Shaw recommends asking questions about who is living in the home (both pets and humans), whether they’ve had cats before, and what they will do if they can no longer keep the kitten. This last one is a trick question, she says: “The only appropriate answer is that the cat will never be given up, and is a permanent member of the family no matter what.”

It's also typical, and recommended, to charge an adoption fee. This helps ensure that the adopters are serious and well-intentioned. Around $75-$200 is typical, depending where you live and what's included (spay and neuter fee, first vaccines, etc.).

Saying goodbye

Bidding your foster kitten farewell isn’t easy! (Why do you think there are so many foster fails — and why “foster fail” came into the lexicon in the first place?) Particularly, if you have kids, it]s important to prepare them early on for the fact that you won’t be keeping your foster kittens forever. Remind them (and yourself!) that adopting your foster kitten out is the goal: It means you’ve succeeded in your mission.

If your adopter is willing, ask them to send you updates and photos to let you know how the kitten is adjusting to their new home. This can help ease any lingering pangs of sadness or regret after saying goodbye. (Another great way to get over the grief? Foster more kittens!) 

FAQs (People also ask): 

How much time do I need to spend with a foster kitten? 

The short answer? As much as possible! Shaw says you’ll need to be available every two to three hours, at minimum, if you’re fostering a young kitten. Kittens need lots of love and playtime — but they also sleep a lot, so you will get a break. It’s important to be available, however, in case your kitten needs you.

Can I foster multiple kittens at once? 

Absolutely! In fact, many people find it easier to foster a litter of kittens, as they will entertain each other.

How long are kittens normally fostered for?

Kittens are generally ready to be adopted out at eight to nine weeks of age, Shaw says.

What if my foster kitten dies? 

While this is of course extremely sad, it can happen when you are fostering kittens — particularly if the kitten is orphaned at a young age, is sick, or has other health concerns. Shaw has plenty of experience with grieving kittens, and offers these words of comfort on her website: “Remember that the reason you feel grief is because you also feel great love, and that love is what makes you such a special person.”

Will I need to bring my foster kitten to the vet? 

Yes! It’s important to get your foster kitten routine veterinary care, including an initial exam and vaccinations. When they are old enough, they will need to be spayed or neutered.

Can I foster a kitten as a test before adopting? 

Many a cat parent started out as a foster parent — it’s a good way to get a feel for pet parenthood and test out whether you’re ready for a full-time, decades-long commitment. In the meantime, you’re doing a good thing for a kitten (or litter of kittens!) in need.

References:

Writer Elizabeth Nelson with her cat, Freddy

Elizabeth Laura Nelson

Elizabeth Laura Nelson is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. As a child, Elizabeth was scared of cats (claws and teeth, yikes) but she has since gotten over her fear and now shares her home with three sweet and gentle feline companions who make life better (and cuddlier) every day.