Kitten Nurseries

Thu, 08/02/2018 - 21:32
Kitten nurseries save the lives of kittens like this four-week-old brown tabby

Note: This is a chapter in the Community Cat Programs Handbook.

Kitten nurseries, a vital component of any community cat program (CCP), are among the most progressive programs being used to save the lives of community cats and their offspring. The following information is adapted from the Best Friends Kitten Nursery Volunteer Manual, developed for use at our pet adoption center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

About the Best Friends Kitten Nursery

Best Friends Animal Society is working to reduce the number of pets who are killed in Utah shelters each year. The kitten nursery in Salt Lake City is one of the many programs that Best Friends has developed to achieve this goal. The nursery provides lifesaving care to kittens coming into Salt Lake County Animal Services, West Valley City Animal Services, South Salt Lake Animal Services, Murray City Animal Services and West Jordan Animal Services.

Newborn kittens are especially at risk of being killed in shelters because they are too young to take care of themselves; they are weeks away from being eligible for adoption; and they are more likely to contract and transmit disease than other animals in shelters. Most shelters have difficulty finding and dedicating the resources necessary for caring for newborn kittens. The steady flow of feline newcomers throughout “kitten season” further exacerbates the problem.

That’s where the Best Friends Kitten Nursery comes in. Kittens enter the nursery program through the shelters mentioned above. In the nursery, kittens receive round-the-clock care from a team of Best Friends staff and hundreds of volunteers. The nursery is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the goal is to help prepare the kittens to go into foster or adoptive homes. When the kittens are eight weeks of age or older and weigh at least two pounds, they are spayed or neutered and then moved to the Best Friends Pet Adoption Center to find their forever homes.

Volunteering logistics

Volunteer nursery assistant job description. Volunteer assistants in the kitten nursery have two job functions:

  • Feed and provide basic care to orphaned kittens ranging in age from birth to eight weeks
  • Help maintain sanitation in the nursery according to established protocols

The volunteers provide humane care for the kittens in the nursery and help keep the environment clean, healthy and safe for the kittens and cats there. In addition, assistants must follow established policies and procedures at all times and must be able to work calmly and efficiently when the nursery is at full capacity. Volunteers are responsible for the following tasks and other duties as assigned:

  • Feed kittens according to feeding procedures and sanitation protocols
  • Make accurate notes on kittens’ daily care sheets and the feeding board
  • Alert the nursery staff about any health issues needing attention
  • Clean kittens’ cages (including, but not limited to, litter boxes) according to protocols
  • Maintain sanitation in the nursery according to established protocols
  • Empty trash and recycling containers as needed
  • Wash dishes and do laundry as needed

Volunteer nursery assistants must be able to:

  • Lift and carry at least 10 pounds
  • Bend and stoop to tend to kittens in the lower cages
  • Be emotionally prepared to care for fading kittens and those who pass away
  • Work well with others
  • Follow the established chain-of-command to solve problems when they arise

Dress code. For safety purposes, the dress code when volunteering at the kitten nursery is as follows:

  • Volunteers must wear closed-toe shoes
  • Long hair must be pulled back to prevent cross-contamination when handling kittens
  • Please don’t wear any dangling jewelry

Nursery overview

There are six animal care rooms in the nursery. One room is for mother cats and their kittens; another room is a designated medical isolation room. These two rooms are for staff only.

To minimize the spread of disease, each room has separate brooms, dustpans, mops, food containers, litter containers, disinfectant spray bottles and handbooks. These items are marked with the color corresponding to the room in which they belong. All items must stay in the rooms at all times, with the exception of things that need to be refilled and/or washed in the kitchen.

Once kittens weigh two pounds and are at least two months of age, they will leave the nursery to be spayed or neutered and then placed up for adoption at the pet adoption center. Kittens at the nursery are eligible for foster care or transfer to one of our NKUT Coalition partners at any time.

Stages of kitten development

Kittens weigh approximately 90–100 grams (3¼ to 3½ ounces) at birth and should double their birth weight in about a week. Within a couple of days of birth, kittens begin to hear muffled sounds. At about three to five days, the umbilical cord will fall off. At about seven to ten days, the eyes will begin to open.

At around two weeks old, kittens will start moving around more often, crawling and standing more. And at around three weeks of age, their teeth will begin to break through the skin and their ears will start to stand up.

The kittens’ teeth should be fully in around four weeks. Once the incisors are in, kittens can eat kitten food and start using a litter box. Kittens will start to gain weight rapidly at around four to five weeks of age. By six weeks, they are able to regulate their body temperature and they are eating dry kibble more consistently.

Curiously, kittens are usually born with bluish eyes. They will stay blue until the kittens are about six to seven weeks old, but the eyes’ true color won’t settle until the kitten is about three months old.

Here’s a quick overview of a kitten’s first six weeks:

Week 1

  • In this week alone, her weight will double.
  • At first, she can’t regulate her own body temperature.
  • She absolutely knows which cat is her mother.
  • When her mother licks her, it helps her digest and eliminate, as well as stay warm.
  • On day two, she may begin to purr.
  • On day five, she may respond to noises.

Week 2

  • Her eyes are now open, but her vision is blurry.
  • She may try out her walking legs, but she’ll be very wobbly.
  • She may start to make friends with her siblings, and maybe even groom them.
  • The notion of looking for prey may occur to her for the first time, and some playful hunting behavior may appear.
  • She may hiss at funny smells.

Week 3

  • Her first teeth will appear.
  • Her ears begin to unfold, making it easier to hear.
  • Her vision is greatly improved this week.
  • She could be introduced to a litter box.
  • Her walking skills should really be coming along.
  • She’ll begin coming to her mother for nursing less often.
  • Playing with litter mates can begin. Some kittens become very agile at this stage.

Week 4

  • This is a week of dramatic growth. Her size may double this week.
  • She can now hear and see as well as an adult cat.
  • She relies much more on her eyes now to tell her what’s going on in the world.
  • She will begin to interact with humans, other cats and anyone else in her environment on a regular basis.
  • Hierarchies within her litter will now become clear.
  • She should be much better at regulating her own body temperature now.

Week 5

  • She can now run.
  • She will now kill her prey, if she has the opportunity.
  • She can now do everything physically that an adult cat can do, just more awkwardly.
  • She should now be able to use a litter box.
  • Nursing continues, but not for much longer.
  • She’ll add hiding to her list of skills when she plays with other kittens.

Week 6

  • She’s now eating solid food.
  • She may chew on other things as well because she’s teething.
  • She now shows true independence from her mom.
  • She imitates her mom’s daily routine, as though she’s now a grown-up, too.
  • She’s now probably fine with being handled regularly by humans.
  • She’s bigger, faster and more agile than ever before — nearly ready to pounce into the world.

How to tell the age of newborn kittens

Characteristics Age
Eyes completely closed and wet umbilical cord still
Less than 3 days old
Eyes completely closed and dry umbilical cord still
Less than 5 days old
Eyes completely closed Less than 7 days old
Eyes mostly closed or beginning to open, no
umbilical cord attached
7–10 days old
Eyes completely open, no umbilical cord, rounded
ear shape, no incisors
2–3 weeks old
Eyes completely open, no umbilical cord, pointed ear
shape, small incisors not all the way up
3½–4½ weeks old
Eyes completely open, no umbilical cord, pointed
ear shape, small incisors not all the way up, weight
about 1½ pounds
5–6 weeks old


General kitten care

Keeping kittens warm. It is crucial to keep the kittens’ kennels warm, dry and draft-free. If a kitten feels cool or cold, warm him or her immediately (see instructions below). Never try to warm a kitten with your own body heat because your body temperature is much lower than that of a kitten, and the kitten’s body temperature could continue to fall. If a kitten’s body temperature falls too low, he can begin to fade and may not survive. Kittens also need to be warm to be able to eat.

When born, a kitten’s body temperature is 97 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature gradually increases and, by four weeks of age, normal body temperature is 99.5 to 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Kittens under three weeks of age cannot regulate their body temperature.

To keep kittens warm:

  • Place a heated snuggle disc[1] wrapped in bedding in the kittens’ cage. Snuggle discs are heated for four to five minutes in the microwave, based on microwave wattage (see instructions on the microwave), and will stay warm for hours. Heat only when the discs are cold, since too much heating can cause them to deteriorate.
  • Check the discs at each feeding to be sure they are still warm.
  • Never place a kitten directly on an uncovered snuggle disc or heating pad.
  • There should be space in the kennel where the kittens can move away from the disc if they’re too hot.
  • Check the bedding at each feeding to make sure it is dry; change it if it’s wet. Wet or damp bedding can chill the kittens even if there’s a heat source in the kennel.
  • If kittens are soiled, clean them gently, taking care to dry them with a towel thoroughly before returning them to their kennel.
  • Before you begin feeding, check that the kitten is warm. Never feed a cold kitten. If a kitten feels cold despite being on a heat source, immediately work to warm the kitten up and alert a veterinarian.
  • Don’t allow kittens to become chilled while feeding them. Make sure they stay on the heating pad while they’re out of the kennel.
  • Food should be warm so that the kittens do not become chilled. Kittens cannot properly digest food when they are cold.

Weight management. Weight is an important indicator of a kitten’s development and health. Kittens weigh 90-100 grams (3¼ to 3½ ounces) at birth and should gain approximately 10–15 grams (⅓ to ½ ounce) per day. They should double their birth weight by seven days and triple it by 21 days.

To track their growth, weigh them before and after every feeding with a small scale. It’s very important to keep accurate records of each kitten’s growth because weight loss of 10 percent or more of the kitten’s body weight is cause for alarm and a veterinarian should be alerted.

Exercise and socialization. Kittens need exercise to promote muscular, circulatory and mental development. They will really start to play and explore at about three to four weeks of age. As appropriate, provide toys and enrichment items in their kennel. These toys should be replaced regularly to avoid the spread of disease.

In the nursery, make sure that all of the kittens get some hands-on socialization time on a regular basis. To minimize the risk of infectious disease, different groups of kittens should not be mixed together.

Feeding kittens

Nursery feeding groups. In the Best Friends nursery, kittens are divided into three groups, depending on their age and size:

  • Bottle feeders (“B”). Kittens without erupted incisors who need to be bottle-fed formula are listed as “B” kittens. As a general guideline, “B” kittens who weigh under 200 grams (7 ounces) are bottle-fed every two hours throughout the day. “B” kittens weighing more than 200 grams are fed every four hours.
  • Weaning (“W”). When kittens’ teeth erupt, they will begin to be weaned off of the bottle and onto kitten food. As they wean, kittens are fed gruel (wet food and formula mixed together) four times per day. Initially, they may also get a bottle supplement as necessary. The focus at this time shifts from weight gain to kittens learning to eat on their own.
  • Independent eaters (“I”). Once kittens are able to eat on their own, they are fed wet food three times a day and weighed at least once daily.

Formula. When mixing up kitten formula at the nursery, you’ll need the following clean and sanitized items:

  • Large stainless steel mixing bowl
  • Whisk
  • Funnel
  • Strainer
  • Measuring cup
  • Water
  • Powder formula
  • Formula storage container

Because formula only lasts for 24 hours (refrigerated) once mixed, it is important to make only as much as you will need so that it doesn’t go to waste. Once you have chosen how much you will need, measure out one part powder formula and two parts water. Whisk thoroughly in the mixing bowl, then pour through the strainer and the funnel into the storage container. Label the formula with the date and time you mixed it and then refrigerate.

Bottle-feeding basics. As a kitten nursery volunteer, you will learn the steps of bottlefeeding during training and will be provided with a handout detailing Best Friends’ feeding procedures. We also have “cheat sheets” posted in each room to help you remember the details of the feeding process.

Each room has feeding stations where you will feed one litter at a time. Each table has a bottle warmer, wet wipes, a heating pad and a scale. Before beginning feeding, you will set up the station according to the instructions provided in the room. Be sure to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer between litters and always wear clean gloves when feeding.

When you are feeding a kitten, follow this sequence of steps: stimulate, weigh, feed, weigh, stimulate. Remember to place the kitten on his stomach on the puppy pad (which covers the heating pad) at your feeding station. Never hold kittens on their backs or in the air when they are drinking from the bottle, as this could cause them to choke or aspirate. Aspiration occurs when kittens accidentally suck formula into the lungs, and you will see milk coming out of the nose. If this happens, hold the kitten upside down until he stops choking and immediately alert the veterinary staff.

Feeding reference charts located at each feeding station offer guidance on approximately how much weight kittens should gain with every feeding, relative to their size. They may not gain this amount with each feeding, and that is acceptable. What is most important is that they are gaining weight overall, and that they are near their weekly milestone weights.

Keep in mind that some kittens don’t take easily to bottle-feeding. Kittens rely on scent and instinct — and a mother — to guide them to feed properly. Always try to let the kitten eat from a bottle first. If a kitten is not eating a sufficient amount from the bottle, or is not eating at all, then supplementing with syringe-feeding may be appropriate.

Syringe-feeding. Bottle-feeding is a very foreign practice to most kittens. The bottle does not look, smell or taste like their mother, so it can take several feedings for a kitten to get used to the bottle. In these situations, or if a kitten does not seem to be eating or gaining weight appropriately, syringe-feeding is an acceptable process. Check the feeding board and feeding sheets for special notes. If there are none and the kitten is not eating, you may want to proceed with syringe feeding the kitten.

Weaning. At three to four weeks, a kitten’s teeth will begin to break through the skin. Around this time, kittens may start to bite the nipple. They may seem hungry yet not want to suckle, and they will have a greatly increased appetite. These signs usually mean that they are ready to be weaned and to begin eating on their own. In the nursery, we want to wean the kittens as soon as they are ready.

Weaning kittens are fed a gruel made from wet kitten food and formula. For the first few days of weaning, their diets are also supplemented with a bottle. It is very important that all weaning kittens have access to fresh food and water in their kennels at all times. This gives the kittens the chance to learn about solid food and water at the appropriate age. We also introduce kittens to litter and litter boxes at this time.

Independent (weaned) kittens. At around five to six weeks of age, kittens will be eating on their own. Weaned kittens should have dry food and water available at all times and can be fed wet food three to four times daily. It is still important to monitor the kittens’ weight and health. At this age, they are able to use the litter box independently. They are much more active and sometimes make their kennel very messy in between feedings. When caring for these kittens, your focus should be on cleaning and socializing, since they will eat throughout the day without your help.

Stimulation for urination and defecation. Mother cats groom their kittens to stimulate urination and defecation on a regular basis. In the absence of their mothers, it becomes our responsibility. Kittens under three weeks of age won’t be able to urinate and defecate on their own, so this is a crucial job.

Before and after each feeding, gently rub the kitten on or near the genitals and rectum with a baby wipe or soft paper towel. Make sure you rub only enough to get the kitten to eliminate because overstimulation will irritate the area. Keep an eye out for chafing and lingering dirt and do not let the kitten get chilled. Some additional information:

  • Kittens need to be stimulated until they’re about three to four weeks of age
  • Kittens should be stimulated before and after each feeding
  • Kittens should urinate every time and defecate at least once daily
  • Record the kitten’s elimination on the daily care sheet, noting anything abnormal
  • If a kitten has diarrhea, make a note in the medical log and alert the veterinary staff
  • If a kitten has not defecated within the last 24 hours, please note this in the medical log

A kitten’s urine and feces are helpful indicators of health. Look at their urine and feces to make sure they appear normal. The urine should be pale yellow or clear. Normal stools for bottle babies will be yellowish and the consistency of toothpaste. The stool of weaning kittens and independent eaters should be pale to dark brown and partially formed.

Note anything abnormal on the daily care sheet and in the medical log, and alert the staff. If you see bloody stool, please alert the veterinary staff immediately.

Suckling. It is natural for kittens to suckle on each other or on your fingers, even after they’ve finished eating. This kind of activity, however, can cause irritation to the other kittens’ fur, skin and genitals. It is a good idea to regularly check each kitten’s genitals to ensure that the suckling activity is not causing problems such as swelling and redness. If this occurs, please alert the veterinary staff right away.

Important things to remember

  1. Keep kittens warm at all times.
  2. Provide kittens with adequate and age-appropriate nutrition.
  3. Keep kittens clean at all times.
  4. Do your best to protect them from infectious disease.
  5. Provide socialization with people and with cage mates.
  6. Cats and kittens are never allowed to roam freely in the nursery. Be sure they are secure at all times.

Medical issues

Newborn kittens do not have fully developed immune systems, so they are susceptible to many illnesses and parasites, some of which they get from their mothers at birth. Kittens need proper care and attention to ensure that they grow up to be happy, healthy cats.

In the nursery, each room has a medical log for reporting symptoms of illness. Please be as specific as possible when describing symptoms. The following symptoms can be noted in the medical log:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge (note what color)
  • Eye discharge (note what color)
  • Coughing
  • Diarrhea
  • Straining to urinate or defecate
  • Loss or decrease of appetite
  • Weight plateau or weight loss over three or more feedings
  • Behavior that is unusual compared to the normal behaviors of litter mates
  • Vomiting (note consistency and color if possible)
  • Constipation for 24 hours

Alert the veterinary staff immediately if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Aspiration (milk coming out of a kitten’s nose during feeding)
  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • Bleeding from any part of the body
  • Abnormal twitches
  • Walking in circles or appearing disoriented
  • Loss or decrease of appetite for more than two consecutive feedings
  • Change in attitude or behavior
  • Lethargy
  • Unable to sit or stand up
  • Blue color in the nose or pads of the feet
  • Excessive vomiting (note consistency and color if possible)
  • Weight loss of 10 percent or more
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Low temperature (cool to the touch)

Common illnesses in kittens

The following information is intended to help you better understand and recognize some of the more common illnesses in cats. Any of these illnesses can cause a loss in appetite.

Upper respiratory infection (URI). The acronym URI is used to refer to any illness that affects a cat’s upper respiratory system; it is basically a kitty cold. These colds are very common in cats at shelters and kittens born outdoors.

URIs are frequently caused by rhinotracheitis or herpes virus. It is generally difficult to determine which virus the cat has, since they often have similar symptoms. Extra care is necessary when feeding these animals. The rhinotracheitis and herpes viruses are treated with the same medications and treatment plan. However, calicivirus — characterized by painful ulcers in the mouth and nose, loss of coordination or painful joints — is much more contagious and the kitten needs to move into isolation.

Signs and symptoms: Runny nose and/or eyes, sneezing, thick mucosal discharge, fever and loss of appetite.

Treatment: Medication and supportive care.

Transmission: URIs are very contagious to other cats and kittens through direct contact, and can also be transmitted by fomites and be airborne. Volunteers should be especially diligent about sanitation protocols when tending to sick kittens and should wash their hands after handling kittens with URIs.

Calicivirus. Calicivirus (FCV) can appear to be a URI; however, the kitten will often get painful ulcers in the mouth and nose, loss of coordination or painful joints. It typically affects very young kittens (or very old cats) because their immune systems are relatively weak, but any cat can become infected.

Signs and symptoms: Nose and eye discharge, sneezing, loss of appetite, fever, painful mouth, drooling, weight loss, lethargy, lack of coordination, limping, painful joints and sudden death.

Treatment: Antibiotics and supportive care. Once calicivirus is suspected or confirmed, kittens are isolated for treatment.

Transmission: Calicivirus is easily transmitted through direct contact with nasal or oral secretions. Left untreated, it is almost always fatal. Calici can be spread readily via grooming implements, contaminated toys and bedding, or by humans (transmitted via clothing and hands). The virus is difficult to kill and can survive in the environment for up to two weeks. Unvaccinated cats can become infected with calici simply by coming into contact with places where an infected cat has recently been. (Although it’s uncommon, some cats are asymptomatic carriers, shedding the virus all the time.)

When a nursery kitten is diagnosed with calici, or even suspected of having it, the entire area must be decontaminated. Infected cats become carriers and can shed the virus for years; it is therefore important to keep such cats isolated and, once symptoms subside, to integrate them only with vaccinated cats. Note: The vaccine has limited effectiveness because of calici’s strain variations. So, although it’s an important factor in limiting the spread of the virus, vaccination should not be seen as a guarantee against infection.

Conjunctivitis. Eye infections, also known as conjunctivitis, are quite common in kittens. Sometimes a URI can move into the kitten’s eyes, and these kittens come to the nursery with eye ailments. In most cases, conjunctivitis is easily treated with eye medication. If you notice eye discharge and the kitten is not currently being treated for any eye issues, alert the veterinary staff for further evaluation and treatment.

Signs and symptoms: Watery eyes; white, yellow or green discharge. Black crust can be dried blood. The eyelids and third eyelid may be red, swollen and raised.

Treatment: Veterinary care, including eye ointment or drops, antibiotics and supportive care.

Transmission: Very contagious to other cats through direct contact via bowls, bottles, hands.

Dehydration. Just as with people, kittens must be properly hydrated to be healthy. When a kitten is not getting enough water, or is vomiting, has diarrhea or has another illness, he can become dehydrated. If you believe a kitten is dehydrated, alert the veterinary staff for further evaluation.

Signs and symptoms: Dark yellow urine, decreased skin elasticity, constipation.

Treatment: Subcutaneous fluids (fluids injected under the skin) will be administered by the staff.

Transmission: Not contagious, but may be a warning sign of something more serious.

Diarrhea. Because it can rapidly dehydrate a kitten, diarrhea can be a life-threatening situation. Diarrhea is caused by a wide variety of factors, including stress, diet, parasites, illness and infection. Be sure to alert the veterinary staff when you observe any abnormal feces, so that the kitten can be evaluated and treated quickly.

Signs and symptoms: Can range from liquid stool without form to explosive drips. May also include mucous or blood.

Treatment: Various medications, depending on the cause and severity, as well as supportive care.

Transmission: Can be highly contagious, depending on the cause. Handle with caution, since diarrhea can be indicative of a more serious illness.

Panleukopenia. Panleukopenia is a viral infection that most commonly affects kittens and young cats. You may hear the nursery staff refer to this disease as “parvo.” This is because the panleukopenia virus is a type of parvovirus. A veterinarian can perform a test for the presence of the parvovirus when she suspects infection.

Signs and symptoms: Sudden onset of fever, high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss, lethargy, sudden death. Once a kitten has been infected, symptoms can take 3 to 14 days to present.

Treatment: Antibiotics and supportive care. Once panleukopenia is suspected or confirmed, the kittens are put into isolation for treatment.

Transmission: Easily transmitted through direct contact with saliva, vomit and feces. Left untreated, it is almost always fatal. Because the virus is difficult to kill and can survive in the environment for up to a year, extreme diligence is required in contamination control. Unvaccinated cats can become infected with panleukopenia simply by coming into contact with places where an infected cat has been. When a nursery kitten is diagnosed with panleukopenia, or even suspected of having panleukopenia, the entire area must be decontaminated.

We warn all volunteers that exposure to panleukopenia is always a possibility. It is critical that all sanitation protocols are followed when tending to the kittens in our care so that we lessen the possibility of transmitting this disease. Volunteers are strongly advised to have their personal pets vaccinated to prevent transmission of this deadly disease into their households. The sanitation protocols established for the nursery and for the panleukopenia room have proven quite effective, but they are not guaranteed to prevent transmission.

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). FIV is a virus that can cause a multitude of health problems in cats due to reduced immune system function. FIV-positive kittens and cats are adoptable, however.

Signs and symptoms: There’s a variety of symptoms, including a suppressed immune system. Diagnosis is made only through blood testing.

Treatment: Supportive care.

Transmission: Most commonly through deep bite wounds. Less commonly, FIV is transmitted by an infected mother cat during birth or through sexual contact. FIV is contagious, but only to other cats; people cannot get it from their cats. Most cats with FIV live a normal life in spite of the virus, and can live well with other cats as long as there is no aggressive fighting. Cats living indoors in a stable social structure have little chance of passing the disease to other household cats. If FIV is present, it should be noted on the litter’s kennel.

Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). FIP is a syndrome that may occur after a cat is infected with the coronavirus. If not cleared by a competent immune system, this virus can mutate within the cat’s body. Once mutated, it provokes an immune response causing severe and progressive inflammation of organs and tissues. There are two types of FIP: wet and dry.

Signs and symptoms: Fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, unresponsive to antibiotics. The wet form includes a large fluid-filled belly or fluid in the chest.

Treatment: There is no effective treatment for FIP, but we can treat symptoms to slow the progress until the kitten no longer exhibits an acceptable quality of life.

Transmission: FIP itself is not transmittable, but the coronavirus is, via stool and saliva. Once a kitten has contracted the coronavirus, the virus may or may not mutate into FIP. It can often look like fading kitten syndrome (see below).

Ringworm. Not an actual worm, ringworm is a fungal infection affecting the skin, hair, and occasionally the nails of animals and people. It is in the same family as athlete’s foot, and is not a life-threatening condition. In fact, it does not affect the general health of animals or people. Three species of ringworm fungus most commonly affect cats and dogs. The species that affect cats and dogs can be passed between these two species as well as to humans and other species.

Signs and symptoms: Hair loss, most commonly on the face, ears and paws. Irritated, scaly skin.

Treatment: Treatment options include isolation, lime sulfur dips, topical antifungal creams and oral medications. When kittens and cats in the nursery have ringworm, they are moved into medical isolation.

Transmission: Ringworm can be spread readily on grooming implements, contaminated toys and bedding, or by humans on their clothing and hands. It can be found on the hair of animals from a contaminated environment, even when the animal himself is not showing any signs of infection. Ringworm is very durable in the environment and, if left untreated, can persist for months in carriers, furniture, carpets, dust and so on, and can infect animals housed in this contaminated environment. In nature, the incubation period for ringworm is between four days and four weeks. Close contact with the infected animal or his bedding is usually required for transmission.

Common parasites in kittens

Ear mites. Ear mites are tiny parasites that live in the ear canal. If you see a dark brown discharge that looks like dirt or coffee grounds in a kitten’s ears, it is probably ear mites. Ear mites can be passed from one kitten to another, but transmission usually requires direct contact.

If you see dirt in a kitten’s ears, please have the kitten checked by the veterinary staff so he can be evaluated and treated. Do not clean the kitten’s ears without first checking with the staff. A kitten’s ear canal can easily be damaged by the improper use of cotton swabs.

Roundworms, tapeworms and hookworms. Worms affect a cat’s digestive system and are very common in kittens. You can sometimes see worms in or around a kitten’s rectum; you may see a long worm or what looks like rice protruding from her anus. Indications of worms are a large belly, diarrhea and an inability to gain weight. If you see signs of worms, alert the vet and begin treatment. Various medications can easily take care of the problem. All kittens over two weeks of age are regularly treated with dewormer.

Coccidia and giardia. Coccidia and giardia are very common protozoa that can invade a kitten’s digestive system and cause diarrhea. These parasites are contagious and can be spread through feces, but they are easily treated with oral medications. Remember to always wear gloves when cleaning up or handling feces.

Fading kitten syndrome

Fading kitten syndrome is a life-threatening emergency in which a kitten, sometimes one who was previously healthy, “crashes” and begins to fade. If not dealt with immediately, this situation can result in death. There is no clear cause or reason for this condition, though it has been linked to birth defects, environmental stress and infectious diseases. Early detection and treatment are imperative; sadly, though, many of these kittens will still die.

Symptoms of fading kitten syndrome include:

  • Low body temperature: The kitten feels cool or cold to the touch.
  • Extreme lethargy: The kitten appears unable to get up or stand, is not responding to touch, and can’t hold his head up.
  • Trouble breathing: The kitten is gasping for breath or exhibiting open-mouth breathing.
  • Meowing: The kitten is crying out.

When a kitten is fading, two things are happening: hypothermia (being too cold) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). The kitten’s body temperature and blood sugar level must be raised immediately.

If you suspect a kitten is beginning to fade, get the kitten on a heated pad and alert the veterinary staff immediately. Please understand that even with our best efforts, some of these kittens still won’t make it.

Deceased kittens

It is never easy to lose a kitten, and it affects each of us differently and personally. It’s important for staff and volunteers to understand that we are operating against nature much of the time, because these kittens are not with their moms.

In the Best Friends Kitten Nursery, we focus on the positive outcomes of the work we do, but we do not pretend that we can save every kitten we rescue. Of course, every kitten we take in is worth all of the effort and care we have to give.

If a kitten passes while in your care, please notify the staff immediately.


Because of the fragile nature of kittens, the kitten nursery has many sanitation procedures in place to protect their health. All protocols are strictly enforced.

As we’ve mentioned, newborn kittens do not have fully developed immune systems, so they are susceptible to many illnesses and parasites, some of which they get from their mothers at birth. Many of the kittens in our care are too young to be vaccinated, which means they are especially vulnerable to dangerous viruses.

One of the major challenges of caring for kittens in a nursery is the prevention of the spread of disease. Because a large number of animals pass through and reside in the nursery, a high risk of cross-contamination and pathogen transmission exists. Many kittens enter the nursery in poor health, potentially introducing diseases to the environment and risking infection to other kittens. Some kittens will appear healthy but may be shedding various harmful germs. With all of this disease around and so many opportunities for transmission, it is critical that we remain diligent in following proper sanitation processes.

A pathogen, or germ, is any disease-producing agent, especially a virus, bacterium or other microorganism. Germs are spread by contact with an infected animal or by fomites. A fomite is any object or substance capable of carrying infectious organisms from one individual or another. Pathogens are spread by hands, on fur, on paws and feet, and via doorknobs, clothing, carriers, tables, pens, clipboards, kennels and so on. Anytime a dirty surface contacts another surface, the germ is spread. People’s hands and the clothes we wear are the most common fomites.

By following sanitation protocols and procedures, we do our best to prevent the spread of germs from one kitten to another kitten, from one room to another room, and from one environment to another.

To correctly clean a surface, organic material, including food and fecal matter, must be removed with soap or detergent prior to disinfection. Items that are not properly cleaned cannot be disinfected. In the nursery, we use a product called Accel to disinfect. Accel (accelerated hydrogen peroxide technology) is extremely effective at killing viruses, bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms. It has a short contact time and only needs to sit on a surface for five minutes to kill germs.

Hand-washing is the most important and effective procedure to prevent the spread of disease. Some hand-washing protocols:

  • At the beginning of each shift, you must wash your hands with soap and warm water for 30 seconds.
  • Please wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer between litters. Be aware that hand sanitizer does not kill panleukopenia or ringworm.
  • If you come into direct contact with feces, urine or vomit, wash your hands thoroughly with warm soap and water for 30 seconds.

Shoe covers, gowns and gloves are types of barrier protection and should be required at the discretion of staff. Please keep in mind:

  • Always wear clean gloves and isolation gowns when handling kittens. When you’re finished with feeding and cleaning a kennel of kittens, throw away the soiled gown and gloves.
  • You do not need to change gloves or gowns between kittens if they’re from the same kennel.
  • Please avoid handling kittens and anything in their kennel that may be contaminated, and then handling clean supplies or food.
  • Never handle clean supplies or food while wearing dirty gloves. After handling kittens and their kennels, please remove your gloves before handling clean supplies.

Frequently asked questions

Q: How many kittens does the Best Friends Kitten Nursery save?
A: In 2014, we took in 1,372 kittens and nursing moms, with an 87 percent save rate. We facilitated 1,177 adoptions.

Q: Where do all of these kittens come from?
A: We only accept kittens from animal shelters in Salt Lake County. They come to the shelters from many different situations.

Q: How do the kittens end up as orphans?
A: Most of the time, we don’t know the specifics of how a shelter obtained the kittens. The mom could have been off hunting when the kittens were found; the mom could have been injured or died. There are many possible scenarios that could result in the shelters getting kittens.

Q: My friend found a litter of kittens. Can she stop by and drop them off?
A: Best Friends is not able to accept kittens from the public. Your friend should contact her local shelter and discuss arrangements for getting the kittens to that facility.

Q: Does the kitten nursery ever close?
A: From mid-March to early December (“kitten season”), the nursery cares for kittens 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Q: Are kittens in the nursery healthy?
A: Many of the kittens we take in are sick and sometimes injured. Most of these kittens have been found out in the elements, exposed to every type of parasite and contagion imaginable. They are also exposed to predators and other means of injury to which house cats aren’t vulnerable. These young kittens do not have fully developed immune systems or fully developed digestive systems, so they commonly bring illness with them. They are evaluated at intake and treated for any known illnesses or injuries at that time.

Q: Why is it so important to keep kittens warm?
A: Very young kittens cannot regulate their body temperature. If a kitten becomes chilled to the point that his body temperature drops, it can cause the kitten to fade. The kitten can die if steps are not taken to prevent this temperature drop and warm the body.

Q: Will my pets at home be safe from contracting any illness that’s in the nursery?
A: If your pets are current on all vaccinations and you adhere to sanitation protocols, your pets should be safe from contracting the illnesses with which you come into contact in the nursery. Be aware, however, that your pets could contract an illness if their own health is compromised in some way or if they are not vaccinated. The chances of infection also increase if you don’t follow all sanitation protocols.

Q: Can I bring my pets or foster pets to the nursery with me?
A: Because of the possibility of spreading contagion to the cats and kittens in the nursery, you cannot bring any personal pets or foster animals into any nursery area at any time.

Q: I’ve noticed a lot of single kittens in cages. Why can’t they be together?
A: Before individual kittens can be introduced to each other safely, they need to be at the nursery for two weeks and be vaccinated. This time frame allows for most disease incubation periods to run their course, and it ensures the health of the kittens to the best of our ability.

Q: What should I wear when volunteering at the kitten nursery?
A: You should wear comfortable clothing, preferably in layers. The rooms can get very warm, and you will be wearing a gown over your clothing for long periods of time. We ask that you wear closed-toe shoes for safety reasons.

Q: I’ve noticed that bottle babies and “weaners” seem to always be in the top row of kennels. Why is that?
A: We only move kittens to the bottom row of kennels after they have been vaccinated. Because the bottom row of kennels is considered “downstream” due to potential food, water, urine and feces contamination coming from the kennels above, we want the kittens there to have some protection via vaccine.

Q: How do you determine when you will vaccinate a kitten for the first time?
A: We pay close attention to when a kitten’s canine teeth fully erupt (around four weeks old). When this happens, we take the opportunity to vaccinate the kitten, since this is the only chance of protection against panleukopenia.

Q: I saw a really disgusting long worm in a kitten’s litter box. Do you need to worm him?
A: Actually, seeing that worm is a good thing (it’s usually a roundworm), because it means we did deworm him, and the dewormer is working. But with that said, please let us know about anything like this; we like to be aware. Specifically, let us know if you see what looks like rice in the litter box (they’re usually tapeworm segments), as we will need to use a different kind of dewormer in that instance. We administer dewormers to kittens starting at approximately two weeks of age, and then give another dose every two weeks after that until they reach two months old.

Q: One of the kittens I’m working with hasn’t pooped in 15 hours. What should I do?
A: We expect kittens to defecate about every 24 hours. If a kitten hasn’t pooped in 24 hours, alert a veterinarian and he or she will determine if an enema or other treatment is needed.

Q: When I stimulated a kitten who came in earlier today, I noticed that her stool was green. Should I note that in the medical log?
A: It is pretty normal for a kitten who has been with us for only a short period of time to have green poop. She’s just digesting what she was eating before she arrived at the nursery. If the kitten has been with us longer than a few days and you see green poop, however, it is important to note this in the medical log.

Q: I’m really upset that a kitten I took care of last week passed away today. Should I continue to volunteer?
A: Sadly, the reality of this work is that some kittens won’t make it. All of us — staff, volunteers and interns — do the best we can. We also accept that sometimes it wasn’t meant to be for a particular kitten. As far as continuing to volunteer goes, that is a decision you have to make for yourself, but we believe that you do make a difference in all of the lives that you touch at the nursery. We hope you’ll join us in continuing to focus on those lives we save every day.

Q: Isn’t all of this contamination stuff overkill? How can cute little kittens possibly have anything wrong with them?
A: Kittens are actually one of the most high-risk animals for contracting several infectious diseases, so our contamination protocols are in place for a very good reason. You’d be surprised by how easy it is to spread infection, so we have to be really vigilant.

Q: Why can’t I cuddle with the little bottle babies?
A: These babies are very vulnerable, and need to come out to the table and immediately return to their kennels to sleep. They can lose a great deal of body heat while out at the table, and expend precious calories while they are moving around. Plus, kittens don’t start benefiting from cuddling and human affection until they’re about three to four weeks old.

Additional resources

The 28 chapters that make up the CCP Handbook fall into three sections, as follows:




[1] Snuggle Safe Pet Bed Microwave Heating Pad

Click here to download and print this document. (PDF 1.34 MB)