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September 21, 2009

Safe Haven for Sister Kittens

Shelter experience prepared Colin Berry to foster kittens orphaned too young to survive on their own

Part of an online series profiling staff who volunteer "Off Duty"

  • Foster kittens Finn and Chloe survived their precarious first weeks thanks to late-night bottle feedings and special care.

  • Colin Berry's mother helps with one of Finn's many bottle feedings. The HSUS

  • Naptime for Finn. Colin Berry/The HSUS

    by Liz Bergstrom

    A phone call startled HSUS staffer Colin Berry awake one night in June. Her boyfriend was calling from Maryland's Eastern Shore. He had stopped by a friend's house when the friend's daughter came to show him something inside a shoe box.

    Inside the box were soft smudges of gray and buff ... they were two kittens, huddled together on an old T-shirt. Though they were only about a week old, the girl and her family had kept watch and seen no sign of their mother for more than a day.

    Colin's boyfriend, a former animal care and control officer, recognized that the tiny kittens were unlikely to survive without help. The sisters weighed less than seven ounces each and fit in the palm of his hand.

    Hitting the road

    With his friend's permission, he set out for Colin's apartment with the animals. On the way, he stopped at an all-night store for bottles and formula and gave the kittens a much-needed meal.

    When he arrived at Colin's apartment with the kittens, it was almost 4 a.m. The next few weeks would blur into a similar pattern of wakeful nights.

    Colin had learned how to care for very young kittens while working at a Tennessee animal shelter years before. She began devoting much of her time to mixing and measuring formula and bottle-feeding the sisters. But even with the best care, kittens separated from their mother so young have an uphill road to survival.

    Intensive care

    Within days, the buff-colored kitten, Finn, became very sick.

    Late one night, her temperature dropped, and she became listless. Colin rushed her to an emergency veterinarian, who kept the animal overnight and administered fluids.

    Finn made it through the night, but Colin would make many more vet visits to treat her. At times Finn wrestled playfully with her gray-and-buff-colored littermate, Chloe, and batted at toys. At other times, her digestion was upset and she became dangerously dehydrated.

    With Finn's health issues, Colin was advised to feed the kittens every two hours. She suspected she spent more of the night feeding her charges than she did sleeping those first few weeks.

    During the day, Colin was often able to work from home to meet this demanding feeding schedule. This allowed her to care for the kittens while keeping up with her job as Director of Innovations for The HSUS.

    After the first sleep-deprived weeks, during which Colin gained a new understanding of a new mother nursing a newborn baby, the kittens grew larger and stronger. Finn's health became more stable with a special food and occasional medicine.

    Growing up fast

    Then, as July turned to August, the kittens reached eight weeks old. They began to eat solid food, groom themselves, and use the litter box without prompting. Finn became more confident and mischievous, playing with her more affectionate sister Chloe.

    Colin had both kittens spayed and began looking for their permanent home. Though she'll miss them, she can't keep them long-term with her two adopted terriers. The dogs are aggressive toward cats and have been kept at bay by barricades of baby gates and doors.

    Despite all the lost sleep and anxious visits to the vet, Colin says she would definitely foster kittens again—once she catches up on her rest. "In the end, it's all worth it," she says.

    Editor's Note: These "foster" kittens are now permanent members of Colin Berry's family.

    How You Can Help Cats

    • Spay or neuter your cat.
    • Keep your cat indoors. Indoor cats live safer, healthier lives.
    • If you can commit the time and resources, many local shelters need volunteers to foster cats and other animals of various ages. Talk to someone who has experience fostering animals before deciding whether it's right for you and your family.

    Liz Bergstrom is a public relations specialist for The Humane Society of the United States.

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