A Kitten’s Journey: Caring for Our Smallest Residents at the ASPCA Kitten Nursery

May 14, 2018

an orange and white kitten

It feels like every day is Mother’s Day at the ASPCA Kitten Nursery, New York City’s first and largest high-volume feline nursery. Here, we provide lifesaving care for kittens too young to survive on their own.
“We’re all moms here,” said Gemma Smith, Administrative Manager for the nursery, during a recent tour, walking news reporters through a kitten’s journey at the nursery.

The nursery is now in its fifth season, which extends from April through October and is known as “kitten season.” Kitten season is the time of year when feline breeding peaks, resulting in thousands of kittens being brought to our nursery and to shelters around the country. Since 2014, the ASPCA Kitten Nursery has cared for more than 5,000 fragile felines, and has helped alleviate pressure on Animal Care Centers of New York, where many of the kittens come from. 

tabby kittens

In 2017 alone, more than 1,500 kittens entered the Nursery, and nearly one-third were cared for in foster homes before being made available for adoption. This season, the nursery expects just as many tiny felines to cycle through, with capacity for up to 300 kittens at any given time. 

A kitten’s journey through the nursery is much different than any other animal that we care for at the ASPCA Adoption Center. A kitten’s journey begins at intake, where individual kittens and queens (nursing mothers with litters) are assessed and weighed. Kittens remain in quarantine for at least 14 days, or in an isolation area if they have any contagious illnesses, such as ringworm. From there, the felines head to one of two primary housing areas: a neonate section for kittens under four weeks, and a pee-wee area for those who are able to eat on their own but aren’t yet big or old enough to be spayed or neutered.

Specially trained volunteers and a staff of 56—including veterinarians—care for kittens 24/7. This care includes bottle feeding, and keeping kittens’ body temperatures regulated until they are old enough to be microchipped, vaccinated and spayed or neutered. At around eight weeks of age, the kittens are old enough to be made available for adoption at our Adoption Center or through local rescue groups.

a nurse volunteer holding a kitten

Karina Josenhans, Coordinator of Shelter Logistics at the nursery, holds resident kitten, Imogen.

Valerie Dutton, in her fourth year as a nursery volunteer, finds caring for kittens rewarding. 

“You’re helping them grow and thrive,” she said, as she bathed Enchilada, a six-week-old kitten. Valerie spends four afternoons a week at the ASPCA, often in the nursery.

In the neonate area, Galore, just 24 days old, had trouble latching on to the nipple of her bottle, but with gentle coaxing, she began to suck down kitten formula. 

Colleen Moore feeds kitten

Kitten Nursery Caregiver, Colleen Moore, helps young Galore comfortably eat her kitten formula.

“I’m so proud of her,” said Colleen Moore, who’s been a Medical Caregiver at the nursery for the past five seasons. “And you can tell she’s excited.”

Jackelien Matto, a Caregiver in her second season, fed Quentin, a one-month-old tabby, with a tongue depressor, helping him transition to solid food. She then applied a wet cotton ball under his tail to stimulate digestion and elimination, just as a mother cat would do by licking.

Quentin getting cleaned

Quentin gets cleaned up after enjoying his meal with the help of nursery caregivers.

“I like watching them grow and seeing their personalities develop,” said Jackelien. “In here we can give them love.”

Renee White, another caregiver, gently brushed Opal, a two-week-old, long-haired calico, with a toothbrush—to simulate the sensation of being cleaned by a mother cat’s tongue. Nearby, a quartet of cute tabbies snoozed in a heap. Others tested out wobbly legs or scampered with playmates.

opal being fed

Tiny Opal enjoys some kitten formula.

Meanwhile, medical staff made their rounds. Dr. Ralph Tran, a Nursery veterinarian, examined Lin, a seven-week-old male tabby who had been brought to the Nursery a week earlier by a Good Samaritan.  Nearby, Omaha, an apricot-colored kitten just two weeks old, spent ten minutes in a nebulizer to ease his labored breathing, the result of a bad upper respiratory infection.

In the nursery, litters are often housed together for their comfort and to control the spread of potential disease. Kittens may arrive orphaned because their mother was killed, injured or unable to care for them; others are removed by well-meaning people in their neighborhoods while the kittens’ mother is temporarily away. Given their fragile state, the best possible place for neonate kittens is with their mother who can provide for their needs. “If you find kittens, it’s best to wait and see if the mom returns,” explains Gemma.

If, after several hours, their mom has not returned, it’s a good idea to call your local shelter first to ask if they have, or know of a local baby bottle program for neonate kittens, or if they have resources to help you provide care for them if you are able.

As kittens approach their ideal weight for spaying or neutering, they are then socialized by staff and volunteers who provide enrichment. Individual kittens are paired so they can learn social behaviors. Volunteer fosters also socialize healthy kittens in their homes so nursery staff can focus on caring for those who are ill. 

Omaha being held

Omaha appreciates some human interaction after his breathing treatments.

“It’s important for kittens to get comfortable around humans,” explains Gemma. “We want them used to interacting with people by the time they are ready for adoption. 

Back in the neonate section, caregiver Kathryn Knocke encouraged Bandit, a six-day-old brown tabby, to keep eating. “There’s more where that came from,” she cooed, before the tiny baby fell into a food-induced nap.

“There’s nothing like helping these young and tiny animals,” says Colleen

a white kitten

“They really are vulnerable,” adds Gemma. “It’s our job to get them strong and healthy. We really are their moms.” 

Approximately 3.2 million cats enter shelters each year, and now through October is when shelters and rescues nationwide see an influx of kittens in need. You can make a huge difference by fostering or volunteering in your community this kitten season and year-round. Contact your local shelter for information on how you can help.