Cat’s Cradle: A Guide to Bottle-Feeding Orphaned Kittens

This story is part one in a three-part series. The series is dedicated to the sleepless hours that people who bottle-feed baby kittens spend to save all the little lives they can and find them forever homes. The work is so detailed, sometimes heartbreaking, and largely rewarding.

On that note: To you—Deborah, Brandy, Aurelie, Patty, Jenn, April, Jimmy, Anna, Darlene, Faye, Debbie, Antje, Mayor Robert Garcia and anyone I’ve left out: a kindling to your souls, and refrigerated cucumber slices to your eyes.

Kitten season isn’t as adorable as the term sounds. From spring to fall, unaltered cats produce countless litters of even more countless kittens that flood shelters, rescues, foster homes and even more sadly, the streets.

Long Beach kitten season, according to shelter-intake stats, runs from April through September. Cat rescuers aren’t in agreement as to whether this year, with its hotter-than-normal temperatures, has been worse, but as Long Beach Spay and Neuter co-founder Antje Hunt said, “In all the years I have been at this rescue business, every year we say, this is the worst year!”

Although numbers are lower this year for Long Beach Animal Care Service’s (ACS) kitten intake, they still dwarf the rest of the year, with numbers between 130 and 230 each month of kitten season. Rescue groups and increased access to free and low-cost spay/neuter procedures have helped, but that’s still a lot of kittens. Some of the newborns still have their umbilical cords attached, according to Shelter Outreach Director Kelly Miott.

“It’s gut wrenching,” Miott said. “When underage and underweight kittens are brought to the shelter, our staff is trained to ask [the people who bring them] if they know where the mother is, and to try to locate her to give the kittens the best shot. If they have no information on Mom or are not interested in doing anything other than leave them with us, then we tell them they might be euthanized, unless we can find a rescue to foster them.”

Kittens who can eat on their own have a better chance of being saved than do newborns. ACS holds weaned kittens at least overnight and generally longer while the staff networks for foster, rescue or transport to ASPCA- and other rescue-approved shelters throughout the country. Some are individually adopted because, all things considered, the kittens themselves are in fact adorable. But it’s more complicated for newborns.

“These are kittens who are approximately less than a pound in weight,” Miott said. “If the kittens aren’t able to eat on their own, spcaLA doesn’t pull them into their foster program, and if we can’t find a bottle feeder foster, yes, they are euthanized by the end of the day, as it would be inhumane to kennel them when we don’t have anyone who can bottle-feed.”

Miott and the staff and volunteers contact the slate of bottle feeders whom they regularly work with to see if any of them have the time and space to help with newborns, and often feed the kittens themselves while they look. The good news, at least for a number of the kittens, is the growing community of bottle feeders in the Long Beach area—this includes Mayor Robert Garcia, who agreed to learn to bottle-feed a newborn kitten when he was still a city council member (the kitten grew up healthy and happy and campaigned successfully for a loving home). And this was no token gesture by any means.

Imagine caring for a newborn human baby—if you haven’t, it’s waking up every couple of hours for feeding and care—and multiply that by as many kittens as there are in the bunch you take in. Or speak to Deborah Felin (yes, that’s actually her last name). If you have the stamina and compassion to learn how to do this yourself, she can provide you with tips and resources.

Felin is a co-founder of the Helen Sanders Cat Protection and Welfare Society (CatPAWS), a cat-rescue organization located in Seal Beach. One of CatPAWS’ missions is to pull cats and kittens from shelters to help lower the euthanasia rate and to give as many cats as possible a chance at adoption.

“I am in a position to save some from death, and if I can, I should,” said Felin, who in a most catlike way has a determination of steel beneath a velvet demeanor. She grew up with cats and said that rescuing them wasn’t much of a stretch for her.

“Cats were a comfort to me in my childhood—I confided in them. It seemed like a natural transition,” she said, talking about rescue. She began by fostering for a number of shelters and through her work met future fellow CatPAWS founder Annelle Baum. Baum had set up a memorial fund for Helen Sanders, a tireless and much-admired Seal Beach feral-cat advocate who died in 2005. Felin helped Baum acquire the organization’s 501 (c)(3) status and wound up as a co-founder.

“That was a surprise to me because I didn’t want to get involved with hands-on rescue,” Felin said.

Of course, Felin did wind up as a rescuer and ultimately as a bottle feeder, which she said she  learned to do because she had to.

“When I was fostering for another shelter, I got a number of kittens that they thought were almost ready to eat on their own,” she said. “But they weren’t, so I had to get up to speed pretty quickly. Then I got educated about it, I did it more times, then a lot of times. Finally, I taught a few impromptu classes.”

Deborahsgraduatingclass

One of Deborah Felin’s graduating classes. Photo courtesy of Deborah Felin.

Seal Beach Animal Care Center had initiated a bottle-feeding program in 2004, and Felin had gotten much of her practice there. “We’re lucky now because there’s a lot of material online—videos, kitten-care guides,” she said. “In fact, people asked us all the time what to do, so we made a video.”

The videos, which will be made available in section 3 as a review, provide great mentorship for anyone wanting or needing to care for newborns. Stay tuned for a beginner’s guide to bottle feeding. 

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Kate Karp is the Pets Columnist for the Long Beach Post covering the world of animal activism, pet adoptions and lots of cute cats. She’s called Long Beach home since 1994 and has written for the Post for about 10 years. Kate’s day job is as a copyeditor, which she discovered a love for during her 30-year tenure as a teacher. She describes the job as “like taking the rough edges off a beautiful sculpture.”
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