Long Beach and most of the country is well into kitten season, an extensive span of time that figuratively rains newborn felines everywhere that free-ranging intact male cats and likewise unaltered and roaming females in heat get together. The result is a literal flood of tiny, helpless newborn kittens in shelters and rescues. The “season” typically lasts between spring and summer; in Southern California, it can extend from late February to mid-October because our warmer climate extends the mating season for cats.

Despite the catchy nickname, kitten season isn’t warm and fuzzy for the newborns not lucky to come out of the cold. Most of the fragile creatures will die from natural causes, disease or the inability for shelters to find enough bottle feeders to care for them. Female cats can become pregnant as early as 6 months old and can have litters of an average of three to five—some sources cite the range as one to 10. The kittens will also be able to breed very soon and have their own offspring—saying “do the math” would be superfluous.

“The most vulnerable animal in the public shelter system is a kitten under 2 lbs.,” reads the text on the Long Beach Little Paws Project kitten nursery’s home page. “These kittens, especially those not yet eating on their own, are typically euthanized on intake at most public shelters.”

Plug up the leaks

There are two ways to handle the deluge of kittens born during the season. One is to turn off the tap by spaying and neutering house cats and strays; the other is to have a sort of cistern in place so that the little creatures who spill out won’t go down the drain. Long Beach felines are fortunate—a dedicated community of volunteers, organizations and shelter workers bear the storm and batten down the hatches.

Anna Wong is one of them. Wong heads up the shelter’s Return-to-Field program, commonly called RTF. Return-to-field is different from another community-cat initialism—trap/neuter/return, or TNR. TNR is generally what colony managers, rescuers and individual volunteers do: cats are humanely trapped and then altered, vaccinated, and possibly adopted or returned to their colony, where they’ll be monitored and cared for.

RTF focuses on saving the lives of cats and kittens brought in to the shelter. The animals are spayed or neutered, vaccinated, treated for any medical problems, and those that aren’t socialized are carried back to where they came from. The program also makes an effort to adopt out the socialized adults and the kittens. The program is especially effective when a nursing mother is brought in, as long as there’s a place for her to nurse in peace, because mom will be fixed and vetted and either adopted if she’s socialized or taken back to the original location. The kittens who are healthy (a tragedy of kitten season is that babies born from sick mothers may succumb to the disease), they’ll be put up for adoption. Mom, too, will no longer bear unwanted babies whether she goes to a human home, a rescue or back to where she came from.

A tortoise-shell cat races from a blue-plastic carrier from which she's been released.
Return-to-Field Program volunteer releases a visibly relieved cat, spayed and ready to enjoy the rest of her nine lives. Photo courtesy of Stray Cat Alliance.

Both the Return-to-Field program and trap/spay/neuter save little lives and prevent others from being born; Wong said that RTF is a better fit for the shelter.

Wong is currently in her sixth year of working for the benefit of community cats in conjunction with Long Beach Animal Care Services. She said that she’s noticed a positive impact on the shelter’s feline intake and euthanasia numbers; she credits this not just to the program she heads but also to the community members who practice TNR and cat-colony management. A government study that focused on a municipal shelter in New Mexico and that was published in 2018 reflects the potential and effectiveness of the programs that Wong cited.

It still isn’t enough—you can tell by the number of Facebook pleas for cat rescuers and bottle feeders that greatly increase in number during kitten season. Long Beach Animal Care Services’ euthanasia rates have gone up and down during the year, but at the end of each year they’re down significantly. The city hasn’t analyzed the 2018 statistics as to cats and dogs, but the combined rates show the same good direction. No matter—euthanasia rates for cats have always been greater than those for dogs. In 2017, nearly eight times the number of cats than dogs were put to sleep, and most of them are newborn kittens.

Again thanks to social media, bottle feeders and rescuers do answer calls for them, and the staff at the shelter contacts rescuers when people bring in nursing mothers and kittens they think are abandoned. But cats are prolific breeders, and it’s still never enough. There’s still the sad reality of what you do when you have more neonatals than you can provide care for.

Increased, affordable spay/neuter would provide a good umbrella

Reduced intake rates notwithstanding, rescuers, trappers and shelter staff still hold their breath when kitten season approaches, and they don’t have time to exhale. Wong continually asks for more community involvement and also has expressed outrage at the financial hurdles that owners and trappers have to climb over to get cats fixed.

“We need more spay/neuter resources, more clinics doing feral cats and not raising the damn prices,” she said. “Community cats give birth to 99% of the kittens born in the wild.”

The 1% to 2%, Wong said, are born from unaltered adult cats living with humans.

Long Beach Animal Care Services offers vouchers for spay/neuter procedures for ferals and other animals at a $40 dollar discount, but a sizeable copay remains for the pet owner and certainly for the cat trapper or rescuer. To Wong, this is like using blotter paper on an oil spill.

“The vouchers are great, and we greatly appreciate them,” Wong said. “But if the clinics cannot provide a reasonable price and the vouchers don’t provide the entire cost, then why have them? The costs of spay/neuter have risen so significantly that the person doing the trapping, be it community or rescue, often can’t afford it anymore. Then, there are the shots. The more vaccinated cats, the less disease—a highly vaccinated and fixed colony will mitigate the spread of disease.”

New director, new ideas, plans going into place

Staycee Dains, who took over as shelter director earlier this year, was San Jose’s shelter supervisor for 10 years. She dealt with kitten season every year and came up with a couple of very good ideas over time.

“We had a new kitten policy each year for six years,” Dains said. “We’d set the policy, live in the world, and start a planning season for the next season. But best-laid plans—there was always something that needed to be adjusted. For instance, a few years ago [in San Jose], kittens had to be 1 pound and perfectly healthy in order to be taken in to the shelter [and not euthanized], and we also saw that most euthanasia procedures were on unweaned kittens. We found that it took as much time to measure the euthanasia drugs and monitor the vet as it did to bottle-feed them! Of course, none of our staff wanted to kill newborns, so they were happy to learn how to save them. We created a bottle-feeding program—we’d use little plastic tubs and put a little kitten in there, put in the heating pad, and they’d stay there. We showed staff how to bottle-feed. Then, we’d email and call for bottle-baby feeders. It could get chaotic—the rescuers were late or didn’t come. The following year, we looked for the right people to bottle-feed. Every year, we’d save more lives, operate more efficiently—and involve the community.”

Dains headed to Long Beach from San Jose in February, earlier than she’d planned. She wanted to gear up the efforts in the shelter and the community to address the impending kitten season.

“I knew that if we didn’t have something solid in place, it’d be chaos,” Dains said. “[Neonatal kittens] are the most difficult population to provide care to—they need constant care. I’m reluctant to start any program without a structure, and I’m working very diligently to get it developed and get it working.”

Dains stressed the need for a communications policy to see how all the individuals, organizations, staff members and services were going to work together. The shelter is now working on policy and procedure for kitten intake. Each kitten will need an admission record, a thorough medical exam, and a care plan. Record-keeping needs to be accurate with regard to baseline physical condition, temperature, and observations over time. Her staff is also tackling practical issues like making sure space for them all exists as well as bottle feeders to care for them while waiting for rescue pickup.

“[Intake of newborns] can happen 50 times a day, with 14 or 15 newborns every day,” Dains said. “We’re partnering with Little Lion, CatPAWS and Little Paws—we want to be sure that we’re taking excellent care of them so that when they come to get the kittens, they’ll know exactly what they’re dealing with.”

Little Paws Kitten Nursery: big lifeboat for little babies

Dains appreciates that she’s not starting from scratch, so to speak, with the Return-to-Field Program and rescuers and bottle feeders who will pick up litters of kittens and nurse them. Along with a lot of kitten rescuers, she was particularly excited to find out that the first kitten nursery in Long Beach was about to open. The Long Beach Little Paws Kitten Project, a fusion of The Little Lion Foundation orphaned kitten rescue and Helen Sanders CatPAWS cat and kitten rescue, promises to make this season and all subsequent kitten seasons brighter as long as funding continues through saving as many neonatal lives as possible. The all-volunteer project nursery partners with Long Beach Animal Care Services, which gives Little Paws monthly payments of $100 for each kitten that is nursed to health and has a positive outcome, in other words, transfer to a rescue or a shelter. Other funding is done through public donations.

The stakeholders finished with the usual tussle involving permits and paperwork and began accepting newborn kittens on April 15. The facility isn’t open to the public for reasons of keeping the nursery sterile and manageable; however, people who want to volunteer or foster are encouraged to apply. The application is available here.

Although the parent rescues get their animals from area shelters and other locations, Little Paws will pull only from Long Beach’s shelter.

“This nursery will give kittens too young to be adopted or those who need medical care a safe place to heal and grow while they grow big and strong and prepare for adoption,” co-founder Claudia Marie said. “We’ve had a year to figure this out—we know we can’t save them all, but this is going to give the kittens in Long Beach a better chance.”

Marie said that although kitten season started a little later this year, the results haven’t been any different from the others. They’ve housed 50 felines in the brief time since their opening.

“Once it hits—whoa, can it stop now!” Marie said. “That’s why California is so inundated—because of the weather.”

The nursery has space for 50 cats. Spacious “condos” and cages with nursing mothers and kittens trying to grab attention line the walls, and Pet Food Express has donated easy-to-sanitize units that can snap together like Lego blocks to form a play area. The store also supplies 20 cases of wet food each month. Donations from the public help to fill a pantry with supplies like bottles, formula, nipples, toys, meds and food. Scales weigh the little cats upon admittance, and records are kept for each one. Extremely fragile kittens can be placed in an incubator, which is equipped with a nebulizer for delivering medication to the lungs for respiratory infections. Bigger-than-life-size (if you’re a newborn kitten) stuffed animals with battery-operated “heartbeats” comfort orphans the way their mothers would have. The video in this article will take you on a virtual tour of the nursery.

Little Paws continues rescuing the babies as Dains and her staff continue to organize, train and address issues. Marie said that Little Lion and CatPAWS also will conduct more bottle-feeding classes at a different location in order to grow and educate a volunteer base. She and her staff are planning to publish a newsletter. She hopes for more collaboration through other organizations and the community at large.

“It takes a village, and we want everyone to opt in.” Marie said.

“We all need to assume that no one else is going to do it,” Dains wryly added.

Donate to the Long Beach Little Paws Project here.

If you find newborn kittens, please be sure that they’re actually orphaned before you take them. This article is a good resource.