Onset of Kitten Season Combined with Shelter Limitations Leads to Creative Solutions
Earlier this week, the National Animal Care and Control Association (NACA) recommended that the only animals coming into animal control agencies should be those that are true emergencies such as sick, injured, or neglected pets. For cats, the recommendations extended further and advised against taking in healthy stray and community cats with exceptions made for sterilization and release in locations able to continue such procedures.
These guidelines might leave you wondering what that means for neonatal kittens. Though the right thing to tell the public to do when they find tiny kittens is to leave them where they are so mom can come back, far too often people scoop them up and bring them to our agencies. These might be considered emergency cases but are also the least likely animals to survive being in a shelter.
We’ve found that while many shelters are abiding by the specifics of the NACA recommendations for general intake policies, they vary when it comes to the process for intaking underage kittens. With the next kitten season looming right around the corner, it’s important to decide how your agency plans to handle it. We talked to a few partners to find out how they are preparing for the coming storm.
Holding a Steady Course
Jacksonville Humane Society (JHS) normally employs several successful strategies to manage the intake of neonates and it hasn’t changed that approach – though social distancing practices such as curbside pick-up and drop off are in place.
JHS’s “Don’t Kit-nap Kittens” campaign urges the public not to pick up kittens unless they truly appear in distress. If people show up with kittens, staff ask them to take the babies back home to raise and adopt out on their own. The shelter provides a handbook, kitten supplies, and connects them to a local veterinary partner.
“We’re honest about the challenges and the risks to those babies in the shelter. Even if you’re the best shelter in the world, it’s not a good place at all,” says Denise Deisler, executive director of JHS. “The odds of survival are infinitely greater in a home and then adopting them out is easy because that’s how most people get their cats. We tell the public ‘these kittens are yours and here are the resources that can help you’.”
If people just don’t feel comfortable taking full responsibility for orphaned kittens, JHS asks them to officially foster for the shelter. Some people only keep them for a few days to allow JHS to find an alternate foster. Meanwhile others keep them until they are eight weeks old and ready to be adopted.
“Many shelters and rescues balk at the concept of asking people to take the kittens back. You have to remember they care, or they wouldn’t be coming in with the kittens in the first place,” says chief operating officer Nikki Harris. “Communities want to be helpful and if you believe in them, they are not likely to disappoint you.”
The third and least preferred option is for the shelter to admit them, in which case they contact their own foster homes to move the kittens out. In all cases, JHS is using social distancing techniques such as curbside drop off and pick up.
“No matter what the person is willing to do we try to make it as easy and convenient as possible, and then make them feel good about it by recognizing them on Facebook,” Nikki says.
Rolling with the Tide
Across the country at City of Los Angeles Animal Services (LAAS), things are the opposite of business as usual.
Stray Cat Alliance operates an intake prevention program at the south LA shelter and are typically stationed prominently in the lobby. Because LAAS is a government facility, however, the Stray Cat Alliance staff isn’t allowed to be on site during the coronavirus outbreak. They’ve had to get creative to intercept kittens coming into the shelter.
“How we operate changes daily because the shelters change their process daily,” says Stray Cat Alliance CEO and President Christi Metropole. “They have started doing intakes by appointment only and are taking in one person every 30 minutes, and they are giving our number to people with neonates.”
The staff from Stray Cat Alliance has another location very close to the shelter and will meet people there to take the kittens, which they put into one of their foster homes. They also practice social distancing methods during hand-offs.
“We are pivoting how we manage every day based on what the shelter needs,” Metropole says. “And we recently were able to get one month of rent forgiveness which helps a lot. As long as we can keep our doors open, we will keep doing intake prevention work to support the kittens and the shelter.”
Taking a Technological Approach
The long-distance nature of tech solutions has proven to be particularly relevant during this time of social distancing. Within Best Friends’ COVID-19 resources, fosters can access a series of Kitten Minute videos that show how to make formula and kitten gruel and bottle-feed neonates.
In the world of apps there are a couple cool options. JHS uses Maddie's® Pet Assistant, a free app for mobile phones and tablets that was developed by Maddie's Fund® to communicate with caregivers after pets go home with them. Using check-in surveys, fosters can get tips, advice and resources from shelter medicine veterinarians and behaviorists. The app also has a 24-hour “call a vet” feature.
Network Partners also have free access to Best Friends Vet Access, a mobile app that allows fosters to call, video conference or text a veterinarian 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The vet will advise if the issue is something the foster can handle at home, requires an in-person vet visit, or if the foster should seek emergency veterinary assistance.
Michelle Harmon, foster coordinator for LifeLine Animal Project at Fulton County Animal Services in Atlanta, says they have been setting up all new fosters with the app since the end of last kitten season. Though it has not been used very much yet, Harmon anticipates that this year’s influx of babies will drive a lot of traffic to the app.
“Everybody I’ve heard has used it has liked it and found it to be a really easy process,” she says. “It’s helpful too because we don’t want kittens coming into the shelter more than is absolutely necessary.”
Automating the Intake Process
At Orange County Animal Services in Florida, the shift to an automated kitten intake system last year meant they didn’t need to change anything about walk-in situations with neonates in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.
“A few people asked me if we’ve changed anything, but we didn’t have to because we’ve been using this technical approach to support our Wait ‘Til 8 program for a while,” says Nick Lippincott, training officer and special programs administrator. “We send users to an iPad in the lobby where they fill out a self-guided form that starts with real talk about the mortality rate for kittens in a shelter. We’re transparent about that and focus on the fact that they are the key to those kittens surviving.”
The public are then walked through the same options that JHS offers, given supplies to help them with the fostering process, and connected to nonprofit Kindness for Cats Inc., whose experts coach them through taking care of young kittens. Orange County doesn’t officially accept the kittens as intakes until they are two months old—and by that time many people have found homes for them.
“The tech interface has streamlined the whole process and removed an emotionally intense component to the conversation that is there when harried front desk staff are speaking to upset members of the public. It’s running very smoothly, and we haven’t had a dramatic surge even now.”
Lippincott also put a virtual queue system in place so the shelter can do managed intake of all animals.
“We were always fearful of appointment-based anything then the coronavirus happened, so we looked at it again,” he says. “People love it and we are hoping to use the same system for other shelters in the region.”
Finding Light within the Darkness
Handling regular business in the face of the coronavirus spread is daunting and scary, but it’s also not without an upside. We’re seeing many instances of shelters and rescues willing to consider solutions they wouldn’t have a month ago, solutions that have the power to deliver impressive lifesaving results and change the face of sheltering.
And that’s most definitely a silver lining.
Senior Writer, Best Friends Network
Best Friends Animal Society