Summer 2010 Magazine

Cover Story

First-time Fosterer

By Paul Glassner

A longtime humane society staffer takes on a couple of kittens, and the kittens win.

Gracie did it first.

I was sitting at my desk at home writing a letter when this determined little fluffball clawed her way up my pants leg. Thank goodness for blue jeans; their thick skin provides a good gripping surface for tiny kitten talons as well as perfect protection for the person.

Once she reached my knee level, Gracie padded around the tops of my thighs and nestled down in my lap. And when Jack, her brother, heard the purr from above, he climbed up exactly the same way to investigate, and soon both of them were curled up in my lap asleep.


Allowing foster kittens to scale one's pants leg, while not explicitly prohibited by The San Francisco SPCA Foster Kitten Program Manual, isn't desirable behavior. I'm a seasoned cat person, and I know that today's one-pound feline leg ascender might become tomorrow's ten-pound living-room curtains climber.

OK, so I was a permissive parent. But I was so happy to be under the same roof with felines again. It was my first time fostering, my first time in 25 years in a pets-OK housing situation, and more than 30 years since I'd resided with kittens.

Fostering - taking care of sick, injured or underage animals at home until they're ready for permanent placement - wasn't invented by The SF/SPCA, but the organization was first to apply the concept on a grand scale. Each year 800-1000 lives, most of them underage kittens, are saved by The SF/SPCA Foster Program. The SF/SPCA supplies food and medical care, you provide the love.

Upon signing the foster agreement, I was given the starter kit: Regular kibble. Baby kibble. Kibble pitcher. One case of basic food (a liver concoction). Sardine/tuna mix (add as needed to encourage eating). Turkey mix (bland yet flavorful, good for diarrhea should the need arise). A couple of cans of prescription food (extra yummy and nutritious, formulated for cats recovering from surgery, if you can believe it). And the ultimate temptation (that is, the last resort): a few jars of baby food (yes, baby food for humans, which, as every parent knows, smells strongly).

Then came the durable goods: a flea comb, a scale (a little plastic kitchen-countertop model for weighing food portions, ideal for calibrating kittens to the tenth of a pound), the marvelous pink heating disk (microwave for five minutes and it stays warm all night), and, of course, one plastic carrier containing the foster kids. At two pounds for the pair, the kittens were one of the lighter items.

Did you ever see cuter kitties? Look at those big, wide, wondering eyes, still blue. And those cute fuzzy ears. And those itty-bitty paws. And their absolutely lovable, tiny black velveteen noses. This is going to be good. Kids, I hope you like liver.

A few days earlier, I had been given the 21-page manual to read. I thought: How much does an experienced cat person have to know about kittens? Wouldn't the front and back of one page pretty much cover it? Feed them, handle them gently, cuddle and pet them, play with them, and keep the litter box clean.

But I must say, for someone with nothing to learn, I consulted that manual often.

First-time fosterers get the easy cases. Jack and Gracie were five weeks old, but underweight. All I had to do was tend them for three weeks or so and get them to the magic goal of two pounds. Two pounds at two months, that's the Foster Program mantra, when kittens can be fixed and then go up for adoption. My two wards had just passed weaning stage, so they didn't even need mother's milk substitute.

The first six days went well.

By the seventh day, though, neither had gained weight. To put this in perspective: healthy kittens, during their first month, triple in weight; and in the next month they more than double it again. A human adult jokes to a grandchild, "You're getting bigger every day!" But for a kitten it's true.

So I drove them in for a doctor visit and was told they'd stay at The SF/SPCA at least three days, where they'd be "monitored and hydrated," among other things.

But, but-I was monitoring! They were eating. And drinking. Oh, no, what had I done? What clue had I missed that now jeopardized their tiny lives?

The veterinary technician, as nice as could be, calmly nodded and smiled and almost convinced me that it wasn't my fault.

Three anxious days later I picked them up. Nice to be back home, eh, kids? I missed you.

Once again, the kitties were nestled in my lap, only now I was leaning way back on the couch not quite flat-out. I cooed at them in my high-pitched cat voice - we need not go into the sound-effect details here - and they both looked up at me wide-eyed, then marched up my abdomen and settled down side-by-side on my chest looking straight at me, both inches from my face.

Alas, only two days after their homecoming, I called The SF/SPCA for another appointment, as the manual instructed, because they had soft stools. (It's right there on page 10: "There are three types of cat stool...")

The kitties had giardia, an intestinal parasite. Using this plastic syringe, squirt exactly this amount of white chalky liquid into their mouths once a day for four days.

We got through that all right, but the kitties weren't as lively as they had been. Yes, they were eating and drinking, but their third eyelids were showing (the nictitating membrane, technically speaking) and there was eye discharge (manual, page 11).

Back to The SF/SPCA. Nothing was obviously wrong (all their test results were negative), so just keep feeding and weighing and watching. Meantime, today's veterinary vocabulary word is "conjunctivitis." Gently squeeze a squiggle of this antibiotic goo into both eyes of both cats twice a day for seven days.

Day seven arrived and the discharge was still discharging.

Oh, well, back to The SF/SPCA. But, hey, it was time for another round of vaccines anyway. (And, gee, I'm so glad these rent-a-kittens are on someone else's health plan!) Continued eye problems? Since the first goo didn't work, squirt a bit of this new gunk into both eyes of both cats every 12 hours for ten days. I almost corrected the technician: You mean another ten days.

By this time, of course, the cats knew that when I appeared with a towel, each would be captured, wrapped firmly in the towel and pretty much poked in the eyes. Carefully, gently, even lovingly poked in the eyes. Poor babies. Was I now a caretaker or a monster?

To their credit (and my surprise), the kittens didn't hold it against me. They were more interested in playing bumper cars with each other. When they began their chasing, it was like a game of tag. They thrashed and tumbled across the room, then reversed roles again and again. I'd laugh for ten minutes at a time. Since Jack was bigger, I wanted to get Gracie a T-shirt that said, "My big brother beats me up daily. So you bet I'm tough!"

On day nine of the ten-day prescription, their eyes finally cleared. Victory!

"Clean" at last (healthwise) and with Jack tipping the scales at about three pounds and Gracie (definitely daintier) not far behind, they were checked back in to The SF/SPCA for spay/neuter surgery. My fostering job was done. Yes, it had taken eight weeks rather than three, but that was OK. They were now safely on their way.

Naturally, the little ones hadn't merely climbed up my leg or simply walked all over me. They'd crept into my heart. I wasn't about to let them go.

So there I was turning in my remaining foster supplies - not that I had much left, though I never had to use the post-surgery food or the baby food - and I felt odd. Guilty. I was now an experienced foster parent, truly valuable to the program. Yet I was running away from further foster duty, at least for now.

An old movie memory came into my head. In this scene, a soldier who'd somehow disgraced himself was being dishonorably discharged. In front of the man's former comrades, the commanding officer ripped the regalia right off the man's uniform, then sent the shamed scalawag on his way. Was I that much different?

The guilty feeling didn't last long, however, because while it was true that I was no longer a foster parent, the next day I signed Jack and Gracie's adoption papers and thus became a full-fledged parent. And I felt very good about that.

Now at a year and a half, Gracie and Jack haven't been sick one day in their adopted lives. They have three cat trees.

Paul Glassner was the long-time editor of Our Animals, the magazine published by the San Francisco, SPCA. He is now retired and living in Oakland, CA with Gracie and Jack and his human family.

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