Animal house: having kittens

A wide-eyed kitten
Sir Diddymus - just one of the 17 memorable characters that've grown up in my spare room
"It’s actually a real high point when they go to new homes – it feels like a real achievement " Jayne Jones, kitten fosterer
  • | by Derri Dunn

What’s in your spare room? An exercise bike masquerading as a clothes horse? Spare bedding? Mine’s full of saucer-eyed, fluff-hazed moppets.

A fluffy kitten

I’m a kitten fosterer for the Swansea branch of Cats Protection – one of 250 volunteer-led branches the charity has nationwide. As the branch is volunteer led and doesn’t have a local adoption centre, fosterers help by hosting cats and kittens in their own houses until they find a permanent home.

Cats Protection provides the food, litter and vet care – fosterers add their own cleaning, feeding, transport and affection.

There have been some real highlights. Amongst my first fosters were an elegant, feather-tailed beauty who’d popped through someone’s cat flap carrying her hamster-sized baby. I named them Brosca and Arby and it was love at first sight – I’d never seen such a tiny kitten and we affectionately referred to him as the ginger slug, even after he transformed before our eyes from this:

A week-old kitten

To this…

A five-week old kitten

Despite my boyfriend’s seven-week petition to keep them, my resolve held and they were duly vaccinated and microchipped, Brosca was spayed and they started a new life in a permanent home.

We didn’t have time to mourn – less than 48 hours later, I went to pick up Sarah and her adorably mismatched offspring: Hoggle, Jared, Ludo, Ambrosius and Sir Diddymus.

Sarah the cat feeding her five kittens

The most important thing this lot taught me was how to tell boy kittens from girl kittens – they were initially sexed as four boys and a girl, so I spent the next three weeks indecisively switching between the one I referred to as ‘she’, until the vet informed me that I’d had trouble identifying ‘her’ because ‘she’ didn’t exist. Hoggle and Sir Diddymus, I apologise again for the identity crisis.

A clutter of kittens

The ick factor

Caring for kittens is generally a joy, but the practicalities can’t be ignored. You see, kittens are small, their digestive systems are short and rapid, and their meals are regular – that all adds up to litter trays being filled with astonishing regularity.

As fellow fosterer Charlotte Mackay concisely sums up: “The low point is all the pooing! Especially if they’re not litter trained at first and you have to do that.”

A climbing kitten

What’s more, with foster cats and kittens often being former strays, one of the first priorities as soon as they're through the door is medicating for fleas and worms. The latter play havoc with the feline digestive system and led to one of our most harrowing foster experiences so far.

We’d driven to pick up a cat and kittens from about 10 miles away. In general cats aren’t great travellers and we’re used to the odd digestive ‘incident’ en route.

But five minutes from home, the mother cat’s plaintive mewling gave way to an outrageously overpowering stench as her worm-riddled bowels let her down, followed by frantic mewing from her four tiny kittens.

With car windows urgently wound down, we motored home and emerged retching from the car, rushed the cat carrier up to the spare room and liberated its unhappy inhabitants. Several hours of clean-up ensued, as we decontaminated four befouled kits.

Kittens eating

It’s a glamourous business, this fostering.

The ahhh… factor

It’s not all litter trays and vet trips though. Most people find out I’ve got a clutter of adorable scamps in the back bedroom and their first reaction is envy – I mean, who wouldn’t want to be able to cuddle and play with kittens on demand? There’s probably no greater pick-me-up than discovering the tiny five-week-old fluffballs you’ve helped raise have just started purring for the first time.

“The best thing is having a cuddle whenever you want – there’s really nothing in the world cuter than kittens,” Charlotte agrees. “They’re all different, with their own little traits and personalities.”

The next thing people usually say is ‘oh, I couldn’t do that – I’d want to keep them all’, which is likely to provoke an eye roll from a seasoned fosterer. Because kittens only stay kittens for a few months, and don’t us fosterers know it.

“You do get a bit attached sometimes – sometimes you have a connection and a kitten chooses you and then they look at you with ‘those eyes’…” says Charlotte.

A ginger kitten with eyes like saucers

“You can’t fail to enjoy having them,” agrees Jayne Jones, another Swansea fosterer who’s been taking in kittens for three years.

And yet, she continues: “It’s actually a real high point when they go to new homes – it feels like a real achievement. All of a sudden they’re strong and independent, with these great little personalities.

“If I had more cats I’d have an older pair and just keep fostering the kittens,” Jayne concludes – and she’s not alone in this way of thinking.

You see, despite the daily onslaught of fuzzy cuteness, neither Jayne, Charlotte nor I are interested in holding onto our kittens and would rather go for a fully-formed adult cat if we were to adopt more. “They deserve a home and they often get overlooked,” says Charlotte.

Over the summer months Cats Protection has a huge influx of kittens to care for, which sadly means older cats in its adoption centres end up waiting longer for homes when adopters opt for a younger model. In fact two of my own adopted cats, Dylan and Major Tom, are a pair of cuddly, laid-back, middle-aged chaps who spent the best part of last summer watching the world through a cattery window, waiting for their second chance of a home.

It's fair to say they got their feet under the table pretty quickly...

Full-grown cats Dylan and Major Tom

Which is why, lovely though kittens are, I think all us fosterers would be happier if there were a few less of them needing our help.

Put it this way – one unneutered female cat can produce 18 kittens in a year, but in the last 12 months I’ve looked after a total of 17 kittens and four of their mothers. It’s pretty scary to think if those four mums hadn’t been neutered and rehomed through the Cats Protection system, there’d perhaps be another 60 or so kittens in Swansea’s gardens and greenhouses in the last year.

Cats Protection recommends neutering kittens from four months old. Just think, if everyone followed this advice, I might be able to have my spare room back one day…

Kitten looking at camera with a pleading expression