Fostering Rescued Cats and Kittens, Part 2

four black kittens
Let us out!

This is the second part a two-part article about safely fostering rescued cats while living with one or more cats already, “Fostering Rescued Cats and Kittens”.

Above, the “Little Four”, Mewsette ready to climb, Giuseppe next to her and Bean behind them, Sunshine further back, plotting, in their bathroom foster room with screens between them and the rest of the house to help with socializing and integration.

. . . . . . .

In part 1 of this article I related two unfortunate circumstances where kind people had taken in friendly kittens or cats and immediately put them with their existing households of cats, permitting fatal illnesses to spread with sad outcomes for both households, and covered the basics of why you need to be careful whether you are bringing in a cat as a foster or rescuing a cat you are considering adopting. It may seem like common sense to keep everyone separate, but many people new to cats or inexperienced don’t realize all the possible illnesses they might be carrying. When cute kittens or really friendly affectionate cats are concerned you might be tempted to break the rules.

All of the cats who have ever lived with me were rescues and fosters first, and nearly always came in from the outdoors, and unknown origins. Here are some basic guidelines that I’ve followed for fostering in my tiny house, guided by veterinarians, outlining parasites and illnesses to be aware of, setting up a quarantine room with basic sanitation and guidelines for how long to quarantine.

I never forgot the sick feeling I got when I thought of possibly killing one or more of my beloved cats with a tortuous and painful fatal disease.

In all the years I’ve been fostering cats brought right in from the streets or the woods or wherever I might have found them, with just my spare bedroom/studio and my bathroom, I have never passed a disease on to my cats. Most rescues have come in with URIs, fleas, worms, earmites, injuries or open wounds, and even a few who tested positive for FeLV and FIV. I started reading cat care books early and a few veterinarians were aware of what I was doing and gave me a few stern lectures of the dangers my cats could face. I took it all very seriously—actually, it terrified me and I never forgot the sick feeling I got when I thought of possibly killing one or more of my beloved cats with a tortuous and painful fatal disease—and I’m glad for it. I’ve done my best to constantly add to my knowledge.

Parasites and illnesses

Some of the conditions can be simply annoying though not life-threatening, like fleas and worms, but fleas and worms can make a very young or very old cat very anemic and dehydrated from blood loss, vomiting and diarrhea, and if you don’t treat the condition properly the parasite can be out of control in a household of cats in no time. Ticks can carry diseases even to you, and the fleas and the diseases both potentially carry can easily spread among your household.

Some of the diseases they could be carrying are life-threatening, though: Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV), Feline Immunideficiency Virus (FIV), panleukopenia or feline distemper, calici virus or virulent calici, feline herpes, even a simple upper respiratory infection (URI), to name a few very common ones. You can read more about them here so you can get to know more about them and understand their symptoms and method of transmission.

Your quarantine room

Cleaning the bathroom floor with vinegar while Higgins watches.
Cleaning the bathroom floor with vinegar while Higgins watches.

This room should have a door that shuts tightly on all sides, not even permitting a paw or a hiss to escape in or out of the room. It’s best if all surfaces can be easily cleaned and disinfected either in the room or by removing and washing elsewhere. Bathrooms are great foster rooms because water is available, it’s usually set up to get wet so most surfaces are not absorbent, and you can wash dishes and litterboxes and anything you use to care for the cat in the sink or the tub so they never leave the room possibly carrying infectious materials.

The room should have its own litter box and litter, and you should package up all the used litter and take it straight to your trash can rather than holding it inside until trash day. Because I use my bathroom as a foster room at one time I flushed the solid waste to be sure there was no chance of carrying diseases borne in feces into the rest of my household, but the litter itself can be contaminated as well. To clean the litter box soak it in hot soapy water and scrub all the surfaces, then disinfect it with bleach. If bleach is a concern then spray it with hydrogen peroxide and let it sit for 20 minutes to air dry.

If food and water bowls need to be removed to be washed, make sure they are packed in a box or bag so one of your cats can’t lick the residue of food from the bowl. Many diseases don’t survive long outside the cat, but you may pick up a bowl they’ve just eaten from and it’s best not to take chances even with empty cat food cans they may have licked. Don’t leave dishes, cans and utensils where your household cats can get to them but immerse them in hot soapy water immediately. Remember that some diseases like calici can survive hot soapy water and require bleach to kill them so you can add bleach to the wash water, use a bleach rinse, or spray them with hydrogen peroxide and let sit for 20 minutes to air dry. And if you’ve thrown away uneaten food, make sure your cats aren’t garbage pickers. Either lock up your indoor trash or pack it up and toss it in the can outdoors, making sure that has a tight lid so scavengers outside can’t get into it. It may smell gross but there’s no predicting what a motivated cat or raccoon may do for food.

Likewise package all used bedding in plastic bags or boxes to carry it to the laundry and don’t let it sit around. Wash it in hot soapy water with a cup of bleach as well, especially if they’ve vomited or had diarrhea. If it’s really soiled, just throw it away. If a foster is having a really messy time with vomiting or diarrhea, layer newspaper use puppy training pads to catch most of the wet mess and throw it all away. Many fosters, including myself, collect newspapers, old towels and linens and throw rugs to use for fosters.

Clean the room thoroughly frequently while the cat is in there and if your cats are permitted in the room after or between fosters, clean the room before they get in there, especially sweeping up all dust and hair and litter where parasites might be living, and any food the foster may have touched. Sanitize all surfaces, even the walls, with at least a wipe down with vinegar, or with a 1:6 bleach solution or hydrogen peroxide and let air dry.

Clean yourself before you touch your cats

The other reason a bathroom is so handy is that you can wash your hands and even your face if you’ve been kissing your foster kitty, or any part of you they may have licked or nose tapped or sneezed on, or which may have come in contact with urine or feces or whatever else may have come out of the cat. Hand sanitizers are okay for this too. If the cat seems to have any infectious disease like ringworm or even a URI and sneezes on you, you may also want to wear an extra layer of clothes or have a change of clothes in the room.

Petting your cats is okay after washing or sanitizing, but I always make sure to let a little time pass before I touch their faces in any way so the chance of my transmitting something on my hands into their eyes or nose or mouth is lessened. I often feed my fosters first thing in the bathroom upstairs, then the regulars and I go downstairs for breakfast. I wash my hands in the bathroom and, depending on the quarantine timing, spray them with hydrogen peroxide and then don’t pet fosters or my own cats until I get to the kitchen when my hands and arms are usually dry. If they have anything I think may be contagious, my cats are fed first before I go near the fosters.

Length of time for quarantine

Lakota and Emeraude quietly hanging out.
Lakota and Emeraude quietly hanging out.

Personally, I quarantine no matter where a cat has come from for both health and social reasons, even if it has vet records and I know its personality. From the shelter, someone’s home, the street, no matter where the cat came from, I observe for any signs of illness as latent illnesses can appear from the stress of a move to a strange place. I also assess its personality and actions toward me to form a bond with it and anticipate how the cat will react when introduced to my household. Anything that makes that transition easier is valuable.

I quarantine completely for at least two weeks and watch carefully for any symptoms that appear, then loosen things up a bit after two weeks if I know the foster’s health history. Two weeks is enough time to see symptoms develop from a URI and many other common viruses that may be latent even if the cat encountered it the day they came in. It’s common for cats and kittens to develop a little sneeze or runny eye that’s usually related to stress rather than illness and if so you can watch to see if it passes on its own. I also let my veterinarian know I have rescued yet another cat so that she knows I may call with questions about a cat she’s never seen, and if I’ll be contacting her it will likely be in that initial two weeks.

FeLV can take up to 30 days and FIV can take up to 60 days to incubate after infection so testing immediately isn’t always accurate. FIV can only be spread by deep bite wounds, something you’d want to manage in introducing a new cat, so waiting to test doesn’t endanger your other cats unless they would fight hard enough to bite each other. FeLV tends to show up a little more quickly, but isn’t transmitted through casual contact but by bodily fluids like bathing each other, bites, sharing food bowls and the like. If you’ve had a negative test at intake, after the two-week complete quarantine without any evidence of possibly contagious conditions you can let them see each other through a screen or baby gate if they tolerate it socially. If you haven’t tested, do so before you let them come face to face. You don’t need to continue to wash your hands or sanitize every time you go in or out, although I do.

All that helps with the “slow introduction” and after 30 days it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on the new cat’s health, but if it’s appropriate, no fighting or physical altercations, you can fully introduce them to your household.

Your own cats’ immunity

black cat on scale
Smokie inspects the scale and some veterinary items.

Your own cats’ health first

Make sure your resident felines have an established immunity and are up to date on their vaccines. Rabies is governed by individual states but most require the first vaccine at 12 weeks and annually after that unless a three-year vaccine is given. Current status is determined by the rabies certificate you are given signed by the veterinarian and not the tag or any other information, so keep this certificate in a place you can find it. If you can’t produce it, you can’t prove rabies vaccination.

Current rabies status is determined by the rabies certificate you are given signed by the veterinarian and not the tag or any other information, so keep this certificate in a place you can find it. If you can’t produce it, you can’t prove rabies vaccination.

Other vaccines are often updated annually as well, including the Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis-Calici-Panleukopenia that provides immunity to most viral upper respiratory illnesses, most forms of calici and distemper. For most cats, that vaccine is enough, but some veterinarians recommend a vaccine for FeLV and FIV just in case a cat happens to come in with either one. Neither disease is easily transmitted, and healthy adult cats can usually fight off FeLV with a mature immunity, but it’s still risky, and especially for young or old cats or cats of any age with an impaired immunity. For diseases other than rabies veterinarians may do a titer, or a test of actual immunity, rather than vaccinating each year (a rabies titer is not accepted in many states). Discuss all these vaccines with your veterinarian and follow those instructions.

Even though my cats could be considered likely to come in contact with FeLV and FIV with taking in rescues, I have had them all tested, but not vaccinated. I discussed it with my veterinarian and because they don’t roam outdoors and the rescues are kept quarantined and I’m aware of and guard against the method of transmission we feel the vaccines are not necessary for my cats.

Even though the FVRCP combination is usually updated annually, this has never been my practice. Studies have shown the immunity lasts for years longer than the one year allotted to the vaccine, and possibly even lifelong if the concept of memory immune response is considered, wherein the body’s immune system develops defenses to a condition through natural or vaccinated exposure, then the immunity becomes latent and though it seems weak or non-existent if tested by titer it moves into action if challenged by the disease as if the cells “remember” how to respond. Our own immunity to the diseases we humans were vaccinated for in childhood works much the same way.

In the past I have given the kitten/young adult series of vaccines, then aside from rabies never given them again, even with all the rescues. However, I have seen and read of cats becoming ill from current viruses and illnesses considered covered by vaccines, and I also know that, with the appearance of FIP with Lucy this family of cats may have genetic issues with immunity. Fostering is stressful for them too, even though they seem to enjoy it, and stress can also reduce immunity. Because getting titer testing for immunity for this many cats was expensive and difficult, and immunity through FVRCP has tested out as long as seven years, my veterinarian and I discussed and decided the year they turned seven to vaccinate the whole household again. This should keep them well-covered against most things fosters will bring in for the next seven years.

two black cats with rabies certificates
“So we get gold medals for this?”

Don’t let it scare you, but learn

If you are considering fostering and all this sounds pretty frightening, then think seriously about what types of cats and kittens you may want to foster, and give it a little time. Don’t let it keep you from fostering, but learn as much as you can, talk to your veterinarian and find knowledgeable people who can advise you day or night, set your rules for health and safety, and always follow them. It is an extra level of things to do and observe and track because you are basically taking care of a second household of cats which creates extra work. However, unless you encounter something fairly rare like calici or ringworm that is highly contagious, time-consuming and with a lengthy treatment, it’s all precautions and it’s really only a few weeks before all the hard work and isolation is over. Honestly, you get used to it after a while.

Most important, you save a life or several lives of kittens or cats who were living on the street, and if you are finding a home for the cat on your own or through a rescue or shelter, you also know that some time in the future the cat you rescued and some lucky human being will meet and live happily ever after. It’s well worth all the effort.

Can’t foster? Donate or volunteer.

You’ll find this same text at the end of every “cats for adoption” post here on The Creative Cat. There are so many ways you can help cats who need homes and care. You may not have room to adopt another cat, but can foster a cat or kitten for a few weeks. If not that, you can help someone else who is fostering, or you can volunteer at a shelter or with a rescue, or donate goods or services. You do this because you love your cat, and by doing so you help all cats. No matter which of these actions you take, you help to save a life, and make life better for all cats.

  • Adopt one of the cats I’ve posted here, or from any shelter or rescue near you, or from Petfinder, to open up a space for another cat to be rescued and fostered.
  • Offer to foster cats or kittens for a shelter or rescue near you.
  • Volunteer at a shelter or rescue.
  • Find a group of volunteers who work with homeless cats and help them with their efforts.
  • Donate to a shelter or rescue near you.

If you can foster kittens or adults cats to help prepare them for a forever home, please run to your nearest shelter and find a cat who needs you! Anyone can help with this effort at any level, even if all you do is donate to a shelter or rescue so they can help to pay for the food or medications needed for their foster, or the spay/neuter/veterinary care during a clinic.

This is the second part a two-part article about safely fostering rescued cats while living with one or more cats already, “Fostering Rescued Cats and Kittens”.

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2 thoughts on “Fostering Rescued Cats and Kittens, Part 2

  • June 24, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    Thank you, Bernadette. Your devotion is inspiring. I learned so much from reading Parts One and Two.

    • July 8, 2016 at 12:14 pm

      I’m glad I could share it with you Meg, the information and the stories.


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