Q: Dear BooneDogs:
I know you usually give dog advice, but my daughter and I are thinking about fostering cats or kittens for the local Humane Society, and we were wondering if you could give us some basic information about how to introduce them to our existing pets – we have one cat and two dogs – and also help us figure out what kind of vet care and shots they’ll need to keep them and our pets healthy. Thank you!
Ellen P., Purlear, N.C.
A: Hi, Ellen, and thanks for your question. I am sure that any shelter would be happy to add you and your daughter to their list of approved foster homes for cats and kittens.
Unfortunately, most shelters around the country find themselves inundated with cats and kittens, especially during this time of year, and the sad fact is that many just don’t make it out because there are far too many to hold until they can all be adopted.
Fostering and adoption both save the lives of not just the cats or kittens you bring into your home, but also opens up space at the shelter to save others.
I love that you’re thinking things through beforehand, however, and are asking good questions before actually bringing a cat or kittens home. Although I specialize in the fostering, adoption and training of shelter dogs, I do love cats and have fostered both cats and kittens in the past.
I currently own two cats, Paka and Kima, who tolerate my presence as long as I keep them entertained and well fed. Even though I have some cat experience, I realize that fostering felines is a whole different ballgame than fostering canines, so I turned to a friend who is also one of my favorite local cat experts to make sure I could answer your questions appropriately.
Joanna Burkett is a veterinary assistant at the Animal Hospital of Boone, and she also heads a local effort, “Airport Kitties,” which works to raise awareness and funding for the spaying and neutering of feral cat colonies in our community.
Even though I am a cat owner myself, I began by asking her what kind of care cats and kittens require, not just so I could answer your questions, but also so I could make sure I measure up as a competent cat owner.
“Of course, cats and kittens all need daily food, water, love, grooming, attention and interaction with their owners, like any pet does, to be happy and healthy,” Burkett said. “And, contrary to popular belief, cats also need exercise to maintain good health and proper weight. Just like dogs, cats need mental stimulation and physical activity each and every day. When cats are kept indoors, it’s essential that you offer them toys and spend time playing with them, so they get both the exercise and mental stimulation they need and that an indoor environment often lacks.”
Burkett also noted that cats need boosters and annual vaccines, just like puppies and dogs require.
“Kittens need three sets of feline distemper vaccines at six, nine and 12 weeks of age,” Burkett said. “This vaccine, otherwise known as the FVRCP vaccine, also protects them against Rhinotracheitis, Calici, Panleukopenia and Chlamydia. All cats should have a rabies vaccine by 12 weeks of age, and adult cats should continue to get an FVRCP and feline leukemia shot yearly, as well as a rabies vaccine every three years. This is especially important for outdoor cats and cats that can come into contact with other cats.”
She continued, “Cats, like dogs, also need to be dewormed regularly. Indoor cats should be dewormed about every four months, and outdoor cats more frequently, preferably monthly. The use of flea and tick preventatives and repellents should be considered, especially during the warm summer months, but it’s extremely important that whatever product is purchased specifically states that it is safe for use on cats.
“Far too many cats have suffered and died after having flea and tick products applied that were not intended for use on cats. An annual exam by your veterinarian is also important, because, as predatory animals, cats tend to not show signs of pain or injury unless they are seriously ill or injured. Therefore, an annual exam performed by an expert is highly recommended, even for cats that appear to be healthy.”
When I asked about the best way to introduce new cats or kittens to existing pets, I was surprised to hear that cats need an even longer transition period than most dogs.
“Most cats need a transition time of three weeks or more,” Burkett said. “When I bring a new cat into my home, I isolate the new cat in a vacant bedroom, and even keep them in a large crate at first until they can get used to their surroundings. Once they seem to be comfortable with me and with the room, I release them from the crate but keep them confined to the room, so they can get used to all the sights and smells there.
“During this time, I encourage my other pets and the foster cat to sniff each other under the door so they can get used to each other’s smells. I sometimes even swap bedding, giving my pets the foster cat’s bedding and he or she theirs, just so they become even more familiar with each other’s scents.
“After three weeks, if all appears to be going well, I start allowing closely supervised interactions between my pets and the foster cat, leashing my dogs to prevent them from harming the cat, or him from harming them. If these first few supervised interactions go well, I know I’m well on my way to helping my new foster cat fit in with my existing pets.”
She noted that cats usually growl and hiss at each other initially, but this does not necessarily mean that the cats involved will never learn to get along.
“As long as there are no violent fights between the foster cat and existing pets initially, it’s pretty safe to say that, for the most part, they can all learn to get along.”
She also said kittens tend to do best in litters, in pairs or even raised with a puppy of approximately the same age. (I raised my cat, Kima, with my dog, Grace, acquiring both when they were only a few months old, and even though they are now both 5 years old, they remain good buddies and playmates to this day.)
When I asked if she had any parting advice for new cat fosters or adopters, Burkett said, “It’s important for people to understand that cats are not small dogs. They usually don’t appreciate being treated like dogs, and they have different needs than dogs do. Cats vary greatly in temperament, personality, likes and dislikes, so each one needs to be taken as an individual. If you can give them the time and attention they deserve, you will be rewarded by getting to know and appreciate a very unique animal who may also come to appreciate you. That is what I love about cats.”
Please contact your local animal shelter or rescue group for information on fostering cats and kittens.
BooneDogs is a weekly column by Melissa Bahleda, certified canine behavior counselor and founder of PARTNERS! Canines, a Boone-based nonprofit shelter dog rescue organization.