How to Deal with a Foster Kitten’s Death?

Any photos shown in this post, are from previous fosters as my shelter restricts us from posting pictures of current fosters until they are ready for adoption, i.e. 8 weeks old and spayed or neutered.  None of these kittens are still in my care (except for Ham who I adopted) but have already found their forever homes.  

While any Foster Kitten’s Death is traumatic to you and breaks your heart, please remember that you can’t save them all!  And it’s true that it’s mercy that some do not survive.  Some animals are born with diseases or conditions that will force their life to be painful or difficult for them and their owners.  Endless time and funds may only prolong the inevitable for these types of babies.  But how do you determine if and when these conditions exist??  It’s never clear whether you should pursue medical care or let them die in peace.  The death of a newborn kitten, although tragic is more common than you think.  But while we as foster parents do as much as we can for the little babies and their mommas, not everyone was meant to live.   I’ve been absent from my blog for a few weeks because I took in a pregnant female cat and she and the babies have been, shall we say, difficult.

Litter of kittens on floor

Pregnant Female Cat

I have fostered pregnant momma cats off and on for the last two years.  I normally take about two litters a year.  With kitten season in full swing, I picked up a pregnant cat from my local shelter, a few weeks ago.  She was very fat and very pregnant.  She was not unfriendly, but not exactly friendly.  She seemed feral, but she allowed me to pet and pick her up and even cuddle with her.  But once she had her feet on the floor, she was scared out of her mind again. I call it the ‘50 First Dates’ syndrome. She’s ok with me as long as I’m in touching contact, but once my contact with her is broken we forget that any trust existed.  I hoped for her to adjust to my bathroom before she gave birth

Giving birth

She gave birth on the 3rd day of her being at my house.  It was not long enough for her to be comfortable with me.  Five little kittens were born. The first and last kittens were born white and the smallest.  I knew immediately that ‘white one #1’ was not quite right. He was born in the litter box because momma felt the safest in here.  I made sure the remaining babies were born on the towel at the bottom of the playpen they were in.  This little white boy crawled around screaming for some milk.  Momma was, of course, busy giving birth.  Momma continued to lick this little boy clean after every birth as somehow he walked through the mess over and over again.   He never latched onto a nipple.  The others knew how to suckle from momma.   I saw this same thing with another litter that was born at my house, eventually, that kitten figured out how to drink.  I hoped he would do the same.  I left the new family alone, knowing that momma had colostrum to give to her kittens.  I would reevaluate in the morning.

No better in the morning

They were born in the middle of the night, finishing with the last birth around 3 am.  Everyone was sleeping when I woke and went to work.  But later that morning, the white boy was weaker and still searching for milk. His cries were muffled.  I began bottle feeding him, but tried to help him latch on to her nipple before each feeding.  After several bottle-feedings, he seemed to get the idea of a nipple and started to eat from mom. I left him with momma and the rest of the siblings overnight.  It was better if he could stay with mom and the rest of his siblings.

Dilute long haired tortie licking newborn tiger with white kittenMorning #2

Waking me before he left for work, my husband found the little white boy separated from the rest of the crew.  I removed him from mom’s care and started bottle-feeding him exclusively. Separated from momma, he didn’t have her body heat, so I made sure he was on a heating disc before I fed him.  He was very weak and only took a few drops of formula at a time.  I fed him often but not a lot.  I tried some Karo Syrup on his gums and Pedialyte instead of formula at times.  But it was not to be. He died in my hand in the afternoon of his second day. He lived for less than 48 hours.  I fully believe he was just not meant to live. I knew when he was born that something wasn’t quite right, but I still tried my best to give him as much chance as possible.  It didn’t work out for him, but now I had to concentrate on the other four.

2-Week birthday

Momma remained difficult.  She learned to trust me more, but still would not stop running back to the plastic container sitting on its side that she deemed the appropriate place for her kittens.  She leaves this container all the time to sit on the floor next to our toilet.  As she returns to the container she always sits on the kittens.  I pull them out from under her all the time, as I have done with other litters of kittens.  I’m not sure why momma cat’s feel the need to sit on their kittens.  In the afternoon on the kitten’s 2-week birthday, I entered the room and momma ran to the container as usual.  I saw that the white girl was under her so I reached in for her and knew that she was already dead.  She was already cold and ‘stuck’ in a position.  I didn’t know what happened and I just stared at her little tummy looking for movement, willing her to take another breath.  I knew she was already cold, but my shock left me there hoping.  I just stood there and held her.  This death was more devastating than the first one. I had just named them.  I expected them all to live and grow.

Newborn white kitten being held


What I think happened

After the first white boy died, I put a video monitor on momma and her kittens.  It is a cheap one, but I hoped I could occasionally check on them instead of bothering momma all the time.  We purchased it for another task but thought it would be good enough to check up on our babies.  I reviewed the video after I found the white girl dead, as I didn’t believe anyone was at risk.  My video quality was not great and it did not help that momma left the babies in a dark container with a black towel.  With momma being black/white, and the kittens being white, black/white, black and tiger with white, I could just make out the white girl’s movements on the video.  Momma definitely sat on my pretty white girl.  However, I’m just not sure if she was still alive when she did it.  This little white girl began with crusty eyes a few days before her death and I was working to clear that out with warm compresses.  The white girl moved around prior to settling in for her nap. But the movements were strange.  I assumed she was trying to stand, but it may have been signs of distress.  Momma also had some strange movements prior to laying down on her.  It looked like she was trying to wake her.  She licked her several times along with the other kittens.  I will never know the truth.  But having two deaths in the same litter is devasting and makes me question lots of items.

My questions?

I questioned everything I did for momma and kittens over the past two weeks.  Entire litters can sometimes inherit bad conditions and eventually the whole litter is lost.  But maybe one kitten catches something and passes it to the rest of them. These are the questions that run through my mind.

Did I have it warm enough in the room?  Is it too warm in the room if momma is providing heat?

Did the fact that she was wet from the compresses contribute to her catching something?

Did she have a heart problem and nothing that I did cause anything?

Did momma just suffocate her?  But why didn’t she wiggle her way out from under her?  She was small but at 7 oz you would think she could still get out.

Was she sleeping too deeply to hear momma coming?  All the rest of the kittens meow and move as soon as momma comes near them.  She’s sat on them before and they don’t like it. Are these deaths a blessing or a tragedy?

Was she already dead or near death when momma sat on her?

The white kittens

The 2nd death hurt more than the first.  I felt the little boy’s nightmare was over and his death was a blessing.  He didn’t seem right from the moment he was born. He was the smallest of all five kittens and he was born first.  Seems like he wasn’t ready for this world but his bigger siblings pushed him out anyway.

I thought the little white girl would survive.  She had eye issues and was still smaller than the others but gained consistently every 12 hours or so when I weighed them.  Dark points had already started on both white kittens. Even at 2 days old, the boy already had dark ears. The girl had dark ears, nose, tail and back legs by 2 weeks.  They were going to be uniquely colored and easily adoptable kittens.  They are both running freely now.

Newborn black and white kitten in palm of my hand

The causes

If both of these kittens at some underlying condition, I’m glad that they already found peace.  I bottle-fed my baby Ham @ 5 days old. It’s a miracle that she survived, but it’s not without cost.  Her chronic snotty nose is the only problem that remains with her at 6 years old.  But many years were spent, trying to make her healthy.  The Vet led me to believe she has a low immune system from being a bottle-baby.  I have some differing thoughts on this, but I’ll leave that for another time.

How to Handle a Foster Kitten’s death

Thanks for listening to my story.  I hope that my experience will help anyone reading this to deal with a foster’s death.  I’ll leave you with a few tips on how I handled these babies deaths.

#1)  Take the time to Grieve

These kittens were only in my life for a short period of time.  But I thought about them constantly and worried about their health.  It’s not my first kitten death and I didn’t cry.  I feel like I’ve learned to separate myself from those that I know will die, those that will live and find other homes, and those that will be living with me for the rest of their lives.  I cannot become a basket case for every living animal, or I won’t be able to function for the rest of my life or more importantly continue to foster others.  But make sure you take the time to grieve in your own way.  Cry or scream.  Sit quietly and think.  Talk about them to someone that cares.  Or write a little story to remember them by (this is, of course, my choice).

#2)  Reflect on the experience.

If you plan to continue fostering, reflect on what happened.  Decide if you made all the correct decisions.  Consider what may have been wrong and what you could do differently.  Don’t blame yourself.  This exercise is not to feel guilty.  But to learn.  Talk to fellow foster parents, read what is stated online.  No one is going to agree on everything that should be done, but make up your mind about what happened and always consult the shelter or rescue that you foster for.

#3)  Accept the death

Know that you did everything in your power to help the kitten live.  Don’t feel guilty even if you discover you could have done something differently.  You don’t know that changing any one thing could have any effect on whether the kitten lived or died.  Do not beat yourself up.  You decided to take in this litter.  If someone more experienced had taken them, they might have lived, but some other poor cat or kitten may have been euthanized for more room, instead.

#4)  Concentrate on the rest of the litter

Celebrate the joy of the rest of the litter.  Make sure they are taken care of.  Or if your foster that died was your lone foster, take in another cat or kitten as soon as you believe your grieving is over.  Loving another foster will help to alleviate some of the pain you feel over your loss.  But be careful, fosters quickly become foster fails after a foster parent has just lost a cat or kitten.

Litter of orange/tortie kittens sitting on bed


How to Deal with Foster Kitten's Death

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19 Responses

  1. Baby Panda says:

    Thank you for this post. I have been fostering for a year now and previously lost two foster kittens at the 5/6 week mark. I’ve now been able to look for signs that something isn’t right.

    This week, I had a super fluffy, cute, sweetest orange tabby. As soon as we picked him up, we fell in love with him b/c he was docile and purred as soon as you touched him. He was about 4 weeks old. As the week progressed he seemed to become more and more docile and by the end he stopped eating. I force fed him and took him back to the shelter for a check up, at which point he was given sub-q fluids. However, he seemed to crash during the night (he sleeps with us). So in the morning I brought him back to the shelter and left him there. This afternoon I was told he had to be put to sleep.

    I am beyond devastated as he was a gem and sweeter than honey. I always wonder why they crash suddenly. A week ago he was still relatively fine.

    My consolation is that I was able to show him love for a week. I thank him for bringing so much joy and enriched my life.

    I know I will think of him always.

    Thanks for reading.

    • KiKi says:

      I’m sorry for your loss. I try my best to not get attached especially in the first few weeks. But by 5-6 weeks, you are invested, no matter how much you kid yourself. There will always be one that is a little more special to you, but just remember that kitten was loved in its last weeks.

  2. Moony says:

    Thank you for writing this. Helps me in my grieve. I just lost 2 kittens last night. It’s just sad and I wonder if I could do better. But I keep telling myself to do what I can do now, take this as a lesson to learn so I can take care of other cats and kittens better. I hope I gave them enough love.
    Have a nice day!

    • KiKi says:

      I’m sure you gave them enough love. We can’t save them all, although we try as much as we can. Sorry for your loss and know that it will get better.

  3. Barb says:

    Easy. If you live in the sticks, you dig a hole and bury it. If you live elsewhere, put the body in a trash bag, preferably black and throw it away. Been there, done that.

    • KiKi says:

      Barb – You are correct on how to dispose of your dead kitten. I was trying to go with the emotional end of a foster kitten’s death. Thanks for reading.

  4. Seaweed says:

    Thanks for writing this. I just lost a 2 weeks old foster kitten today. It was heartbreaking because I tried my best to take care of it, but failed. It was extremely difficult to see the very last moments of the kitten.
    I feel better after knowing that there are other foster parents who share the same experience. But currently, I am not sure if I would foster another kitten again. It’s death hugely impact me 🙁

    • KiKi says:

      I’m so sorry for your loss…..Fostering is not all kittens and cuddles. If you truly don’t believe you can handle it, do what is best for you. You could adjust what type of fosters you take in, like taking older kittens or adults. I truly succeed only if I don’t get overly attached. I love them all, but more as a group rather than individuals.

  5. Sharon K Berry says:

    Thank you for sharing this special story. It really helped. 💜💙🐈

  6. Stacie says:

    I too lost 2 foster kittens recently. After fostering consistently for 5 years, I had only lost 2. I was completely inept to notice the “fading” signs on the first one, lesson learned. The 2nd one I picked up from the shelter with her 2 sisters for just an overnight foster to give the shelter another day to find a rescue that could take them. She wouldn’t take the bottle like her sisters did and faded over the next 2 hrs. It was the first time I had to watch a kitten die in my hands knowing there was nothing I could do but try to comfort her til the end. It was traumatic but I only had them a few hours and kind of knew it was coming. About 3 weeks ago now, I picked up 2 3-day old kittens. Again, one of them didn’t look right and even the shelter worker who brought them out to me said so but said she didn’t want to euthanize if the kitten might have a chance and I knew that wasn’t a good sign. I think she might have aspirated when they fed her and she was only with me for 2hrs before she passed. But her sister was a fighter and I focused all my energy on her. 4 days later, out of nowhere, within 2 hrs of her being lethargic and she couldn’t right herself when she rolled over…Then the labored breathing came and I’d seen that before, it’s bad. Again, watching a kitten that had never “seen” or “heard” the world around her, struggle at the end was heartbreaking and devastating. I’m still trying to figure out how to be strong for these little babies in the face of such low odds of their survival so I continue trying to save more baby kittens. I searched the internet for days looking for resources for fosters dealing (emotionally) with the loss of kittens and there’s just not enough to help you prepare or deal with this part of fostering. Then today I found this post and I’m thoroughly grateful for you sharing your story.

    • KiKi says:

      Stacie, I’m sorry you had to go through this. It’s so hard when there is nothing to be done but watch. I’m sure you gave them plenty of love until the end. Thanks for sharing your story with me. Remember, we can’t save them all, which sounds harsh and cruel, but fostering is such emotionally hard work, you need to let go of the ones that can’t be saved (grieve them, of course) and concentrate on the good you do and the ones that live and thrive.

  7. Shareefa says:

    I picked up 5 newborn kittens over the past week and 1 which is around 3 weeks old.
    3 of the newborns were being eaten live by maggots. The vet helped us for killing the maggots. But, I lost 4 kittens this week (2 died naturally and the other 2 have been euthanized.
    I feel devastated. And I believe that if I lose the remaining kittens, it will too hard on my soul to digest.
    ps: I live in Mauritius where people dump these kittens like trash. It’s kitten season at this moment, so the number of dumped newborns just keep going up daily. It’s h-o-r-r-i-b-l-e.

    • KiKi says:

      I’m so sorry you are going through this. How is the remaining kitten doing and the 3 week old one? Know that you did the best that you could for them! Kittens are discarded all over the world it seems. It’s definitely hard.

  8. Debbie says:

    Thanks for this post. I’ve lost 3 kittens in the past many years I’ve fostered, but yesterday, I lost an adult cat for unknown causes. I keep racking my brain to figure out what happened. She was super scared and mostly didn’t move from the corner of the bathroom unless we moved her to our lap or a bed to lie on (which she’d slither off of to get under the bed, once we stopped petting her). Took her back to the shelter vet yesterday morning and they said her lungs were full of fluid and since it was such a sudden thing, they think it was either an infection (which she showed no other signs of) or a toxin (which, for the life of me, I can’t determine anything she could have gotten into since she hardly moved). She threw up liquid with what looked like cat litter piece in it (non-clumping) the night before which was the start of her quick decline but the shelter said they didn’t think eating litter could have hurt her. I’m just devastated and a bit worried for my own cats now, as the shelter said I should make sure there’s nothing toxic for them to get into. I can’t even find any chats/messages about losing an adult foster cat. Anyway, reading this still helped and thank you for what you do!

    • KiKi says:

      I’m sorry for your loss. Any loss while the animal is in your care, feels like your responsibility. But maybe, the adult cat was already sick. How long was she staying at your house? How long was she at the shelter before she came to you? It’s possible she may have had heart disease and the stress of a new house exacerbated it. By all means, check every part of your house for toxins that might affect your own pets, but then let it go. Sometimes there are no answers for a loss, even an adult cat. Know that you cared for her up until the end.

  9. Carol says:

    Ive fostered for years and have lost some to illness. This is different and the most tragic for me. I had a 6 week old singleton I fostered since birth. I used to let her play outside her kennel after a meal to stretch her legs. Yesterday I accidentally stepped on her and she died very fast. I’m reliving the incident constantly. I didn’t want to get out of bed knowing she wouldn’t be there. I feel responsible which is the worst ever. So many things I would have done differently. How do I move on? I don’t even want to foster anymore this is so heartbreaking. I feel like a monster. Thanks for listening.

    • Shay Bradberry says:

      Key word Ms. Carol – ACCIDENTALLY. My little one was SO SMALL I was terrified she would go under something or I too might step on her not knowing she was there. You did your best to love her and that’s all that counts. We must forgive ourselves when our hearts are pure. We deserve that. We can’t control outcomes and who knows if it was what was best? Yours was quick and human error. It doesn’t negate all the love and goodness you’ve provided. Accidents happen…. Namaste, Shay

  10. Shay says:

    Ms. Kiki – Thank you for this website and the opportunity to read others’ similar experiences. I am completely heartbroken and have found great comfort in hearing others say exactly how I feel. It just lightens my heavy heart to know I’m not alone. A few years ago I fostered a few rounds of kittens. I try very hard not to separate siblings but I can only take 2-3 at a time. It was both a wonderful and horrible experience. I was able to mother, comfort, take great care of and give tons of love to the frightened, scrappy, skeletal little fur babies while I slowly watched them regain their health, vitality and thrive. Then I have to bring them back for their surgery in the hopes they get adopted??!! I tried it twice and I was emotionally devastated for at least a month after having to say goodbye both times. Those were my children and I was their mother so it felt like I was giving them up for adoption. I realized fostering wasn’t for me. I just couldn’t handle it and failed at developing the mindset that I am saving other babies from being euthanized and giving them a great chance at being adopted and having a great life. My heart just can’t take it.

    Fast forward a few years and I’m thinking about fostering again. Much like giving birth to humans, you forget the pain. Lo and behold, I am leaving my house one day and I see this tiny little fur ball slowly crossing a major street. Of course, I pulled over and scooped her/him into my arms while looking for the mother or any other strays. Nothing. So I took her to the local foster haven and fostered her. I fell deeply in love with her even though I knew she was too teeny tiny for her age. I spoiled and loved her the best way I knew how 24 hours a day and after 4 days, I was walking around with her in between my bosom in a sports bra (like I always did and she loved it. She would crawl out if she wanted to explore), stroking her little head and kissing her and then I noticed she had been “sleeping” a very long time. I gently picked her up thinking I was going to hear her little voice and nothing. Her neck just fell to the side and she didn’t respond. I gave her CPR but nothing. It still hurts so much. This happened 2 days ago. I was certain she would be my forever daughter and was so naive to her fragility. I had NO IDEA I could lose her. We really bonded in that short time.

    I am grieving and will heal of course but my goodness, I cannot go through this again. I buried her in the back yard under a tree and having to shovel while holding her in my arms, crying, was awful. I gently laid her down, covered her and placed a cross and a heart rock so she’ll always have my heart. I am so comforted by your stories and I am grateful I found this site. I questioned everything I did and blamed myself for not knowing how to keep her alive. Should I have done this differently or what if I didn’t do that? She was progressing so well in the first 72 hours and then faded fast. I had no idea that was even possible.

    So very sorry for the long post. I have never shared my feelings on a post EVER in my life but if I was comforted by your stories, then I want to offer someone hurting the same comfort. I can choose to blame myself or I can choose to believe that I showed her immense love, warmth, and joy in her last days and she passed peacefully laying on her mother’s heart feeling loved.

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