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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.