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Nurturing the Most Vulnerable

It may not have baby blue walls, lacy pink curtains, or a nursery rhyme night light, but a new infant care center offers the essential nurturing all newborns need. And it’s just for neonatal kittens…and the occasional canine bottle baby.

The Humane Rescue Alliance (HRA) established the DC region’s first shelter “kitten nursery” in May 2017 to meet the special needs of neonatal orphan kittens. It’s the brainchild of HRA foster program manager Jennah Billeter, who came up with idea after a sudden and large influx of nursing felines and their kittens, as well as other rescued neonatal or orphaned kittens, arrived over the course of just a few short days from a hoarding case at HRA a little over a year ago. “Many of the moms were in bad shape so we ended up having 40-plus bottle babies,” Billeter recalls. “Staff just weren’t able to keep up with caring for all of the kittens while we searched for fosters and transfer placement, so I invited volunteer foster parents who knew how to bottle feed to come in for feeding shifts. It worked so well that it inspired me to establish a formal program for our orphaned neonatal babies.”

Billeter created a plan for the nursery with volunteer Abby Meltzer, who since 2015 has fostered more than 100 animals, mostly litters of kittens and nursing moms. Collaborating with Billeter, Meltzer was responsible for setting up the nursery, which currently consists of designated cage space in the treatment room at the New York Avenue Adoption Center, although Billeter hopes that someday there will be a more “official” location.

From a physical standpoint, the kittens don’t require much: formula, bottles, a heat source (snuggle safes) to keep them warm, and cleaning supplies. The biggest resource requirement, according to Billeter, is time. “Caring for orphaned neonates is a round-the-clock job requiring a special skill set,” she explains.

Interested volunteers complete a three-part training program to acquire the necessary skills: a class on how to care for bottle babies, a shelter and nursery orientation to teach them the ins and outs of working in a shelter environment, and a one-on-one feeding shift with a mentor volunteer. So far, 17 volunteers have completed all three levels of training and 25 are just waiting to complete their mentored feeding shift.

Neonatal kitten being fed at the HRA kitten nursery

Trained volunteers sign up in advance for regular shifts so that the kittens are fed every two to four hours throughout the day. Shifts run all day, every day. During a shift the volunteer also weighs the kittens, helps them eliminate, monitors cage heat sources, cleans the cages as necessary, and makes notes of anything that needs follow up by the medical care staff. Shelter staff handle these responsibilities for any shifts that are not covered by volunteers.

Newborn kittens have extremely fragile immune systems and, sadly, not all survive despite such dedicated care. Still, the statistics are impressive. Since May, 127 kittens have been cared for in the nursery before moving on to HRA foster homes or being transferred to rescue organizations. Those that were cared for in foster homes then became some of the more than 500 kittens adopted from HRA this year.

And while activity in the nursery has ended for the year, HRA volunteers are prepared for the many babies that 2018 is sure to bring.


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