Compassionate Foster Care for Pregnant Feral Cats


As part of our Compassionate Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) pilot project, we have encountered many heavily pregnant feral cats. Traditionally, there are three options for pregnant ferals:

  • Spay them and abort the babies
  • Wait to trap until babies are born and weaned, then try to trap mom + babies
  • Trap in last week of pregnancy and foster until babies can be weaned and socialized

Conventional TNR wisdom has long held that in order to allocate very limited resources most effectively, we must come to terms with spaying pregnant females and write off any kittens. We wanted to see if there was a way to make fostering a more viable option. There is little information available on how to go about fostering a pregnant feral cat, and those who have tried have had low to moderate success rates because of these very significant risks:

  • Caregiver safety
  • Impossible to predict how a feral mom will react to captivity
  • Unknown health status and history
  • Potential for disease spread
  • Mother having complications during labor, being too stressed to care for kittens, or harming the kittens due to stress/fear

THE HYPOTHESIS:
Stress plays a key role in EVERY ONE of these risks, therefore reducing stress should reduce risks and increase probability of a successful outcome.

Case Study #6:
Skye - Injured AND Pregnant

Trapped on March 23, 2016

Skye showed up at our feral colony feeding station a few times before we trapped her. Her left eye was bulging and opaque and her right eye had a large ulcer and scar tissue obstructing her pupil. She was going blind, and her left eye was likely to rupture within days or weeks. To make matters worse, Skye was 45-50 days pregnant. Survival for Skye and her babies would be impossible as her blindness progressed. Even though we were already overflowing with feral mamas-to-be and had no idea whether she would tolerate treatment, we couldn't leave her and her unborn kittens out there to suffer and die. So.... we brought in our first pregnant AND injured feral cat.

RISKS

  • Skye's personality was unknown, and she didn't know me.
  • She was quite skittish at the feeding station.
  • Treatment would require multiple visits per day, which would result in significantly more stress than our previous feral moms.
  • I would need to give meds in her eyes, which would be very threatening to her.
  • The stress from so much interaction could put babies at risk during or after birth, if Skye was too stressed to care for them.
  • Skye may not allow me to medicate her when her kittens arrive. I likely won't be able to give meds on the day she gives birth either.

PREP

I was running out of space at TK HQ, so I converted the small bathroom off my office into Skye's room. Because I knew I would need to catch and medicate her several times a day, I didn't want her sharing a room with Savina. I also wanted her to be in a small room since her vision was so poor.

I designed a prototype hiding bin for her that would allow me to access her very easily and with minimal stress. I knew my chances of success would be much lower and stress would be much higher if I had to chase her around the room three times a day to catch her for meds.

On intake, she was very quiet and shut down, and I was able to vaccinate, apply revolution, clean her ears (which were in fairly good shape), trim her nails, listen to her heart and apply her first antibiotic ointment to both eyes.

I was giving eye ointment three times a day, and the hiding bin worked incredibly well as I was able to unhook the blanket flap, detach the top of the blanket from the upside-down bin, and lift the bin off of her with her nicely purritoed inside. She was very easy to manage this way, and seemed to tolerate me very well all things considered.

ULTRASOUND AND EXAM

On March 25th, Dr. Ferguson from Mountain View Veterinary Hospital came out to do an exam and ultrasound. She also drew some blood to make autologuos serum as an additional treatment to accelerate healing of her damaged corneal tissues.

The ultrasound revealed she had at least 4 babies around 45-50 days along.

Although corneal ulcers are known to be very painful, Skye was not exhibiting signs of obvious pain, which would include: rubbing her eyes, sensitivity to light, or discharge. The exam revealed very little uptake of the fluorescein stain, which showed that most of the damage had already been done and that the scarring and opacity were her biggest challenge at that time. Because she didn't seem to be in pain, we were comfortable continuing treatment until after the babies were born and then continuing to monitor her closely for any changes.

I started giving the serum on the 26th of March, 3 times a day with a minimum of 20 minutes in between serum drops and antibiotic ointment. I also created a larger nest prototype that would accommodate kittens but would still make it easy and low stress for me to handle her for treatment.

By the 27th, Skye was becoming pretty comfortable in her room, and actually seemed to enjoy petting at times. She was eating/drinking/using the litterbox regularly, and was getting deep sleeps regularly also. I could tell she was starting to feel more confident because she started to give me tiny hisses and very gentle smacks with her paw if I reached inside her nesting crate rather than enclosing her in the blanket first.

On the 30th, I decided that Skye would not be returning to the forest due to the remarkable progress she was making and the poor long term prognosis for her vision.

By April 1st, Skye was regularly taking treats and kibble from my hand, purring when I pet her, and allowing me to stick my hand into her nest to pet and feed her. She ate in front of me and put her tail up for the first time in response to being petted after she exited my lap and was standing next to me. She was still too nervous to be picked up or held in my lap without a blanket covering her face (at least initially).

Apr 2 - Since things were going so well, I decided to introduce another caretaker (Gwen) for a few reasons - for one, I didn't think it would add stress for Skye, and I thought it would benefit her to bond with two different humans. And there was a LOT going on with three pregnant ferals, one challenging feral mom with babies and Cassidy's physical therapy, so a second set of hands would help me make sure everyone was getting the best possible care.

April 19th - Skye had been doing incredibly well with her meds and socialization, and on the 19th she went into labor. After almost three hours of contractions without producing a kitten, it was clear she needed help. We only put mom and babies through the stress of an emergency c-section if it is absolutely necessary to save mom and/or kittens, but I had waited as long as I could and we rushed her into Mountain View. During the c-section, they discovered she had a very small pelvis and very large kittens. Her first kitten was stuck in the birth canal, and there was no way she would have been able to push him out. She and her kittens would certainly have died if we hadn't intervened. Fortunately, all four kittens and mom survived, and Skye began nursing and caring for them within an hour of waking up from surgery.

April 28th - Skye and kittens are thriving. She has been allowing us to give meds and handle kittens to weigh and monitor them, which is pretty incredible for a newly formerly feral cat. As a sidenote, her kittens are on average 42 grams bigger than all of our previous litters (not including the other three litters currently in residence, which are also huge, but slightly less huge!).

Skye seems to prefer a more open nest than our other feral moms, and on the first day relocated her kittens to the side of the toilet where there is no roof over her head and she can see us coming. A week later, she relocated them again, to another spot with no roof and wide visibility in the front of the nest.



Skye 1
Skye, March 22 2016


Skye 2
Skye in the trap, March 23 2016


Video of Skye's eye exam and ultrasound


Video of Skye's first purrs, on day 5



Case Study #1: Sloane

Trapped on May 6th, 2015... and again on May 13th, 2016

Sloane is one of the feral cats at our pilot TNR colony of 200+ cats. She was very pregnant in early May 2015. I fostered her for 37 days beginning 5 days prior to birth.

Sloaney was our first pregnant feral foster. She taught us a LOT, but we have learned so much more since she was in our care the first time. There are many things we would have done differently, knowing then what we know now. Read our conclusions for the latest info.

FIRST, THE CONCLUSIONS

Fostering Sloane and her kittens was an unequivocal success based on the following outcomes:

  • Sloane's stress level was relatively low the majority of the time.
  • There was a clear relationship between stress and diarrhea, and I would know within 12 hours if her stress level had increased. There were only 5 days of diarrhea throughout the 37 days in my care, each following what Sloane percieved as a stressful interaction with me.
  • At no time did Sloane make contact with me (bites, scratches)
  • 100% survival rate of kittens
  • Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) symptoms were minimal
  • I was largely able to access the kittens to weigh/medicate as needed
  • Sloane was spayed and released the same day, and was greeted by another cat while she was still in her trap. She was immediately welcomed back to her colony after 37 days away, even smelling like vet.
  • Less than 24 hours after release, Sloane was a totally different cat - tail up, rubbing against her friends at the colony, happy and unafraid.
  • Sloane's kittens were merged into our other foster mamacat's litter, and flourished with of a mama cat and older kittens who enjoyed human interaction.

Based on my observations, the most effective strategies were:

  • Trapping Sloane in a crate rather than a trap
  • Transporting to her new home as directly as possible
  • Providing materials from forest that smelled, looked, felt familiar
  • Sloane being able to escape to a place she felt safe (the Cabinet of Solitude)
  • Masking unfamiliar/human noises
  • Limiting human interaction to bare minimum

Minimum cost required to implement in a shelter or other foster home:

  • White noise machine - $30
  • Home security cam to monitor - $200
  • 36" reacher stick - $30
  • Timer to turn lamp on/off if no windows - $15
  • Extra time for setup, observation and adjustments

Outstanding questions:

  • Every cat is different - which of these strategies will be universally effective?
  • This was as positive of an experience as it could have been - what happens if mom has complications or is dangerously protective?
  • How feasible is it to replicate this model in a shelter environment?
  • What is the smallest space/configuration possible for maximum stress reduction?


PHASE 1: PLANNING & PREP

What made Sloane a good candidate?

  • Visited feeding station reliably every day
  • Did not appear overly aggressive toward other cats
  • Did not show any aggression to me during feedings
  • Approached me within 2-3 feet to eat
  • Seemed curious about me

What made Sloane a questionable candidate?

  • She is feral, no question about it. While she was curious, she was also clearly fearful.
  • She had symptoms of Upper Respiratory Infection
  • We knew other kittens we had rescued from the colony had ringworm


A MORE GENTLE WAY TO TRAP?

Trapping a cat in a trap is extremely stressful - it is loud when it triggers, and the noise makes them panic and thrash around trying to find a way out. Starting off a fostering relationship that way seemed like setting it up to fail. I wanted to see if I could trap her more gently, with some patience and a standard crate.

  • I began putting her food inside a large crate which I left at the feeding station so it would smell and become familiar.
  • During feeding, I covered the side of the crate I was on so she could not see me, put food inside at the back, and sat closer to the crate each day while she ate.
  • After about a week I could reliably put food in the crate and she would enter the crate to eat with me sitting next to it.


LOW STRESS ACCOMMODATIONS

Inability to escape somewhere safe, unfamiliar smells and noises, and unwanted interaction with humans are all huge contributors to stress. Here are some of the measures I took to minimize stress:

  • Brought large logs and litterboxes filled with materials from her forest - dirt, leaves, pine needles. This had the benefit of making her temporary home smell, look and feel more familiar.
  • Set up logs to allow her to use them to get to the high windowsill and around the room.
  • Recorded the sounds of her forest on my iPhone and then played it on a loop in her room.
  • Added a white noise machine to the background to help mask human/unfamiliar sounds.
  • Plugged in a Feliway diffuser
  • Included four nest options with different configurations. She ended up using a litterbox filled with dirt/pine needles for the first few weeks.
  • Lamps on timers to compensate for a small window.


MONITORING WITH REDUCED HUMAN INTERACTION

Since human interaction increases stress, I set up webcams to allow me to monitor the room without invading her space. This was key in keeping her calm and feeling as safe as possible.


LITTERBOXES

Several litterboxes were placed throughout the room:

  • Just litter (grain-based)
  • Litter (grain-based) with layer of forest dirt on top
  • Two litterboxes with dirt and forest materials - no litter
  • One boot tray with dirt and forest materials


PHASE 2: TRAPPING & FOSTERING

On trapping day, I was able to close Sloane in the crate while she was eating rather than using a trap. She did not seem to experience the initial panic to the same extent cats do when trapped in a trap.

Here's what else happened on trapping day:

  • We left the site within 10 minutes and had a 20 minute car ride home.
  • Upon arrival, I transferred her from the crate into an EZ-Nabber to administer Revolution. She was very calm (shut down) and did not struggle or show aggression. I expect this would vary based on the cat.
  • I released her from the EZ-Nabber into the room and then left her alone until morning.

INITIAL OBSERVATIONS
  • I was able to monitor her on the cam to see how she was doing
  • She immediately explored the room and then found a safe hiding spot on top of a pile of forest materials behind one of the nesting boxes and stayed there overnight
  • She did not eat/drink much or use the litterboxes for the first 12 hours
  • After the first 12 hours, she seemed fairly comfortable. She spent a lot of time lounging on the windowsill looking out the window, and a lot of time sleeping in one of the litterboxes filled with dirt and pine needles.
  • At no point was she frantic, climbing walls, searching for an escape route, or aggressive toward me.

THE DAILY ROUTINE

I entered the room twice a day to bring canned food mixed with lysine, and to attend to water, dry food and litterboxes. Sloane either froze where she was (windowsill, usually) or hid in the Cabinet of Solitude when she heard me gloving and gowning before entering the room. As long as I did not approach Sloane, I could cautiously tend to the food, water, litter etc.

Whenever Sloane was not in the nest when I entered, I was able to grab kittens to take into the adjacent bathroom to weigh, give meds and make sure there were no immediate concerns. Because they were getting eye drops, I had to take kittens twice a day. Taking them all at once and returning them all at once was essential.


CAREGIVER SAFETY

I made a cardboard shield and had kevlar gloves available, but the most important element of staying safe was being observant and aware of Sloane's location and stress level at ALL times. When she was being protective, I backed down and tried again later when she was feeling less threatened.


MEDICATIONS / TREATMENT OF PARASITES

Since there was no way to do an exam or give meds for Sloane, I was very limited on what care I could provide to her:

  • Administered Revolution for ear mites, fleas, worms on intake (using the EZ-Nabber)
  • Dose of lysine mixed into wet food twice daily
  • Milbemax pill in tuna at 2 weeks, and a third round of deworming (Revolution) was administered during her spay


CONTAINING DISEASES (URI, RINGWORM)

Sloane had symptoms of Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) on and off for the few weeks prior to being trapped (sneezing, clear eye discharge). All of the kittens coming from the colony had pretty significant URI, and those born at the shelter to asymptomatic moms had developed URI as well.

Worse, all of the kittens rescued from the colony had tested positive for ringworm (M. Canis).

I planned from the start to assume Sloane had both, and to implement Isolation Protocol, which involved gloving and gowning and taking great care not to transfer any diseases outside of her room.

  • I was lucky enough to have a bathroom attached to the room I was keeping Sloane in, so I used that as my vestibule for changing, food prep etc. It worked extremely well.
  • When kittens were 3 weeks old, I took samples and got a PCR test done to determine if they had been exposed to ringworm. It was negative - whew!


LITTERBOX USAGE

For the first two weeks, Sloane used the litterboxes filled with dirt/pine needles and the boxes filled with grain-based cat litter covered with a layer of dirt. She didn't go outside of the litterboxes a single time. She also exclusively used the boxes in the primary litterbox corner I set up for her. It was the furthest corner from the nest and had two boxes plus the boot tray.

After two weeks, I removed the dirt-filled litterbox and replaced it with a litter-only box. She didn't use it the first two days, so I added some dirt to the top and she started using it. The following week I was able to replace the combo boxes with litter-only boxes successfully.


NEST SELECTION AND USAGE

Sloane had 5 nesting options:

  • Option A: A 36" x 18" rubbermaid tote with a lid and 7" x 8" front door cut out. Inside was straw and a towel, with some pinecones from the forest thrown in for scenting purposes. This was the most enclosed nesting option. She was not interested in this option at all, at any point.
  • OPTION B: The bottom bin in a set of two stackable bins with large openings in front. A layer of dirt/leaves was added to the bottom for scenting purposes, then two layers of towels with a soft rug on top. Sloane spent time in this nest prior to birth and spent time in there on her own after babies were born.
  • OPTION C: The top bin in the set. Three layers of blankets with pine cones and sticks for scenting purposes. Sloane was not interested in this option at all, at any point.
  • OPTION D: The "Cabinet of Solitude". An old white particleboard freestanding cabinet about 24" x 20" that was backless and pushed up against an old radiator to leave a space for her to enter and exit from th back when the doors were closed. No blankets, leaves, dirt, etc. inside. Sloane used the CoS as a retreat after kittens were born whenever I entered the room, which gave me the opportunity to quickly grab kittens and take them into the adjacent bathroom for weighing and meds.
  • OPTION E: The box of dirt. I never intended this to be used as a nest, but for some reason Sloane was very comfortable there. It was adjacent to OPTION B, and surrounded by logs and branches, so she probably felt protected without feeling trapped. It was small - about 12" by 18". This is where she decided to have her babies, and this is where she kept them for the first week until I moved them into OPTION B. She moved them back to E, so I covered the dirt gradually with a blanket. I was slowly able to add more blankets so I could swap them out about every other day.

PHASE 3: WEANING OF KITTENS & MILK REDUCTION PLAN

This section is still a work in progress.

I made the decision to spay and return Sloane when the kittens were 4.5 weeks old for several reasons:

  • The longer they stay with mom, the more she teaches them that humans are scary
  • Two of the kittens were not gaining weight satisfactorily from nursing alone and I wanted to be able to supplement/monitor them more than twice a day
  • I had the opportunity to place the kittens with my other foster mama cat and her 6 week old kittens, which would allow Sloane's kittens to quickly catch up on what they were missing - how to eat, play and enjoy humans. They would also have the comfort of a mom, which would minimize any stress from losing their own mom earlier than is ideal under normal circumstances. PLEASE NOTE: Combining kittens is something that should only be done in consultation with your vet to ensure you are not putting either group of kittens at risk for diseases.
  • Sloane was tolerating her confinement for her babies' sake, but not enjoying it. My visits were stressful and unpleasant for her. I wanted her to be able to be stress-free and reunited with her family at the colony sooner rather than later.
  • It is natural for us to project our human emotions on the cats in this situation, but unlike us, cats are biologically engineered to recover very quickly when they lose their kittens. This allows them to cope with the harsh reality that in nature they will frequently lose an entire litter of kittens to predators or disease and must be able to move on and start over with a new litter as quickly as possible to further their species.
  • I was confident that both Sloane and her kittens would benefit from being separated, and they did.

Here's how it worked:

  • I started gradually introducing kitten gruel (canned food mixed with KMR formula) at 3 weeks, starting with 1ml per kitten twice a day via syringe and increasing the amount each feeding. This was done to start getting their digestive systems transitioned gradually rather than suddenly one day having to switch from a diet of mom's milk to a diet of gruel, which was likely to stress their immune systems and cause diarrhea (at a minimum).
  • I missed some feedings when Sloane was on the nest and not inclined to let me steal kittens.

Reducing risk of mastitis:

  • Five days before spay day, I did a 24-hour milk reduction day where I separated the kittens from Sloane for 24 hours (although I actually only made it 21 hours because Sloaney heard them meowing during their feeding and starting meowing for them, and I caved...). I reduced her caloric intake by about 50%. The goal was to kick-start her milk drying up to reduce the risk of mastitis after her spay.
  • I continued supplementing kittens with increasing amounts of gruel to further reduce demand for milk after I returned them.
  • On spay day, her milk supply was nice and reduced, although I have no way of confirming this was a result of milk reduction day.

PHASE 4: SPAY DAY & RETURN TO THE FOREST

I wanted to make Sloane's capture and transport to Mountain View Vet Hospital as comfortable as possible.

  • Sloane had to be fasted prior to surgery, so I removed food by midnight.
  • I started the capture process at 4am because there were so many points at which I could run into difficulty and get delayed.
  • At 4am, I removed kittens and put them in a temporary nest with a Snuggle Kitty outside of the room.
  • I then prepared a small bit of canned food with tuna mixed in, and hid a Phenobarbital pill inside to make her more relaxed. In theory.
  • She ate the pill at 4:05am.
  • At 7am I went to check on her and see how the pill was affecting her reactions/behavior. She was still active and ran away from me to hide in the Cabinet of Solitude, but she did not seem to feel as threatened. I felt it would be relatively easy to catch her using the EZ-Nabber.
  • At 8am I went in with the EZ-Nabber and a transfer cage lined with blankets from her nest so they smelled familiar. She was in the Cabinet of Solitude, and I was able to scoop her into the EZ-Nabber. It took me a few minutes to get her to leave the EZ-Nabber and enter the transfer cage.
  • Once she was in the cage, I covered the cage completely with a blanket from her nest and then took her directly to Mountain View.

Surgery went very well, and I picked her up around 5:15pm. I took her directly back to the feeding station, set out several bowls of food, and then released her.

She didn't come to eat while I was there, but she came right out the next day when I arrived to feed them. She had a happy tail, and was doing GREAT.

Sloane's behavior changed after her return in the following ways:

  • She often greets me at the road along with several other regulars.
  • She began playing with the toys we bring for the cats.
  • She will now eat and then curl up on a blanket on top of the nearby drop trap, often with Barclay, Caprice or Torelius (a few of our other regulars).
  • She will approach me within a foot, but will also give a token hiss (much different than her ferocious hiss) if I try to approach her and get very close.
  • Overall, she is more relaxed, affectionate with the other cats and playful.

PHASE 5: SOCIALIZING THE KITTENS

Sloaney's kittens were merged with my other foster mama cat and her kittens, who were two weeks older than Sloane's kittens. This was hugely beneficial for Sloane's kittens, but was not without risk for disease transfer. I consulted very carefully with our vet to take every precaution to minimize risk including negative FeLV/FIV tests and negative PCR for ringworm. Fortunately, Eve and her kittens remained healthy, and the benefit to Sloane's kittens far outweighed the potential risks. I would NOT recommend doing this without close consultation with your vet and very carefully weighing the risks vs the benefits.

OBSERVATIONS & TIPS

  • Starting around 3 weeks old, Sloane's kittens were physically and developmentally behind kittens of the same age born to non-feral moms.
  • Being able to combine them with Eve and her babies was very beneficial to their development.



Sloaney 1
Sloane in her forest, pregnant




Sloaney 3
Sloane in the EZ-Nabber getting Revolution


Sloaney 4
Using logs to explore the room within minutes


Video of Sloane having her babies


Sloaney 5
The dirt nest


Grabbing babies for initial weights/exams


Kittens responding to noises!


Sloaney 6
Sloaney's pre-op exam at Mountain View before her spay


Sloaney is finally home ❤️* Sniff *More about this project at http://tinykittens.com/ferals/fostering

Posted by People for Happier Cats on Thursday, June 11, 2015
Sloaney goes home


No words. ❤️More about this experiment: http://tinykittens.com/ferals/fostering

Posted by People for Happier Cats on Friday, June 12, 2015
Sloaney at the feeding station, 20 hours after return


Sloaney 7
Sloaney, happy at home


Sloaney 8
Sloaney's ear tip



Case Study #2: Sisko + Mila

This was my first attempt at co-fostering two pregnant ferals from the same colony in the same space. My hunch was that having a companion would reduce stress and fear, thus further increasing probability of a positive outcome. The risk of course was that if they didn't get along, separating them would be very difficult for me and very stressful for them. Because they came from the same colony, the risk of disease spread was lower since they had both likely already been exposed to the same things.

SISKO: Trapped on July 8th, 2015

Sisko is one of the feral cats at our pilot TNR colony of 200+ cats. She visited our feeding station very infrequently, only 9% of the time. Her first litter of 2015 kittens was born in mid-April. Their current status is unknown. She was visibly pregnant in June, and against all odds entered the drop trap on one of her rare visits to the feeding station. Although I would have liked her to be about one more week pregnant before trapping, it ultimately was a good thing for her to have the extra time to adjust and access quality nutrition/deworming prior to birth.

MILA: Trapped on July 20th, 2015

Mila showed up as it was getting dark and entered the drop trap just as I was packing up after several hours at the feeding station waiting to trap a pregnant feral as a companion to Sisko. I had seen a new pregnant tabby cat on the camera a few days prior, and although I couldn't see well enough to determine if this was the same cat, she did appear likely to be pregnant. Since she was not a cat I had catalogued, I knew nothing about her. I trapped her, but wasn't able to visually confirm that she was pregnant because it was so dark, and because of the way she was huddled in the transfer cage. Because she did not appear to be lactating and she had not been spayed, I decided to bring her home in order to give Sisko some company while I observed whether or not she was pregnant. If she was not pregnant, she would be spayed and returned as soon as possible, and if she was pregnant and got along with Sisko, she would stay and have her babies in the forest room with Sisko.


PHASE 1: PLANNING & PREP - SISKO + MILA

What made Sisko a good candidate?

  • Based on very limited observation, Sisko did not show aggression to other cats.
  • Did not show any aggression to me during feedings, but kept her distance and was cautious.
  • Seemed curious about me, but not curious enough to come close.

What made Sisko a questionable candidate?

  • She is feral, no question about it.
  • I didn't know much about her, and she didn't know me.
  • We knew other cats/kittens we had rescued from the colony had ringworm and upper respiratory infections.
  • I was forced to trap her earlier than I otherwise might have.

What made Mila a good candidate?

  • The only thing I knew for sure about Mila was that she had not been spayed.

What made Mila a questionable candidate?

  • She was more frantic than both Sisko and Sloane during the trapping process.
  • I didn't know anything about her, and she didn't know me.
  • We knew other cats/kittens we had rescued from the colony had ringworm and upper respiratory infections.
  • I didn't know if she was pregnant, or if her belly appeared pregnant because she had a previous litter and had not yet regained her girlish figure (because of the frequency of pregnancies, many of the females have a perpetually pregnant look).


A MORE GENTLE WAY TO TRAP?

Trapping a cat in a trap is extremely stressful - it is loud when it triggers, and the noise makes them panic and thrash around trying to find a way out. Starting off a fostering relationship that way seemed like setting it up to fail. Ideally, I wanted to see if I could trap my pregnant moms more gently, with some patience and a standard crate. Since Sisko was not a regular at our feeding station, this was not an option. I ended up trapping her in the drop trap when the opportunity unexpectedly presented itself. She was trapped in the drop trap with another cat (Quinn, who had already been spayed) who was immediately released. Mila was also trapped unexpectedly, and trapped in the drop trap which is the most stressful method. She was drooling in the transfer cage, which is a sign of stress.


LOW STRESS ACCOMMODATIONS

Inability to escape somewhere safe, unfamiliar smells and noises, and unwanted interaction with humans are all huge contributors to stress. Here are some of the measures I took to minimize stress:

  • Brought large logs and a giant fern transplanted into a litterbox filled with materials from her forest - dirt, leaves, pine needles. This had the benefit of making her temporary home smell, look and feel more familiar.
  • Set up logs to allow her to use them to get to the high windowsill and around the room.
  • Recorded the sounds of her forest on my iPhone and then played it on a loop in her room.
  • Added a white noise machine to the background to help mask human/unfamiliar sounds.
  • Plugged in a Feliway diffuser
  • Included four primary nest options with different configurations.
  • Added several hiding spots and made sure some nest options had escape routes.
  • Lamps on timers to compensate for a small window.

When Mila moved in, I added two additional nesting bins, facing each other with about a 5" aisle down the middle, and about 6" away from the walls to give them multiple escape routes. This is where Mila ended up settling.


MONITORING WITH REDUCED HUMAN INTERACTION

Since human interaction increases stress, I set up webcams to allow me to monitor the room without invading their space. This was key in keeping them calm and feeling as safe as possible.


LITTERBOXES

Several litterboxes were placed throughout the room, all with grain-based litter covered in a thin layer of forest dirt. Sisko took to the litterboxes right away. Mila pooped on the windowsill and floor the first few days.



PHASE 2: TRAPPING & FOSTERING (SISKO)

While I would have preferred to trap Sisko in a crate like Sloaney, it was not possible. I was not even expecting to trap Sisko because she had a 9% probability of showing up on any given day, let alone getting into a trap. When she unexpectedly entered the drop trap, I had to make a quick decision to take the only opportunity I felt I would get, even if it meant trapping her earlier in her pregnancy than I would have liked.

Here's what else happened on trapping day:

  • Because I wasn't expecting to trap a pregnant mom that day, I had to gather my forest materials in a hurry, prolonging her time in the transfer cage. She was calm
  • We left the site within 20 minutes and had a 20 minute car ride home.
  • Upon arrival, I transferred her from the transfer cage into an EZ-Nabber to administer Revolution. She tried to find an escape route out of the EZ-Nabber, but I did get the Revolution applied within a minute or two. I expect this would vary based on the cat.
  • I released her from the EZ-Nabber into the room, dimmed the lights and then left her alone for several hours.
  • The next morning, a worker was upstairs and there was some noise transfer through the ceiling into Sisko's room.

INITIAL OBSERVATIONS (SISKO)

SISKO, EVENING OF CAPTURE:

  • After applying Revolution and releasing her into the room, she immediately explored the room, then went to the windowsill and looked out the window for a few minutes before retreating into the hiding place I had created on the windowsill.
  • She remained in her hiding spot for the duration of the night and did not eat/drink or use the litterboxes at all
  • At no point was she frantic, climbing walls, searching for an escape route, or aggressive toward me.

SISKO, DAY 1:

  • I offered her fresh wet food with tuna juice three times on day 1, but she was not interested.
  • 18 hours after arrival, she did another round of exploration in the room, used the litterbox and then found a new hiding spot under the Cabinet of Solitude.
  • She ate/drank very little.
  • At no point was she frantic, climbing walls, searching for an escape route, or aggressive toward me.

SISKO, DAY 2:
Since Sisko was still not responding to all manner of tempting foods by mid-day, I made a few changes in hopes of reducing her stress to the point where she would feel safe enough to eat:

  • Added a dirt sachet sprayed with Feliway to the Bunker of Solitude (Sisko's hiding place under the Cabinet of Solitude)
  • Added a Snuggle Mom with heating pad and beating heart to the far side of the BoS, also sprayed liberally with Feliway
  • Downloaded two pieces of music composed by a scientist specifically to calm cats, played on repeat.

Her respiration rate was between 28 and 32 when she was sleeping prior to my visit to implement these changes. During the visit, it rose slightly to 35. 10 minutes after I had gone, it had risen to 52. It fluctuated between 40 and 50 for the next hour. It took almost 2 hours for her resp rate to fall back to 30 (sleeping).

At 3:30pm, she finally ate the sardine/babycat canned food mix I left in the BoS with her. She then exited the BoS and resumed napping on the carpet, out in the open. Eating and sleeping in the open are both very encouraging milestones.


INITIAL RISK ASSESSMENT (SISKO)

Sisko is generally less confident than Sloaney. She has not hissed, growled or shown aggression toward me. She has hidden longer than Sloaney and is taking longer to eat. This raises two significant questions for me:

  • Will her lack of confidence translate to decreased protectiveness/maternal aggression?
  • Will her lack of confidence increase probability that she is too stressed to care for her kittens?

It remains to be seen whether her lack of confidence is personality driven, or if she is simply having a longer adjustment period due to the more stressful trapping experience.


INTRODUCING MILA

Mila arrived 12 days after Sisko. In those 12 days, Sisko had become more confident, but still hid at the slightest noise and stayed hidden for hours. She would also call for hours overnight. The day Mila arrived, Sisko stayed in the BoS for the first 12+ hours. There was no interaction between the two for 18 hours, and then Sisko approached Mila in one of the nesting bins and gave her a brief sniff, ate her food, and then headed to the windowsill. After that, Sisko began spending more time on the windowsill, and changed her hiding spot to the area between the nesting bins and the wall. Mila seemed very curious about Sisko, often following her around the room. Both cats spent time on the windowsill together. There were a few minor slow-motion swats from Sisko (like when she wanted the window seat), but no aggression. After two days, both cats seemed more confident, and were spending time out in the room quite often.

I determined that Mila was not pregnant after about 2 weeks of observation, and she was spayed and returned shortly thereafter.


BIRTH OF SISKO'S KITTENS

Sisko went into labor on August 6th. She gave birth to eight kittens VERY quickly, at 2:07, 2:21, 2:37, 2:47, 3:00, 3:37, 4:35 and 4:44pm pacific time. Post birth she was clearly exhausted, but she remained with the kittens for the first 18 hours with very few breaks. Around 18 hours, she left the nest and I went in to check the kittens. Ideally, I would have waited longer, but with 8 kittens I knew the chances were good that one or two would be small, and wanted to make sure I didn't need to intervene.

Sadly, one of her kittens was struggling and turned out to have a congenital defect that he was not able to survive. Because of this, I had no choice but to enter the room earlier and more often than I otherwise would have.

Sisko seemed to be overwhelmed by the situation, perhaps coupled with having 8 kittens to care for. She would retreat to a spot where she felt safe, and leave babies unattended for longer than was ideal (4-6 hours). I began to supplement the kittens by swapping half in and half out, and eventually discovered that if I returned the kittens to where Sisko's safe place was she would care for them like a champ. She just was to fearful to leave her safe place to go to them.

If I had not learned this, I am fairly certain Sisko would have been unable to care for her kittens. Luckily, once I figured out how to accommodate her, Sisko showed fantastic maternal instincts and provided excellent care for her babies.


MORE TO FOLLOW!



Sisko 1
Sisko, April 2015


Sisko's arrival and intake



Case Study #3: Savina + Neelix + Sable

Trapped on Feb 24th 2016 (Savina), Feb 25th 2016 (Neelix), March 5th 2016 (Sable)

This is our first experiment attempting to foster two pregnant ferals together in one room.

Since Sisko had her kittens last fall, I have learned SO much and will be doing things differently to test some new hypotheses:

  1. Will pregnant ferals feel less stressed if they have a pregnant feral companion throughout the process?
  2. If I bring them in earlier in their pregnancies will it be possible to gain enough trust to make handling babies less stressful for moms?
  3. Will we see a noticeable improvement in kitten health if moms eat high quality queen food for the last half of their pregnancy instead of the antibiotic-enriched livestock feed that is part of their diet at the colony?
  4. Can a new vaccine strategy lessen severity of upper respiratory symptoms in kittens?
  5. Will access to an enclosed catio windowbox (for safe access to the outdoors) lessen stress for the moms?
Potential benefits
  1. High quality pre-natal nutrition
  2. Vaccinations for mom to boost immunity in babies
  3. Build some level of trust with mom before babies come
  4. Treat health issues in mom prior to babies arriving
Potential Risks
  1. Since moms will be in captivity for a longer period of time, I will have to closely monitor stress level and change plan if stress seems overwhelming for cat.

Savina (tortie) is the wild card in this scenario - she was new to the feeding station, and was not a cat I was targeting for this round. When she was trapped, we hoped we got her in time before she was pregnant so she could be spayed and returned. When we discovered she was pregnant, we decided to try fostering her until we knew for sure. I had some pretty significant concerns, based on my initial interaction with her on intake:

  • Savina was showing aggressive/panicky behavior when in the trap and during intake, far different than any of our previous feral encounters. She was lunging at Kim in the trap and very frantic to escape when I had her wrapped in the blanket in my lap for our very brief intake exam.
  • She was new to the feeding station, and personality was unknown. She also didn't know me.
  • She appears younger, and if this is her first litter many things can go very wrong, and I will be unable to help.
  • Unknown how she would be with another cat
  • Her fearfulness/aggression could increase stress for her companion instead of decreasing stress

I had planned to bring in two at the same time, and release them into their new space at the same time to encourage bonding and spare one the stress of being alone for any period of time. Unfortunately, I was unable to trap another cat until the next day so Savina did spend her first night by herself. I think this has a detrimental effect on their ability to bond with the other cat, but we'll have to wait until the next round to test this more.

SAVINA'S FIRST NIGHT

Savina was very tense during her blanket intake, the most difficult I've done by far. I gave her Profender and Revolution, and her abdomen was palpated by Dr. Wakeling for pregnancy. Savina struggled to escape, so I didn't do ears or check teeth. When we got to TK HQ, I released her into the room and she headed straight for the catio, where she remained throughout her first night and the next day as well.

NEELIX ARRIVES

I finally managed to trap Neelix the afternoon of the 25th. She was trapped in the drop trap. She was very easy to handle wrapped in a towel, and within an hour or so she was uncovered in my lap accepting my petting. I gave Profender and Revolution and cleaned her ears. She was generally shut down from stress, but became fairly relaxed and seemed to slightly enjoy the petting from time to time. After about 2.5 hours, she felt comfortable enough to start looking around and then slowly got up and moved around the room. She ended up on the catio with Savina, but was not frantic at any point.

ELIANN ARRIVES

Eliann is a feral from the same colony who we trapped the same day Savina was trapped. Fortunately, Eliann was not pregnant, so we were able to get her spayed on the 25th. After her spay, she came to TK HQ to recover for a few days in our Feral Recovery/Maternity Ward. I released her into the room, and she found a spot under a fern to have a nap.

DAY TWO

Savina still had not come in from the catio, and I was concerned that her stress level was making the situation more stressful for Neelix. All three girls were on the catio at this point, and I needed to give Eliann her pain meds. After several attempts to encourage the girls inside from outside the catio, I ended up having to approach the catio entrance from inside the room and Savina and Eliann ran into the room. I was able to wrap Eliann up in a blanket and give her pain meds plus check her incision at this point, then I put her in one of the hidey crates. I then was able to wrap Neelix in a blanket on the catio and bring her in to see how she was doing. As anticipated, her stress level from all the excitement was noticeably higher at this point than it had been the night before, after our 2.5 hours of lap time. I only held her for a few minutes, and when she was ready, she started to step out of my lap and I put her inside the Cabinet of Solitude so she could hide and hopefully feel safe.

At this point, Savina had wall-climbed her way to the overhead shelf inside the closet in the room and it was clear that she was not the right candidate to test some of the hypotheses I had hoped to test with this group. Since the current situation was not working for her, and was detrimental to Neelix, I decided to move her into a different room, better suited for her needs.

Kim came over and assisted in capturing Savina, since she was above our heads on a shelf in the closet. We ended up putting a Kuranda tower in front of the closet for her to jump down onto, and we re-opened the catio and put the feral cat den (from Tomahawk Live Traps) on the catio hoping she would go inside. Thankfully, she did, and I was able to close the door and get her into a quiet dark room while we prepared a more appropriate environment for her needs.

I set up the catio in the next room with her Feral Cat Den, a blanket on a heating pad for the cool nights, food and water, and the Kuranda tower for her to jump down on if she wanted to explore the room. Litterbox, more beds and more food were set up inside the room, and I turned out the lights, opened the den door and left her alone.

Neelix and Eliann were each in their own safe spots, so I gave them the rest of the day on their own to try to get over the morning's stressful activities.

On a positive note, two cats peed in the litterbox at some point overnight!

DAY THREE

Neelix and Eliann were much calmer, and I was able to give Eliann her pain meds and check her spay incision. Both girls had used the litterbox, explored the room, and eaten/drank overnight. I did about 20 minutes of lap time with Neelix and cleaned her ears. She was somewhat relaxed, but still alert and looking around the room.

They spent most of the day in the Bunker of Solitude, ironically together.

Savina was still on the catio in her room when I went in to check on her and bring food, but she had been inside to use the litterbox and eat/drink at some point.

DAY FOUR

Good progress with Neelix today, we had lap time for about 1.5 hours during which she had very relaxed periods in between very nervous periods. She is still very sensitive to noises and movements. She licked some tuna off my finger. The catio was open, and the girls spent most of their time outside. Neelix was making biscuits on the fluffy grey bed at one point. I brought Kestrel (a friendly cat from the same colony) in and had about an hour of petting and playing with Kestrel whilst Neelix and Eliann were on the catio. Eliann had burrowed under the bedding and hid the whole time, but Neelix watched us with curiosity and eventually fell asleep with me in the room.

DAY FIVE

ELIANN was returned to the forest today, as she was recovering nicely and clearly wanted to be home. NEELIX was overall more edgy with me but also more confident in the room today. There seems to be a correlation between rising confidence and decreasing tolerance for interactions. I did some petting and playtime with Kestrel in the room again in the morning, and Neelix was observing from the catio. She was nervous because of activity going on outside, but I wrapped her in the towel and gave her a few minutes of lap time. She spooked, and ran away within a few minutes. I let her go so she knew she had the ability to escape somewhere safe (the CoS) if she felt threatened.

I returned several hours later and did about a half hour of lap time with her. She was still fairly tense, possibly because she is becoming more confident in her environment and feeling less shut down in the presence of the human predator. There were some noises outside the door that spooked her, and she did a slow exit to the CoS. She is eating well, hydrated, using the litterbox and having long deep sleeps. I haven't seen her play yet, but we never saw her play in the forest either. I still have to wrap her completely in a towel before lap time, and approach very carefully/slowly.

That evening, Neelix did more exploring, grooming in the middle of the room and in the CoS, and was looking quite relaxed.

SAVINA is a very different cat than Neelix. She is the most "feral" of any cat we've had in our care. To give Savina the best possible chance, I am only entering the room to replace food/water and clean the litterbox. If I get too close doing any of these things, she panics and I immediately avert my eyes and retreat slowly. Savina is not an ideal candidate for early pregnant fostering, but we didn't think she was pregnant when we trapped her. Our options at that point were either to release her unspayed (not something we would do) or to spay her then and there knowing she might be pregnant. We chose to attempt to foster her long enough to confirm or rule out pregnancy.

DAY SIX - VET EXAMS!

The fabulous and brave Dr. Ferguson from Mountain View Veterinary Hospital came today and we successfully ultrasounded ALL THREE cats in our care. Two feral cats - Neelix and Savina, and one friendly cat from the same colony - Kestrel. It was an incredible experience, and we were able to confirm 100% Neelix and Savina are pregnant, and Kestrel is not.

I spent some time googling and couldn't find a single reference to a feral cat getting an ultrasound for pregnancy. It is possible we just did the world's first ultrasound on a pregnant feral cat... but even if someone else has done this already, we will be the first to document it and make the video of our live broadcast available to anyone else who is interested. ;) Now that we know it is possible even for the most fearful feral, we will be able to learn SO MUCH about pregnancy in ferals. It's very exciting.

WEEK TWO - SABLE AND FAERIE ARRIVE

SABLE was noticably pregnant at the feeding station as of Feb 2nd. Although bringing her in at this time was not in my plan, I couldn't stop myself from trapping her on March 5th so she could have her babies in a safe place. She was gigantic. She had been visiting the feeding station since late fall 2015, and we first saw her when she was heavily pregnant so we know she has had babies before. At the feeding station, she was becoming fairly confident and somewhat curious about us, but never let us come close enough to touch her. And she tried to jump over a log and her gigantic belleh got stuck. So... in she came. I was hopeful she would be an excellent candidate for fostering.

I put Sable in Neelix's room because they seemed like they would be a good match. Sable got her ears cleaned, revolution, profender, killed vaccine, and I got to pet the very active babies. :) She was pretty calm, but I didn't want to stress her out too much trying to assess her capacity for interaction, so I released her into her nest and that was that.

SAVINA spent days inside her den on the catio, but was coming out at night to eat and use the litterbox. She remained very fearful of me approaching to deliver food or try to clean the litterboxes. It wasn't the ideal scenario, but at least she was eating, drinking and her poop was normal.

FAERIE unexpectedly arrived on March 7th, a possibly pregnant feral who I quickly discovered had a broken and abscessed tail. She was very stressed and shut down from her injury, being trapped, and spending a week at LAPS where she was not coping well with the noise. I put her with Savina in hoped the two of them would find comfort in each other's presence.

In an ideal world, I would have paired her with a lower stress cat than Savina, but we work with what we have! I closed the catio at this point because I needed to be able to treat Fairie's tail and give meds, and it would have been very stressful for both cats if I had to reach into the catio to catch Faerie twice a day.

Interestingly, Savina did seem less fearful within 48 hours. Faerie also was feeling noticeably less stressed by the second day, probably due in part to receiving treatment for her injury.

We took Faerie in to Mountain View Vet on the 9th where an ultrasound showed she was not pregnant, so she was spayed and given an injection of Convenia (antibiotic) for her tail. Her uterus was very large and well-used, so there was much rejoicing to know her kitten-making days were over. I was also thrilled that not being pregnant meant we could give additional pain meds while her tail was healing. She will be returning to TK HQ for her recovery period so I can give pain meds and monitor her spay incisions and tail until she is healed. She will most likely be returned to the colony once she is feeling great.

WEEK THREE - SABLE'S BABIES ARRIVE

I limited my interaction with Neelix and Sable leading up to the birth of her babies because I didn't want to unnecessarily introduce stress so close to birth.

On March 9th, Sable was very restless and appeared to have some discharge late in the evening. She started active labor shortly after midnight (on the 10th). She had four kittens, and appeared to have abnormally large/"stringy" placentas. Three of the four kittens appeared healthy, but the second born was slow to get going, appeared to be gasping for air longer than normal, and appeared to have contracted tendons in both back legs. Cindy Lou Mew was barely able to latch on to nurse, and after several hours it was clear I would need to intervene.

I waited until Sable was taking a break from the kittens and then ran in and grabbed all four to do very quick weights, sexes and see what was going on with Cindy Lou. Mayzie, Bartholomew and Trudie were all thriving, so I returned them to mom very quickly. I kept Cindy Lou so I could bottle feed, do physical therapy for her contracted tendons and monitor her progress.

After an exam and x-ray, it was determined that Cindy Lou had a significant respiratory defect, with likely secondary hypoxia. We continued to bottle feed every 2 hours around the clock until on day four she appeared to be declining. At that point, we made the decision to euthanize in order to prevent the suffering that would have come within the next 12 hours. Her symptoms: Her heart was normal, and her lungs were clear of fluid or formula. She made a "click" sound during respiration, but also occasionally at other times. She would take several breaths normally, and then her breathing would pause for 7 - 10 seconds before resuming. She was going to the bathroom normally, indicating good kidney function, and her liver seemed functional as well. She twitched and made involuntary movements that were significantly different than those of her siblings. Her back legs and feet were significantly improved within the first 48 hours due to stretching performed before and after bottle feeding, however it did not help her move normally. Dr. F did not feel her symptoms were consistent with CH or anything along those lines, but rather related to oxygen deficit and respiratory malfunction.

WEEK FOUR

I entered SABLE and NEELIX's room twice a day to bring food, tidy up and clean litterboxes. During the morning visit, I would grab Sable's babies and take them into another room to weigh and quickly check them over to make sure they were healthy. I would wait until Sable was off the nest to go in, and she would sit above the nest on the windowsill and did not act aggressive or overly concerned as long as I was fast and did not attempt to approach her.

NEELIX mostly stayed in her nest when I was in the room, and I was able to clear her empty bowl and replace it with a full one by sticking my hand inside the nest. Her pupils would dilate, but she was not aggressive. She would eat almost immediately with me in the room as long as I wasn't right outside the nest and visible.

SAVINA was less panicky when I entered her room, as long as she was in a "safe" place when I came in. I designed a special nest for her (thanks to Trevor for building it!) and put it in the room on March 19th for her to start getting used to. She still was doing more pacing in the room than I would like, but was eating/drinking/using the litterbox, and even occasionally playing.

I pulled a small bone fragment out of Faerie's tail when I was checking her spay incision and wounds. Everything was healing very nicely except for the wound the bone fragment came out of, so hopefully it will heal now.

WEEK FIVE