Bottles, Gruel, Kittens . . . Oh My!

by SarahBremer • Posted in: Awareness/ PR

Walking into the neonatal kitten unit housed in the Davenport building of Austin Pets Alive’s Lady Bird Lake Campus is an experience like no other. At first glance it looks like your typical veterinary hospital unit, with floor to ceiling cages and an array of syringes and other medical instrumentation arranged on the counter. The walls are painted white, the lighting is fluorescent and people come and go on a regular basis attending to the sanitation and cleanliness of rooms that house dozens of animals at any one point in time. But what’s striking about this unit is the intense quiet broken by tens of little meows – an immediate sign of the many young lives being nurtured and saved. On Thursday afternoon, this is where I found Faith Wright, Director of Operations at APA, bottle feeding kittens together with one of the many APA volunteers that are essential to all of the organization’s programs, including the Bottle Baby Nursery.

Faith Wright bottle feeds a kitten in the Bottle Baby Nursery at APA

“I have a new favorite today” she said, “I-21”, referring to a small white kitten no more than a few days old that she had bottle fed earlier that afternoon. She informed me that he was a good eater. The good eaters bring hope to the Bottle Baby Nursery – which, although has an overall success rate of around 80%, can see multiple kittens pass away on any one day. The good eaters are a reminder of the successes of the Bottle Baby Nursery, which provides intensive, round the clock care to newborn kittens until they are capable of eating on their own.

Kitten 1-21 in the Bottle Baby Nursery

Prior to the introduction of the Bottle Baby Nursery at Austin Pets Alive, the vast majority of kittens brought into Austin shelters were euthanized. The program has changed the landscape for the care of orphaned kittens in the Austin area by providing the resources and manpower necessary for the intensive twenty-four hour care required by this fragile class of animals. In 2011, APA was able to take in every orphaned kitten that arrived at Austin Animal Center, the City of Austin run animal shelter from which Austin Pets Alive pulls a large number of its animals. The organization is on track to do the same in 2012.

A kitten attempts to drink gruel from a bottle in the Bottle Baby Nursery at APA

An APA volunteer bottle feeds a kitten in the Bottle Baby Nursery

Although my initial intention on Thursday was to simply stop by APA to introduce myself to Faith and let her know that I’d be working with the organization over the long term on a photography project, she quickly encouraged me to take the opportunity to learn about the program and photograph the organization at work.

Bottle feeding kittens is a meticulous and time consuming process – one that requires volunteers to be on call day and night so that feedings can happen every few hours. Each kitten is weighed, fed and then weighed again to make sure they’ve taken in the necessary 5 grams per 100 grams of body weight.

A kitten in the Bottle Baby Nursery is weighed prior to feeding

The kittens that are new born to a few weeks old receive kitten milk replacer while those that are about 4 weeks old receive “gruel” – a mixture of canned cat food and water. Every effort is made to encourage the kittens to begin to eat on their own, including putting a cup of gruel in each cage after each feeding. While some kittens get the hang of bottle feeding quickly, others struggle, requiring APA staff and volunteers to take a more active role in the feeding process – holding the kittens still by wrapping them in small towels (similar to a swaddle) and encouraging them to swallow.

Faith Wright mixes "gruel", a combination of water and wet cat food, in the Bottle Baby Nursery

An APA volunteer encourages a kitten to swallow during a bottle feeding

Every step of the process is recorded in log books so that the progress of each kitten can be evaluated. For those kittens that are losing weight, the staff and volunteers review the log, discuss what might be the cause of the weight loss and pro actively spend more time with those particular kittens during feedings to make sure the requisite amount of food has been consumed.

Reviewing log books in the Bottle Baby Nursery at APA

Keeping tabs on feedings and litters of kittens in the Bottle Baby Nursery at APA

The highlight of my time at APA on Thursday was getting a look at a kitten a few hours old who had been brought to the shelter with pieces of after birth still attached. As they do with all their newborn kittens, the staff and volunteers at APA will provide constant care – in the form of food, shelter, warmth and animal companionship – to this little guy, in the hope, the constant hope, that he will be one of the 80% of kittens that emerge from the Bottle Baby Nursery and enter a foster home.

A kitten, only a few hours old, in the Bottle Baby Nursery at Austin Pets Alive

The ability of Austin Pets Alive to staff the Bottle Baby Nursery is dependent on the efforts of volunteers. It is a program that has met considerable success and is a vital component of the organization’s mission to maintain Austin’s recent no kill status. While kitten season (usually peaking in April-May) is winding down, APA is still bringing in litters of kittens each week that require bottle feeding. If you’re looking for a way to get involved with the organization, give the Bottle Baby Nursery some thought – its needs are round the clock and can accommodate an off hours schedule. And, if you don’t have time to volunteer, the program is always in need of milk, food, supplies, medicines and skilled care.