Praise for Tiny But Mighty
“[Shaw’s] impact on the world of cat fostering is remarkable.”—The Cut
“Shaw’s entire online presence… essentially amounts to one big Trojan kitty, discretely stuffed with resources for saving motherless babies…. Now the master of this frisky domain has gathered all that knowledge into her most comprehensive resource yet.”—Fast Company
“In this how-to guide (with plenty of heart-melty photos) for fostering newborn cats, Shaw addresses every concern….The physical and emotional commitment to fostering kittens is no joke…but Shaw clearly shows it’s a rewarding journey to take.”—Bust Magazine
“In this beautiful new book, [Hannah Shaw] not only shares hundreds of adorable kitten photos, but she also outlines how to combat the many dangers newborn kittens face.”—Patch.com
“If you have a kitten in your life, plan on adopting one (or two!) or want to know how we can best ensure a safe future for the millions born homeless, Hannah Shaw is, without a doubt, the person I trust to carry the message. Hannah has the know-how, and backs it up with years of invaluable service in the world of animal welfare. That is what makes her new book so exciting: Tiny But Mighty is the definitive resource, written by the ultimate source, and wrapped in a stunningly beautiful package that makes it a must-have for anyone who cares for—or about—the most vulnerable of all cats.”—Jackson Galaxy, Cat Expert and Author of Total Cat Mojo
“[N]ot only an outstanding kitten care guide, but also a gorgeous book that will be a go to when you just need a little kitten fix in your day.”—Ingrid King, ConsciousCat.net
“[A] must-read for cat lovers.”—Catster Magazine
“A truly remarkable book by a truly remarkable woman.” —Pet Radio Magazine
About the Author
New York Times bestselling author Hannah Shaw is an award-winning kitten rescuer, humane educator, and unwavering animal advocate who has dedicated her life to protecting the tiniest and most vulnerable felines. Her project, Kitten Lady, provides educational media, training resources, and instructional workshops that help individuals and animal shelters learn how to save the lives of kittens–in a fun and engaging format. Hannah is the author of the children’s book Kitten Lady’s Big Book of Little Kittens, the 2019 ASPCA Cat Advocate of the Year, and she has been featured as a guest expert on Animal Planet’s My Cat from Hell. She is also the founder of Orphan Kitten Club, a 501(c)3 charitable organization that provides rescue and adoption services to orphaned kittens in the San Diego area. Visit her at KittenLady.org, YouTube.com/KittenLady, Facebook.com/kittenxlady, and on Instagram at @kittenxlady.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
State of the Kitten
Everyone Loves Kittens
I spend a lot of time in transit.
Working in so many different communities, I’ve become accustomed to the monotony of travel: the long hours, the rigorous TSA inspection of my supplies (seriously, who travels with this much cat food?), and the small talk that occurs between strangers in airports and hotel lobbies. The question people always want to ask is, of course, “What do you do?”
When I tell people I’m an animal advocate who specializes in kittens, the response is almost always the same. First, a facial expression falling somewhere on the spectrum between utter confusion and absolute delight. Second, a comment about how I have the most adorable job ever. Third, some variation of the following inquiry:
“Do kittens really need advocates? I thought everyone loved kittens already.”
I do my best to summarize with a smile, but the truth is that to fully explain the magnitude of suffering that kittens face and the importance of our efforts to save them would take an entire book. And so here we are.
In many ways, working with kittens is absolutely adorable. I’m surrounded by fluffy little bobbleheaded dinguses every day of my life. I get to watch innocent beings grow and flourish. From the serene satisfaction of a baby’s first gentle purr to the bellyaching hilarity of a room full of pouncing micro-predators, working with kittens is truly an enjoyable calling. But it isn’t their charming nature that inspires me to do what I do. To me, kitten advocacy has very little to do with cuteness, and everything to do with a great need for tangible change in the way we view, understand, and treat the tiniest and most vulnerable felines.
The truth is that kittens are universally loved in our culture, yet we kill them in epidemic numbers. Unweaned kittens make up a large proportion of feline euthanasias nationally; for many shelters, their deaths account for the majority of euthanasias. The general public is completely unaware that kittens under eight weeks old are one of the most at-risk populations in the US shelter system. Without public knowledge of these issues, we cannot empower people to get active and save kittens’ lives. We must start with a basic understanding of not just what is happening, but also why it is happening, and how each of us can take tiny steps to help solve this problem. We must unravel and examine this complex issue, rally the troops, and forge ahead toward a day when no kitten must die due to lack of resources or of community awareness.
For decades, millions of cats were being euthanized each year. I’ll never forget when the 2016 national data was published and, for the first time in my rescue career, the number of cats dying in US shelters annually was fewer than one million. I wept with happiness to learn that we presently have national euthanasia rates of roughly 860,000 cats per year. Maybe it seems odd to celebrate that hundreds of thousands of cats are still dying in shelters, but seeing the number drop so dramatically over the course of my career has certainly given me reason to feel optimistic about a brighter future for cats, and to push ahead.
It’s an exciting time to be an advocate, as things are truly getting better for cats all the time. Having rightfully won the adoration of the general public, cats are now being adopted in higher numbers than ever before. Roughly 37 percent of US households are now home to a cat, and while I obviously think that number should be higher (seriously, have you met cats? they’re pretty great), this is a huge achievement. More people than ever are discovering the joy of sharing life with a feline, resulting in a steady rise of cat companionship. As adoption rates rise, there is, in turn, a marked decrease in euthanasia.
It’s easy to see why increased adoption would mean decreased euthanasia. Adoption is a solution to euthanasia, and the two variables are thus inversely correlated; as adoption goes up, euthanasia goes down. But this is not a one-to-one correlation, as adoption is only one of several variables necessary to get euthanasia to zero—it is not a full solution. Adoption, of course, only helps cats who are adoptable. If you examine the data, you’ll quickly find that the cats who are dying in shelters tend not to be cats for whom adoption would have been a solution. The populations that are most at risk in modern-day animal shelters are the unadoptables.
Unadoptable animals are those who are not candidates for an adoption program. For felines, this comprises two main populations: cats who are feral and cats who are under eight weeks old. Many people don’t realize that while a two-month-old kitten is the likeliest to find a home in a shelter, a two-week-old kitten is the likeliest to be killed. You simply can’t go to an animal shelter and adopt a neonatal kitten or a fractious cat who doesn’t tolerate touch. But that doesn’t mean those animals aren’t there, or that they don’t deserve our help. Feral cats and unweaned kittens are the two biggest populations comprising the 860,000 feline deaths in shelters each year, which is why these are the two populations I’ve dedicated my life to understanding and saving.
Just because an animal isn’t a candidate for adoption doesn’t mean her life is without value; it simply means she needs a different solution than an adoption program. For feral cats, this means providing them with a solution that allows them to live their full lives outdoors, where they are most at home, without bringing more kittens into the world (read more about feral cats in Chapter Two). For kittens, it means providing a solution that keeps them alive until they are old enough to be adopted into a home. There are a number of programs that aim to protect unadoptable populations, including trap-neuter-return, on-site nurseries, and foster care. The result of these strategies is that we are able to reduce the number of kittens being born, while shepherding those kittens who are born through the vulnerable period of unadoptability. We are able to create hope where there otherwise would be none.
STAY STUBBORN, HAVE HOPE
What is hope? To me, hope is more than a cheesy motivational poster or a platitude embossed on a charm bracelet. It is the defiant resistance against suffering, and the relentless insistence that a positive outcome is possible. It is the shifting tide that occurs when we refuse to accept needless death as an inevitability. From this stubborn love, miraculous things can occur! When it comes to the euthanasia epidemic, I’ve always been stubborn . . . and I’ve always had hope.
Euthanasia is, by definition, “the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals.” But is a kitten hopeless just because she is three weeks old? Heck no! Having raised hundreds of thriving babies, I hardly consider them beyond hope. The fact is that they are only hopeless if we fail to provide them with opportunities to stay alive. When we intervene with love and hands-on support, we find that they are, in fact, bursting with the capacity to grow, to heal, and to become wonderful companions. We must simply give them the chance.
The process of raising kittens is as close to actual magic as I’ll ever get. The moment I bring home a new batch of filthy, hungry wiggle worms, it’s like I suddenly grow five extra hearts. Over the next several weeks I pour pure love into each individual, and it makes them transform from “hopelessly” scrawny into pudgy, strong- boned, affectionate little creatures who return the love tenfold. When it’s time for adoption, I get to give this tremendous gift of companionship to total strangers, brightening their world and giving a lifetime of happiness to the cats. It feels totally silly to say, but the love we give has ripple effects that we may never even know.
As heavy as it can feel to examine the state of the kitten, the beautiful thing is that each of us is capable of creating tangible hope that actively shifts the future for both the individual animal and sheltering as we know it. Every tiny moment of kindness, every small act of compassion adds up to create a safer world. At the end of the day, my time with each kitten is just a blip—a small moment of stubborn hope. But to a being whose entire future is dependent on surviving for a few short weeks, these tiny moments make all the difference.
So if euthanasia is meant for hopeless animals, and kittens aren’t hopeless, why are so many kittens killed in shelters? Before examining these heartbreaking issues, it’s important to note that most shelters are doing the very best they can with the resources available to them, and that their success and the success of the animals in their care is dependent on our ability to approach them with compassion and support. Sadly, though, for a myriad of reasons, most US shelters are not set up to save the little guys, who are therefore being killed in epidemic numbers.
Neonatal kitten care is a niche skill that requires specialized training and supplies—neither of which are a given in your average animal shelter. When I train shelter staff, I always ask how many people have ever bottle-fed a kitten, and I typically find that few or no employees have been trained in providing this care. In addition to the lack of training, essential items such as kitten formula or bottles often aren’t kept in stock; there simply aren’t sufficient supplies or staffing to provide the care. With hundreds of other animals to feed and support, resources tend to be focused around saving the adoptable populations; kitten care is thus not a main priority for most shelter management.
It makes sense that neonatal care is traditionally not a top concern, as many shelters will not be able to keep a neonate alive on-site for even twenty-four hours. Most organizations have limited operating hours and are unable to provide over- night care; it would therefore be quite unethical to leave an unweaned baby with no assistance while the facility is closed for the night. For this reason, young kittens generally meet their fate within hours of entering the shelter doors: either they make it out the door to a foster home before the shelter closes, or they don’t make it out at all.
Even for facilities that do have overnight care, space is an issue. When you consider that shelters have limited housing, it’s easy to see why it is more responsible to give kennel space to an animal who can be quickly adopted than to an animal who will require that space for eight weeks. There simply isn’t adequate space to house every kitten in every community for the duration of her upbringing until she is old enough to be adopted. Moreover, kennels aren’t optimal for socializing kittens during these critical early weeks.
In addition to the challenges of providing feeding, care, and space to young kittens, most shelters also struggle to meet the medical needs of neonates. Kittens are immunocompromised (read more about immune systems on page 161) and are extremely susceptible to illness in a high-volume setting such as an animal rescue facility; even an hour in a shelter can expose a neonate to viruses or parasites that can be life-threatening. To safely accommodate kittens requires strict quarantine protocol and specially designated nursery units, which is not possible for many shelters operating with limited space.
Shelters can find the treatment of sick neonates to be a challenge. Young kittens are likely to become ill, but treatment can be difficult when veterinarians don’t have experience with the specific needs of neonates. For instance, many prescription drugs are only officially labeled for use in kittens over eight weeks, and even if they are demonstrably safe for use in neonates, some veterinarians are not comfortable prescribing off-label for these little young’uns. Many veterinary professionals are hesitant to provide effective treatment options such as antibiotics or other necessary medications to help save a kitten’s life due to the limited knowledge base around feline pediatrics. And when we fail to act swiftly and aggressively against illness, many kittens fall progressively more ill, and either die in care or are euthanized.
It’s plain to see that due to their special care requirements, kittens often will not find a suitable environment in their local animal shelter. Brick-and-mortar shelters are well suited to finding homes for adoptable animals, but these unadoptable babies can only thrive in an environment that can provide more individualized and special care. We must find creative solutions that meet the needs of these tiny lives.
PAINT BY NUMBERS
It isn’t exactly a secret that kittens under eight weeks old are dying in large numbers, but it’s obscured in a way that prevents public awareness and programmatic change. In order for the public to care and to take action, we need to be aware that there is a problem to begin with; we can’t do better until we know better. But from the language we use in the sheltering industry to the way we track intakes and outcomes, we often fail to represent what is happening to kittens in shelters. How can we even begin to unpack the issue for the public when we have no figures with which to quantify it? We simply cannot paint an accurate picture of the state of the kitten when we fail to represent how deeply at risk they are.
One of the major problems is our data reporting in animal shelters. There is no national requirement for tracking and reporting animal data, which makes it a challenge to share how dire the situation is. While several states do require shelters to report their numbers, it’s uncommon for them to specifically track kittens under eight weeks old. The industry standard is to track the status of cats at five months or younger and five months or older, noting whether they are adopted, are euthanized, or have another outcome. This skews the data dramatically, as kittens two to five months old are highly adoptable, while those less than two months old are not adoptable at all. Shelters also often fail to count each kitten as an individual, as database software allows the input of kittens as a litter as opposed to counting them as separate animals.
This means six neonatal kittens can be counted as one litter. When this happens, they aren’t considered individual lives; they are a unit—unless they are candidates for adoption, in which case they become individuals, each with his own profile. The result is that we don’t have precise numbers for this unadoptable population, either in terms of how their age impacts the likelihood of euthanasia, or in terms of how many are being killed versus how many are saved. We count their successes individually, but not their suffering. This makes it a challenge to demonstrate to policy makers, administrators, and members of the public the great need for programs that specifically target neonates.