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Foster homes for kittens needed

Foster homes are needed to help very young kittens thrive and get ready for adoption. Rachelle Kern, cat manager at the Headwaters Animal Shelter in Park Rapids, is holding two older kittens who need homes: Ivan, at left, and Gallway. (Lorie Skarpness/ Enterprise)

If you have extra room in your home and your heart, kittens at the Headwaters Animal Shelter need you.

Shelter board member Sam O'Hern said she needs the community's help launching a foster kitten program. She will be coordinating the new program using what she learned rescuing and fostering dogs.

"My husband, Zach, was in the Air Force and we were stationed in Tucson, Ariz." she said. "We worked down by the border, and there were a lot of abandoned animals. We fostered dogs, but this kitten thing is a whole new realm for me."

The couple currently has three rescue dogs from Tucson. "They all came with us in 2016 when we moved back here," she said.

Sam and Zach both grew up in the area. Zach is a graduate of Park Rapids Area High School and Sam graduated from Menahga High School.

She said she is excited about the opportunities fostering will bring to both vulnerable kittens and the volunteers who help them.

"Fostering is so rewarding," she said. "With a little love and care and TLC, you can transform a kitten from being terrified of every little sound and movement to a whole different kitten. That transformation is the most rewarding and beautiful experience."

The kitten foster program has been in the planning stages since this past winter and is now ready to launch.

"What we are gearing the program to is mostly the 'grow-up phase,' the stage between weaning and when they get their spay or neuter surgery," O'Hern said.

O'Hern said "kitten season" at the shelter starts in the spring and continues through the end of summer.

"People will find kittens on the side of a country road or wandering here in town," she said. "It's almost like they come out of the woodwork. Some kittens may be abandoned or dropped off, while others may have just wandered off from the rest of their litter. At other times, we may need a foster home for a mother cat and her kittens."

Foster parents can step in when the shelter has an influx of kittens as well.

"We've been overwhelmed with little orphaned kittens and have 30 or 40 kittens under the age of six months on the books," shelter manager/executive director Rochelle Hamp said. "It's a crap shoot if they all come in at the same time and they're in the same age group. They need foster homes to get them through the grow-up phase. We need help and hope to get that with the foster program."

Fostering assignments will usually be one to two months. The number of kittens fostered is flexible.

"Cats and kittens are often dropped off in the country, with the idea that they can do fine outside catching mice," shelter cat manager Rachelle Kern said. "That's not true. We've seen kittens as young as six months in here pregnant. Then you've got another whole population. Those cats have babies and it's a vicious cycle. People seem to like the little, tiny kittens. It's fun and kittens are great, and then they get to be a couple months old and are running around and tearing into things and people decide they don't want them anymore and they are dropped off or surrendered."

Socializing the kittens so they will be adoptable at the end of the fostering is the goal. Time spent holding, petting and playing with the kittens helps them thrive.

"We want to set them up for success, to be adoptable and be great companions," she said.

"Being in a home environment also helps kittens avoid diseases they may be exposed to in a larger group of felines at the shelter. This winter, we had close to 90 cats and kittens. We could have definitely used foster homes."

Kern said foster parents are especially needed for the youngest kittens. "Many of those are bottle-fed babies," she said. "We would like to put those kittens in a home where someone is experienced and knowledgeable who can pull them through that stage."

Shelter supplies everything

"We will provide the toys, food, medications, litter box and litter," O'Hern said. "We also pay for vet visits. As long as you have a room with natural light and an open heart, we provide everything else. Providing the care, that's what counts."

Helping kittens stay healthy is also an important part of the foster parent's role.

"Part of that is bringing them to the vet for their appointments or if they are sick, going through the protocol of calling someone at the shelter and doing the transportation if need be," she said.

Home visits by shelter staff will tracking the kitten's weight and overall health.

O'Hern explained that puppies, dogs and cats sometimes need foster care, too.

"We want to eventually open this program up to puppies as well," she said. "A lot of them aren't going to thrive in the shelter. We may also have situations here and there where a dog or cat foster is needed. So really for any animal, fostering would be great."

The foster kitten program also welcomes supplies. "Wet food is great for that transitional stage between weaning and getting used to kibble, especially the pate variety," O'Hern said.

Cat toys, litter boxes, litter and scoops, kitten chow and paper towels are also needed. Donations may be dropped off at the animal shelter.

O'Hern said she is also interested in pairing bottle feeding kittens with residents at a nursing home or assisted living center in the future.

Becoming a foster parent

The process for becoming a foster home starts with filling out a volunteer application at the shelter or printed off the shelter's website. Specify on the application that it is for being a foster parent/family for kittens. There will also be a foster care checklist and home visits by shelter staff.

"You can get the application process completed, and if there aren't animals you want to foster right now, it will be in place for when something comes up," she said.

Foster parents also have the opportunity to meet animals in need of fostering before making a decision.

"You can come in and see which animals you bond best with," she said.

O'Hern said it is fine if children are involved in the fostering. "I think, under parent supervision, you can't start kids too young with learning how to respect and take care of animals," she said.

She said if foster families will be out of town for a vacation, they should let shelter staff know ahead of time. "We will try to make it work as far as finding a secondary foster family until they get back," she said. "We're pretty flexible on our part. This is all new to us, too."

Help available for spays and neuters

According to the ASPCA, one unspayed female cat and her offspring can produce 420,000 kittens in just seven years.

The shelter's Spay Neuter Assistance Program (SNAP) can help.

"We have SNAP funds right now and are applying for more grants," Hamp said. "SNAP is a rebate program. Pet owners bring their animal to a participating veterinarian and after the procedure receive a rebate from the shelter of $20 per cat neuter or $30 per cat spay. Dog neuters are eligible for a $30 rebate and a $40 rebate on a spay. There is currently a limit of one rebate per year per family. We're constantly applying for grants to help with spaying and neutering."

Those grants include funds to help spay and neuter cats in colonies such as a recent caller who had 19 cats and kittens living on an area farm.

"I think a lot of people when they find a stray cat don't want to step up and take the cat in because it costs money, even though there are several programs that can help with spaying or neutering," Kern said.

There are also two mobile spay/neuter systems in this area. Located in Bemidji, Pet Fixers has provided spays/neuters to 3,546 animals in northern Minnesota since 2012. More information is available at petfixers.org or by calling 218-444-2077.

The Animal Humane Society (previously known as Kindest Cut) also offers other low-cost veterinarian services for those who meet their criteria. More information is available at www.animalhumanesociety.org.

Some area veterinarians also offer reduced-cost spays and neuters.

Kern said she sees stray cats all over in her Park Rapids neighborhood and education is key. "That's what we need to keep doing with the importance of spaying and neutering," she said. "Let people know how many cats it saves. Just in the last six years I've worked here, we've seen an increase of people who are willing to spay and neuter. They can give us a call and we have the numbers and information for places that can help. People who find an animal can't just bring it to the shelter. Right now I'm not taking any cats in unless it's an absolute emergency."

Adoptive homes and fundraisers

The shelter website lists animals available for adoption, placing 350 to 450 animals each year. A non-profit organization, Its mission is to improve the quality of life for abandoned, surrendered, neglected, abused and stray animals.

Shelter staff are available to assist residents in choosing a pet that suits their lifestyle. Adoption fees include vaccinations, neutering or spaying and microchipping.

Fundraisers throughout the year help with operating costs of the shelter, which has been at its current facility at 901 Western Ave. in Park Rapids since 2003.

Their next fundraiser will be a garage sale at the shelter Friday and Saturday, Sept. 14-15.

A holiday bazaar will be held at the shelter on deer hunting opener weekend, along with a turkey dinner and silent auction Nov. 3 at the American Legion. Raffle tickets for cash prizes are for sale the shelter now.

Annual shelter membership is $25 fee for individuals or $35 for families. Corporate memberships are $250. These fees also help support the shelter.

Call 237-7100 or visit the shelter website for more information about fostering or adopting a shelter animal.

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