Kitten Shelter Diversion
Better for Kittens and Shelters Alike

In the process of refining trap-neuter-return programs for community cats over the years, it’s apparent that while return to the community via TNR is usually the best option for thriving adult cats, young kittens do not fare as well. It has been reported that 50%-75% of kittens living in the wild do not survive to adulthood. Adoption is a better choice for kittens, but it’s also ideal to avoid sending kittens to local shelters when they are already crowded during kitten season or have increased risk of infectious disease. This is the same recognition that resulted in Million Cat Challenge’s “Cat Superhighways” concept in which most thriving adult cats should be on a superhighway to TNR, whereas most kittens should be on a superhighway to adoption, but hopefully not detouring through a shelter on the way to a new home. These superhighways have offramps for special circumstances, so that every cat gets the outcome that is best for it.

A veterinary assistant cups a newborn kitten in her hands
Neonatal kittens are the most vulnerable of all cats. Whenever possible, they should be left with their mothers until they are weaned at 5-6 weeks, then brought into care for socialization to people. Orphaned neonates require round the clock care, ideally in a foster home.

Operation Catnip, which has sterilized more than 80,000 community cats since 1997, recognized the need for a new kind of program to help residents who find free-roaming community kittens. These caregivers often used Operation Catnip to sterilize the adult cats they found. However, since the young kittens didn’t qualify for Operation Catnip’s TNR program, they were giving away the kittens to friends and family unaltered since there was no access to subsidized veterinary care for the kittens. While many of the new owners had every intention of sterilizing their new kittens, it did not always happen in time, and another cycle of unwanted kittens would begin. 

The Kitten Shelter Diversion Program. (KSD) is a true partnership with residents who find kittens outdoors. They agree to house and care for the kittens, socialize them, and adopt them out once altered through their own personal social circle or social media without burdening local rescues or shelters. They also agree to bring the rest of the cat family in for spay-neuter, using the regular TNR program for any cats over 4 months of age or for unsocialized kittens. Operation Catnip pitches in to provide free vaccinations, parasite prevention, and spay-neuter in preparation for adoption. The program also provides care for illness and injuries, which are surprisingly common in young free-roaming kittens. The program cared for 1,400 kittens in 2022. 

Two women dipping kittens for ringworm.
Injuries and illnesses are common in free-roaming kittens, contributing to a 50% to 75% mortality rate before reaching adulthood. Upper respiratory infections, ringworm, and parasitism are common. Trauma, fractures, lacerations, and ruptured eyes are often surgical emergencies. Kitten Shelter Diversion programs must be prepared for both routine preventive care and interventional care.

At the University of Florida, the program also benefits veterinary students who can get hands-on experience, including care of unweaned orphan kittens, preventive care (vaccination, parasite treatment), triage and treatment of sick and injured kittens, and pediatric spay-neuter techniques. This training will develop competencies in pediatric medicine and surgery that are not often available in traditional veterinary school curriculum.

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