Posted by: A Part of the Solution | September 13, 2009

How To Rescue a Kitten

It was Midsummer’s Day 2008. A friend was giving me a ride back to my house, but suggested stopping by his friend Bob’s house on the way.

My friend had gone by Bob’s two nights before to see if Bob was up for a a little motorcycling. Before he could even get off his bike, a small scrap of black and white fur had launched itself onto his jeans-clad leg and scrambled up his leather jacket and curled up right inside it, mewling a couple of times. It was a kitten.

No surprises there. Bob is a ‘cat-lady’–for all he’s at least 6′-6″ and full of manly traits like frequenting strip clubs and leaving one of everything that’s ever been made with a combustion engine lying in a partially deconstructed heap somewhere in his yard (really, how many people do you know who own a hovercraft that’s never worked…). There are twenty to forty cats on the premises at all times.

The kitten in question was covered with fleas in the way Manhattan is covered with people and cars at rush hour. Its eyes were glued shut with the crusted effluvia of a chronic eye-infection. Its nose was crusty with rhinovirus (cats have a much harder time with colds than people–sometimes to the point of mortality). It weighed less than a Big Mac with small fries. And my partner thought it was the most appealing animal he’d seen since his beloved lab-golden mix had died four years ago.

We were on a mission. We were on a mission to rescue, if it still lived, the feisty little kitten that had stolen my friend’s heart with one unexpected act of bravado and a clear plea to get it the heck out of the nightmare that was Bob’s cattery.

Bob was home when we pulled up. He said “sure” when we informed him we’d come for the kitten my friend had met the other evening.

The kitten’s condition had deteriorated in those forty hours. It lay gasping under a clump of weeds offering shade. We looked at each other. It might be too late already. We would try to make the pitiful creature more comfortable as it passed to its blessed release, and call that a worthy use of our compassion.

First things first. We gave the kitten two baths to rid it of some of the innumerable vermin paving its skin. Then we were off to the mega-pet store to buy some over-the-counter flea remedy, a flea comb, and a small litter box and cat litter (the kind made from recycled newspaper, natch).

Bob swore the kitten was at least five weeks old when we took him. His ears were still half folded down, which generally means 3-1/2 weeks or so. Maybe neglect and malnutrition had retarded his growth. Maybe Bob’s estimate was off by a week. However old it was, it wasn’t old enough to survive most kinds of flea poison.

So I sprayed the poison on a small towel and rolled the tiny invalid around in it. Soon the towel was covered in brownish specks. Fleas look black until they’ve gorged. Then they appear to be brown. That would be all the blood they’ve sucked from their hosts shining through. The pathetic animal was then treated to a third bath. We’d definitely reduced the parasite population on its body by about half.

We hopped on the internet and read up on what to feed kittens until they’re old enough to be weaned. Mix full fat yogurt with egg yolk (but not the white, since raw albumen blocks the absorption of protein) and a shot of liquid baby-vitamins. I didn’t add this next ingredient, but it would have made the process less stressful and more successful (so if you need to rescue tiny kittens), add a little ground beef, lamb, or turkey and puree all of it together thoroughly. Keep the mixture in the fridge until you’re ready to feed.

Warm the amount you want to give the kitten by placing a bowl with the KMR (Kitten Milk Replacement) in a larger dish of hot water. Get a fat dropper, and a strong towel. Wrap the kitten in the towel and carefully put the dropper to the side of its mouth and squeeze. If you put the dropper right down the center of its mouth, there’s a danger it might inhale the KMR and drown.

If you ever try this, you will laugh (if you aren’t cursing) at how simple the process sounds. Kittens don’t really like KMR. And they’re not likely to stay calmly in the towel when they realize what’s up, which they learn quickly since they have to be fed every few hours. And KMR has an amazing ability to transform into fur laminate when the little creature struggles against the torture of meal-times. It’s largely egg and fats and it can’t be readily cleaned off with just hot water.

The little kitten lived twenty-four hours. I’d slept on the kitchen floor, since we were keeping it in the kitchen so that we could have an eye on it and easily clean up any ‘accidents’ across the course of the day. Why did I sleep on the kitchen floor? Because I don’t own a heating pad–and really even on the low settings they can be a little warm. The kitten needed my body heat so that it wouldn’t go into hypothermia (this is Midsummer, but the new kitten was frail and appallingly skinny). Charmingly, it did sleep on me for warmth. Winningly, it ‘left’ the nest in the morning to do its business. It went all the way down to my feet and peed on my ankle.

I set up a shoe box with a couple of small plastic bottles in it. I filled them with hot water and threw a washcloth over them and changed the water out during day–easy to do since I was working from home. The kitten batted around a twisted store receipt; it napped; it struggled when I tried to get its three or four droppers worth of food into it.

It survived another day. I took a bath towel and put it in the sun out front of my house. I lived at a busy corner, but the kitten barely had the energy to get from one end of the bath towel to the other. So I did this and that and kept an eye on it and hoped it wasn’t dehydrating in the sun.

The kitten wouldn’t take water from a dropper, nor would it lap water from a bowl. Turns out, feline mother’s milk and/or KMR also supplies one hundred percent of the liquid needs of growing kittens. I was more frantic than ever to get enough KMR down the struggling animal’s throat.

My friend came by after work  and whenever else he could to visit with us. He would take the occasional turn feeding the rescue kitten. The kitten lived a week. It was gaining weight at less than half the rate recommended for kittens of its age (four ounces a week is optimal). Its eyes and nose were still crusty. It wheezed when it breathed. It had virtually no energy. It had many, many fleas.

We made an appointment at the vet’s. She was appalled at the state of the kitten, and more so when she heard that it was much improved since we’d had it for ten days. She decided we would give it flea meds first. They might kill it, since it was too young and too tiny to cope with the poison she applied. But the critter’s skin was red and sore looking from the irritations of the parasites, and it just didn’t have the energy to get better while battling additional challenges.

That kitten walked in pitiful circles for six hours, shaking its head (both signs of general systemic poisoning). Staggered, more than walked. It was a pathetic sight to see. I was crying for half the night as I watched. But in the morning, there were no more fleas on it.

We decided to call the little kitten Penny. The doctor told us it was too small to determine its sex. But my mother firmly believes that all cats are females (which leads one to wonder how she thinks they all reproduce so frequently and copiously). So we named it “Penny” since it was going to cost us lots and lots of those to get it up to snuff.

Everyone who met Penny was appalled at her condition. The KMR crusted into her fur only made her look more bedraggled than she really was. Her eyes and nose were still crusty–and the vet positively refused to give her antibiotics until she was at least three months old, since having them too early would likely compromise her immune system for the rest of her life.

She started putting on more weight and stopped struggling against feeding when I started adding small amounts of meat to her KMR. I didn’t have to wrap her in a towel and immobilize her to get her fed anymore. Woo-hoo! She took ten droppers of food at a time, and only needed to eat every four to six hours. This was after three weeks of wrestling with her, and I still mark it as one of the great breakthroughs in the process of trying to save the little kitten.

Following advice from the Natural Cat by Anitra Frazier, I started making her little blops of kitty food. I combined soaked oat bran, ground chicken, steamed beans, powdered wheat-grass, nutritional yeast, raw egg yolks, egg whites cooked in butter, dried powdered egg shells and liquid baby vitamins. Because I’m me, the eggs, butter, meat, veggies and grain were organic. I would leave enough in the fridge for a day or two and freeze the rest in small containers.

Soon, I was lining pans with wax paper and freezing individual servings to be bagged and stored. Then I started making different combos: beef/carrot/quinoa, turkey/brown rice/broccoli, lamb/millet/zucchini. Penny loved all of it. But her rhinovirus wasn’t getting any better and it was August.

My friend got fed up with waiting for Penny to be old enough for antibiotics. He took her up to the vet he’d always used in one of the distant exurbs. Penny loved car rides, and had from the first. The action of the motor (or something) generally caused her to defecate within half a mile of setting out. We always had a litter pan in passenger seat foot-well for her, so it was no real issue (though my fussy friend hated the smell and would stop the truck for me to dispose of the valuable prizes as soon as possible).

We had expected the antibiotics to put Penny right in a day or two, and they did. But we hadn’t expected the second vet to turn our kitten over and tell us we had a boy and not a girl! It couldn’t stay Penny, then. So I proposed Buckminster Fuller–Buck for short (it did indeed end up costing a lot of bucks to bring him into full health with all recommended vaccines).

He was very small for his age, but now had so much energy that my friend would look around at the feline, choreography by Wen Yo Ping as he zipped from corner to corner bouncing off the back of the sofa onto the floor under the coffee table cornering around a sneaker to pounce on the unsuspecting foot he’d targeted three and half seconds earlier, and ask me “who put the new batteries in the kitty?”

Within three months of our moving into my friend’s home, the other outdoor cats in the neighborhood began applying old fashioned peer pressure on Bucky–teasing him mercilessly when they saw him run inside to use his litter box. If he was a big-boy kitty, why did he need to use an indoor facility for elimination? I should buy Simba and Barney a filet mignon and feed it to them raw. Buck hasn’t used his box since, though we keep it fresh and ready in the downstairs bathroom.

When he turned one year old, our Buckle swaggered into the house for his evening meal and clearly told me that he was changing his name to Thuglife Hairball, and wasn’t going to be hanging around inside anymore unless it was definitely time to eat. I asked him if he meant to wear his trousers so low on his hips. He sneered at me, and feinted with his left–just to make me flinch away from his lightening fast, razor sharp claws.

At fifteen months, he’s beginning to mellow out. His full adult weight will be more than eight pounds and fewer than nine. His fur is silky and shining. He still plays with his string of Mardi Gras beads, but it’s not impossible to get a shoe lace tied when he’s around anymore. And he’s taken to napping at the top of the stairs or on the mat inside the front door.

He is the apple of my eye. I hand-make his food to this day, adjusting volumes and proportions and ingredients to meet his changing dietary needs. There may be an animal more spoiled and indulged than he is somewhere in the Western Hemisphere, but I doubt it.



  1. I remember this “kitten” after a bath: the most sorry example of mammal ever. Glad to hear the cat is still with us. Also, thought “in for a penny in for a pound” or “buck” in the American vernacular.

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