When I woke up the morning of Saturday, August 4th, I had no idea that I’d be driving to BARCS to pick up more foster kittens. But somehow, that’s what happened. My friend Leslie alerted me to an urgent need for foster for four tiny kittens, barely days old, who had come into the shelter the day before. I still had other fosters at home, and overlap is not what I intended, but… did it really matter? I wanted bottle babies (kittens with no mother who must be bottle-fed) next anyway, so why not just go for it?

The shelter was incredibly busy that afternoon, which is always invigorating. Thanks to the Adoption Olympics, with adoption fees currently waived though October 31st, many people were literally lining up to adopt pets. When I was finally waved behind the front desk to meet my new charges for the first time, Becky, an adoption counselor at BARCS, discovered that one of the kittens, a runt who was already doing poorly, had already passed away. Although I was sad, I was somewhat relieved that it happened at the shelter and NOT when I was home!

That said, as I drove home with the three remaining kittens, I told myself that I needed to brace myself and be realistic about things.  With kittens this young, and with no mother cat to care for them, I could lose one, I could lose several, I could lose them all. Their paperwork said they were born on July 31st, making them only 4 days old. I wasn’t even sure they were able to nurse from their mother for a day or two before they were separated from her, but I certainly hoped so, because the colostrum that they would have received would give them antibodies and provide passive immunity to help ward off infection before their own immune systems developed.

I got home and set the Sweet Angels up in my home office. I heated up a “Snuggle Safe” disk in the microwave and inserted it under a layer of bedding in their carrier; kittens this young cannot yet regulate their body temperature and so must be kept warm (a heating pad set on low can also be used). I mixed up some kitten formula and prepared a bottle and went to attempt my first feeding.

I had never bottle fed kittens this tiny before. My only other experience fostering bottle babies was last spring, when I fostered four 3-week-old kittens who continued to take the bottle for another week and a half before they transitioned to solid food. But these? These babies were astoundingly small, to me at least—they could easily fit in the palm of my hand. They looked like little hamsters, not baby cats!

Thankfully, one of the kittens, a male orange tabby, took the bottle fabulously. His sister, a dark tortoiseshell and the only female remaining, also fed from the bottle competently, although not as well as her big brother. Unfortunately the last kitten, another smaller orange male tabby, refused to take the bottle. I was able to get a small amount of formula into him using an oral medication syringe, but his intake didn’t compare at all with that of his siblings. So I helped everyone “potty” (newborn kittens must be stimulated to go to the bathroom—a cotton ball moistened with warm water is used to gently stroke the genital region, simulating a mother cat’s tongue) and put everyone back to bed.

The rest of the day and the following day were fraught with worry. As much a I tried, I couldn’t get the littlest kitten to eat, and he seemed to be “fading” (“fading kitten syndrome” is a common affliction in young kittens in which a kitten fails to nurse properly, becomes chilled and lethargic, and dies). I tried keeping him warm; I placed him in my shirt and then placed a heating pad over me for extra heat. I gave him small doses of sugar water to keep his blood sugar up. I was hoping that he would perk up in time, but as adorable and snuggly as he was, he showed no interest in eating.

Then the other orange tabby, the one who was nursing like a pro in the beginning, began fading as well. First I noticed that he just didn’t take in as much at one feeding (I had them on an every-three-hours feeding schedule), and I hoped it was just a fluke. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, and he became more lethargic and then stopped taking the bottle entirely.

Sunday night I made a decision to initiate tube feeding in the two boys who wouldn’t feed. I learned tube feeding from a vet last year when my very first foster kittens stopped nursing from their mother because they were so sick from upper respiratory infections. Tube feeding can be a life-saving measure, but it MUST be demonstrated first by a vet or another experienced person. Thankfully the vet last year demonstrated first for me and then allowed me to try on the second kitten in front of her (I’m definitely the kind of person who learns more by DOING than seeing).

I had ordered all the equipment early this year, so why not use it? I figured that if I tube-fed the tiny newborn kittens, they still might not make it; they still might die. But this much I did know: If I could not get any food into them, then they DEFINITELY would die.

I’d never tube-fed kittens this tiny, but I found it to be no more difficult than it had been on 10-day-old kittens. I was surprised, however, at what a fight the tiniest kitten put up! Each feeding went like this: I would first offer him the bottle, and this most miniature of felines would screw his little face up and seal his mouth tight, as if I had just offered him the most foul-smelling medicine. Then I would prepare the feeding tube and syringe and place him on a towel on the loveseat and steady him to insert the tube. Not only did he once again screw up his face and seal his lips tight, but his tiny little paws came up and pushed away my hand and the tube with such fury! Such strength and determination for such a little thing! I hoped that his vigor alone meant that he would somehow pull through. I dubbed him “Rock Star.”

Meanwhile, the biggest kitten continued to spiral downward. Tube feeding him was a breeze, if only because he seemed so sleepy and lethargic all the time. He barely stirred when I inserted the tube, and I swear he fell right back to sleep as I slowly depressed the plunger on the syringe attached to the catheter. Then when I was finished, I helped him potty and I stroked him all over, and kissed his little head. I told him that if he somehow pulled through, I would make it SO worth his while. Then I put him back in the carrier.

I named him “Hercules.” I hoped that if I gave him a mighty name then he would somehow have to survive.

Unfortunately, fate had other ideas, because on Tuesday afternoon, when I went in to check on everybody, I found that Hercules had died, perhaps only moments before. His tiny body was still warm.

Dismayed, but not exactly shocked, I busied myself with doing all I could to make sure that the remaining two kittens survived. Frankly at this point little Rock Star was so small and thin that I was amazed he was still alive. In spite of the tube feeding, he failed to gain weight and he trailed behind his sister, who thankfully was still feeding from the bottle. (This little girl was my only beacon by this time, so I named her—what else— Hope.)

On Wednesday I brought Hope and Rock Star to BARCS because suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps Rock Star and Hercules failed to thrive because they had worms. Most kittens are dewormed when they first arrive at BARCS, but somehow these weren’t, perhaps because they were so tiny and young. So I rushed them to BARCS, hoping that a simple dewormer might turn things around for little Rock Star, shown below.

The tech first came to me with good news: They had tested Rock Star for feline panleukopenia (an absolutely dreadful, fatal, and very contagious disease) and the test was negative. However, they were still concerned about his tiny size and his lethargy. She said the vet would be examining him soon.

When she came out the second time, she had the carrier containing Hope in one hand and Rock Star bundled up in a towel in the other. She said the vet believed his prognosis was very poor. She said that Rock Star had a head tilt, and the vet suspected he had a neurological condition. He didn’t believe a dewormer would make a difference, as the problem did not seem parasitic in nature. They recommended that he be put to sleep.

Nobody ever wants to hear this, but as little Rock Star had been doing so poorly, I can’t say that I was surprised. Somehow it feels harder to say goodbye to a little one than to find one already gone unexpectedly, however, so I won’t lie: I started crying, right there in the BARCS lobby. People gave me sympathetic looks; the woman sitting next to me rubbed my shoulder. Then the tech gave the little bundle to me so I could say goodbye to my littlest foster. I kissed his teeny head, told him I loved him, and wished him safe travels on his journey to the other side.

Sad, huh? Unfortunately these things happen sometimes, especially where very young kittens are concerned. Foster-land is not without its sorrows and its tears, but it also has its ups, its rewards, its victories, and vast quantities of hope… and that’s where the last of the Sweet Angels comes in.

It has now been almost a week since I lost Hercules and Rock Star, but Hope? Hope continues to thrive! She is hungry at EVERY feeding, she takes the bottle without any problems… You should see her when she latches on and nurses from the bottle. She rests on on her stomach, nestled on my lap, and her little ears wiggle furiously as she suckles! Sometimes her tail wags, too!

Hope is steadily gaining weight every day, as a growing kitten should. She is an adorable little thing, the sole survivor of her litter, and she is a beauty to behold, with her dark fur, tan-colored markings, and tiny “jellybean” toes. Her eyes haven’t even opened yet; she will be 2 weeks old on Tuesday, August 14th, so they should be opening ANY day now! I’m told that the first time you go in for a feeding and see your tiny foster gazing at you with new eyes is an experience you won’t soon forget!

My only concern with Hope is that she is all alone, and kittens need buddies! She shares her carrier with a couple stuffed animals, but I’m hoping that more bottle babies will come into BARCS soon who are close in age so that, if healthy, they might join her and give her the feline companionship that she craves.

It is always sad to lose a life, even if you know you did everything you could to save them and even if you went into the experience knowing that it was a real possibility. That said, the lives that you DO save definitely make it all worth it. Little Rock Star and Hercules perhaps were not meant for this world, but Hope is something of a miracle baby to me, and I look forward to each and every feeding… well, maybe not the one that has me getting up in the middle of the night! I can’t wait to see her develop and grow and thrive and play and—one day—be adopted into a wonderful home.

They say that you can’t save them all, and yes, this is very true. But to me, one life saved is better than none.

And you know what? I think Hope would agree.  :)