During my time as a foster home for kittens, I often got a telephone call 24 hours or less before my newest foster kittens would be delivered. I worked with a rescue that often saved kittens literally minutes before euthanasia time at crowded municipal shelters, so short notice was the status quo as a foster Mom. Having spent nearly a year on the foster list already, I didn’t think much of it when I got a phone call telling me three kittens, four and a half weeks old, were in need of placement and could be picked up the same afternoon in a particular Petsmart parking lot.
I expected the usual: A dirty, scraggly, slightly underweight batch of mewing kittens upset at being separated from Momma and stuffed into a carrier, who would gain weight and confidence within a few days of coming home with me and starting on a weaning formula mixed with dry kitten food. What I got was something I don’t think any foster pawrent is ever completely prepared for. The carrier had, as advertised, three very young kittens inside, but one was fading quickly.
Mint, as I named him during the brief time he was with me, was unable to stand when I brought him home. I rushed him to a veterinarian, but despite aggressive treatment with IV fluids and nutrients he died within the day. I mourned, but all of us involved in the rescue operation assumed the litter hadn’t been properly nourished after their mother died suddenly in the shelter three weeks after their birth.
Mint was presumed to be a casualty of dehydration and malnutrition, all too common in overburdened shelters ill-prepared to care for orphans. Sadly, sometimes the kindest thing is to euthanize puppies and kittens if they are orphaned in shelters, but sometimes suffering happens because shelter workers can neither care for them properly nor bring themselves to put such tiny babies on the euthanasia list.
Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that Mint’s death wasn’t to be an isolated tragedy. Of a litter of nine, I had agreed to foster three kittens. After the loss of Mint, there remained a grey tabby, Monster, and a black kitten, General Mao, as well as six kittens in the other foster home. Within hours of Mint’s passing, I got a phone call telling me that another kitten had died, despite the other foster pawrent’s best efforts as well as those of a vet.
We thought the worst was over. The remaining kittens were only slightly underweight, and ate and drank well. I talked General Mao, the smaller and weaker of the two, into taking a bottle, and Monster immediately staked out a place near the top of the household pecking order. My dog shamelessly took her orders without question, up to and including sharing his food and treats. The only two pets who wouldn’t accept Monster’s dominance were my hairless rats, who gave her a few memorable nips on the paws before she learned to keep them out of the rats’ cages.
Two weeks later, Monster and Mao were gaining weight well and becoming confident and playful. Then came another phone call from my foster coordinator. A third kitten was dead, and this time an x-ray had been performed when it was rushed to the vet. Fluid in the abdomen was shown on the radiograph. As a result, the veterinarian suspected FIP, a contagious coronavirus to which all the kittens could have been exposed in the shelter, and for which no completely reliable test exists. I was warned that the vet expected the entire litter to become ill and die.
The news was both encouraging and discouraging. I learned that FIP can, in rare cases, be treated for months or years, but is almost always eventually fatal, and most often is fatal within a few weeks of the onset of symptoms. I also learned that FIP is frequently misdiagnosed, because an organ biopsy is the only reliable way to avoid false positives during testing. I also found out that of the two forms of FIP, the one my foster kittens were most likely to develop was the wet form, which progresses quickly and is always fatal.
With this information in hand, I made the difficult decision to take temporary ownership of both kittens in order to secure the power to make veterinary decisions for them and to take them to my own veterinarian. She was as baffled as everyone involved in the rescue, and agreed that FIP was a possibility, but agreed to treat the kittens’ symptoms until and unless they became so ill that euthanasia was a necessity. My vet also suggested that prenatal trauma like a kick to the mother’s belly could be to blame for the sudden deaths of seemingly healthy kittens. After examining General Mao, my vet prescribed a dewormer, given daily to both kittens for 14 days. This aggressive treatment, despite a negative fecal test for parasites, was a shot in the dark.
Amazingly, it hit its target. The kittens might have turned the corner for reasons unrelated to the Fenbendazole prescribed to them, but within 48 hours of the first dose, General Mao produced her first healthy feces in several days. Both kittens resumed gaining weight. Meanwhile, two more kittens in the other foster home died suddenly. Of nine kittens, there were only three remaining: Monster, General Mao, and one other kitten. We knew we weren’t out of the woods yet, but for the first time since the FIP diagnosis, I had hope.
After their exciting recovery, Monster and Mao never looked back. They continued to grow normally, and their distinct personalities developed. General Mao, the smaller and more submissive of the two, was continually causing trouble. She couldn’t overpower Monster with size, but used strategy to win many of their fights, hiding behind couches and under beds to ambush Monster or my dog. Monster, on the other hand, was unabashedly demanding. She parked herself on the nearest lap whenever she pleased, took the dog’s treats right out of his mouth, and carefully positioned herself on my computer keyboard any time she felt I was doing too much typing and too little petting.
Finally, after three months, we decided that the danger had truly passed. Appointments were made for Monster and General Mao to be spayed. They made it through surgery with flying colors, and were bouncing around the house immediately. Then, the next big hurdle arose: How could two kittens diagnosed with a fatal condition be adopted out? FIP can be carried with no symptoms for up to two years in some cases. Monster and Mao, as well as their surviving sister, had few options: Live as only cats with full disclosure of their diagnosis, or go to a shelter with a ‘sick room’ to live there permanently with cats diagnosed with conditions like FIV or Feline Leukemia. If they were adopted out as healthy kittens or to a multi-cat home, the rescue’s reputation could be in danger if they became ill or transmitted the disease to other cats.
Monster and General Mao had survived only to be put between a rock and a hard place once again, or so it seemed. However, after so many nights lying awake wondering if the kittens would live to adulthood, I’d grown attached, particularly to Monster. Similarly, a frequent visitor to our home, my significant other’s brother, had become fond of General Mao.
In the end, the decision was easy. Even though it meant a two-year hiatus from fostering to ensure that no FIP viruses are incubating in Monster’s body, I couldn’t let her go. My foster coordinator agreed to let her stay with me permanently. General Mao went to live with the brother who’d become so smitten with her, and is as spoiled as a cat can be. There’s one other cat in the household, an adult with existing FIP antibodies, which means he’s fairly safe from any possible contagion.
And, as you can see, Monster still rules the roost here– but she’s not so tiny anymore: