April 23

It happened

“It’s going to happen. It’s just statistics. If you foster long enough, you’re going to lose one and it won’t be your fault. And you can’t beat yourself up about it. Kittens are fragile and so tiny that we can’t see heart defects, congenital abnormalities or even viruses. Sometimes even with 24 hr/day vet care, they just die and there’s nothing we can do. You need to be prepared for this.” These wise words were said to me four years ago by Kristen, the former animal care manager at PAWS Chicago. I have thought about them every time I have carried each of our 84 fosters (about half dogs/puppies and half cats/kittens) down the steps and out the door of the medical center. We’ve had close calls with a 4 wk old kitten coming down with PanLeuk and others who struggled to eat or had serious Upper Respiratory Infections. We’ve had dogs with Pneumonia, tumors and serious cases of Canine Influenza but all made recoveries. Until this morning.

Little Vern was my special project because he was several ounces smaller than his two sisters. I’m a sucker for the little ones and those who struggle. While his sisters were learning to walk, Vern was curled up next to his mom or would lie on my calves when I sat on the floor of the bathroom where they were staying. He didn’t have an interest in nursing as much as the others. But we coaxed him to try several times a day and he was gaining weight at a good pace. Then it suddenly changed. Over the weekend, all of the kittens stopped gaining weight. We began syringe feeding them with KMR, Kitten Milk Replacement, per the PAWS Chicago protocol and arranged an appointment for the litter and mom to be seen at the first appointment this morning. Vern and his siblings were responding to the KMR and he was active last night when I gave him what would become his last meal.

Finding his lifeless 12.7 ounce body this morning shattered me. I heard Kristen’s words over and over but they were no consolation. The vet speculated that it was pneumonia because the kittens were too small to have had that vaccination yet. The foster coordinator said that he was a prime example of “failure to thrive.” Another kitten had recently died after two days of round-the-clock care at the medical center when her foster noticed the same pattern we were seeing with Vern. “There was no way to prevent this,” they told me.

The vets determined that momma Veronica had a fever, had gotten dehydrated and stopped producing milk. They put the remaining two kittens on antibiotics and gave them appetite stimulants. Veronica got some extra fluids and meds and I brought them home. But the playful, energetic kittens of yesterday were clearly still sick. Despite syringe feeding, the little tortoise-colored kitten Velma cried all afternoon. When I put her in the litter box, wondering if she needed to eliminate, she collapsed in a heap. I picked her up and she regained her footing but it was clear that these animals needed additional medical care. Bill drove them back to the PAWS Chicago medical center where they are under care as I write.

Fostering has been one of the great joys of my life and partnering with PAWS Chicago has made it even better. They said all of the right things and tried to hug away my tears. Kristen was right. Statistically it was bound to happen but that doesn’t make it any less devastating. I love these animals so deeply that I looked forward every morning to checking on them and showering them with affection. Even though our own foster fail Kip has stayed by my side all day, I will miss putting the kittens and Veronica to bed tonight and hearing Veronica’s purr. I know we did everything we could. We were on it. Nevertheless there’s a 12.7 ounce piece of my heart that broke today.