The Sad Side of Fostering in Henderson


by:  Diane Soukup

I was so excited to be entrusted with caring for three new eight-week-old foster kittens which had been caught by a trapping team in a Las Vegas mobile home park and taken to the vet to be spayed and vaccinated. The trapper showed up with a covered cage on a Saturday night before I left for work, and we gently pushed the hissing threesome into the kitten playpen I use for my tiny fosters. They were given a fresh litter box, some dry food and water, a comfy bed, and some toys, and I headed off to work, knowing they would need time to decompress before I thought about handling them.

By Monday, I thought I was making progress. One of the little ones had an eye infection, and she was actually letting me pick her up and apply the medication to the affected eye. 

She still hissed at me, but I could pick her up, wrap her in a dish towel, and she would settle down. I named her Burrito because she seemed to like being wrapped up.

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But on Tuesday morning, Burrito looked sick. Her medium-length gray tiger coat looked ungroomed. The infected eye was goopy. Her gums were pale. She was listless. She wasn’t hissing at me when I would reach for her. I didn’t see her eating or drinking. I tried some corn syrup in a syringe on her gums and a few milliliters of subcutaneous fluids carefully injected in her scruff to no avail: Burrito died in my arms.

I was devastated. I had never lost a kitten before – not one of my own, nor a foster. I had had to put down older cats in my life but never had a kitten die. I had been in contact with the trapper and the head of my rescue organization daily since receiving the kittens and had been communicating with them more frequently when I realized Burrito was ill. The decision was made to have the trapper pick up the two surviving kittens to be checked by a veterinarian to see if they had any underlying diseases. At 10 p.m. the same night, I got the news: The kittens had feline leukemia, a contagious illness in unvaccinated cats and kittens who is spread through saliva, blood, urine, and feces.

It was decided the kittens would return to me the next morning. My resident cats are not in direct contact with my fosters, do not share food, water, or litter with them, and are vaccinated, so the transmission risk is very low, almost nil. I named the two survivors Salsa and Wasabi – Salsa being the less spicy, less hissy one of the two.

By the weekend, I noticed Wasabi was developing an eye infection, just like poor Burrito had. I let my rescue and the trapper know of this change and started applying the antibiotic I had on hand to the affected eye. On Monday, I could see he was worsening. He wasn’t hissing and running from me when I reached into the playpen. He wasn’t eating or drinking. I took him to the rescue’s veterinarian and, after 3-1/2 hours of waiting, received more antibiotics for the eye infection, one for any systemic infection he might have, and an immune system booster to help combat the effects of feline leukemia.

Twenty-four hours later, Wasabi was gone. The same virus which had killed his sister Burrito killed him, too.

What is feline leukemia (FeLV)? According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, it is a retrovirus which affects approximately three percent of all cats in the United States. In humans, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is also a retrovirus, so it may help to understand them by comparing them. Like HIV, FeLV can be transmitted from a mother cat to her kittens via her milk, from an infected cat to an uninfected cat via body fluids such as blood and saliva, and it can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. Unlike HIV, there is a vaccine to prevent FeLV, but it can only be given to uninfected kittens and cats. Unfortunately, like HIV, there is no cure for feline leukemia.

Fortunately, FeLV is cat-specific; the dogs in my home are not at risk, nor are the humans.

Because they had feline leukemia, Burrito and Wasabi were susceptible to other infections and illnesses like anemia and stomatitis. The eye infections both kittens had were evidence of this susceptibility. In hindsight, the antibiotics were probably not going to help, like putting a Band- Aid on an amputated limb.

Today, Salsa is doing well. She is getting the immune system supplement which had been provided to Wasabi (with the vet’s okay). I keep a close eye on her, watching for any signs or symptoms such as listlessness, eye discharge which could indicate an infection, lack of appetite, and decreased urine or feces in her litter box. Salsa could be the lucky one who survives; sadly, according to, her expected lifespan will be about three years – a healthy domestic cat will live between 13 and 17 years, on average.

Salsa should have another test in six weeks or so to see if the virus is still in her system. If it is, she will need to have a home where she can’t spread the virus to other cats or kittens and must be kept indoors. The ideal Henderson home will be one with other FeLV-positive cats, so she will have kitty companions to interact with.

Losing these two kittens in a week’s time has left me grieving and angry. Grieving because these babies didn’t survive even with so many people’s best efforts: The trapper, the veterinarians, everyone in the rescue who arranged and paid for them to be spayed, vaccinated, and ultimately placed in foster care. Angry because the adult cats in the mobile home community weren’t spayed or neutered. The mother cat probably had feline leukemia and passed it to the kittens; it seems like the most logical mode of transmission.

The final lessons in all this are simple: Spay and neuter your animals – it’s the law in Henderson. Have your new kittens or cats tested and vaccinated for diseases like feline leukemia so they can lead long, healthy lives. And support your local rescue organizations who work so hard, sometimes with the saddest of outcomes, to save as many kittens and cats as possible.

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