Vet school students care for kittens

by Allison Wickler

For the past three weeks, first-year veterinary student Ashley Barott has taken her two six-week-olds to school each day.

“I feed them in between classes,” she said. “They get to play in the locker room.”

But Barott, like several other veterinary students, isn’t talking about her children – well, in a sense, she is.

As a member and co-coordinator of the University’s Orphan Kitten Project, a group of veterinary students that fosters very young, orphaned kittens until they are healthy enough to be adopted, Barott is currently caring for two kittens.

“Basically, we’re just mama kitty,” she said.

First-year veterinary student Jessie Pogatchnik, another co-coordinator, said the group receives the two-to-three-week-old kittens through the foster-parent program at the newly merged Humane Society in the Twin Cities area.

The kittens are often malnourished, plagued with upper-respiratory viruses or have parasites, she said.

As part of regular care, Barott said the foster parent has to feed the kittens every two to three hours at first, which can be too time-consuming for Humane Society workers.

The foster parents keep the kittens until they reach about two pounds, which can take two months, and then give them back to the Humane Society, which finds them permanent adoptive parents.

Barott said the Humane Society provides medication to treat the conditions, but sometimes students have to consult doctors on campus for help with complicated problems.

While the project is a great practical learning tool, she said, it is difficult to be constantly on alert for the kittens’ needs.

“It’s like having a baby,” she said, “but you can put them in a cage.”

Breanna Walton, foster coordinator for the newly merged Humane Society said the Orphan Kitten Project is the only group of its kind she has worked with in this area.

She said it’s nice that the group trains its own members, and can take anywhere from 20 to 30 kitten litters each summer.

“They’re a tremendous help,” she said.

Though kittens sometimes come in during the winter, the group starts getting kittens in larger numbers in April, said former coordinator and second-year veterinary student Jessie Clark.

They’ll get most of the kittens during June and July, she said.

Third-year veterinary student Jenny Clementson, another former coordinator, said she joined the project to learn more about pediatric animal care, something she’ll use in her veterinary career.

She recalls working with as many as 80 kittens per year when she was involved.

But it’s not all fun and games.

Clark said the Humane Society brought back a pregnant refugee cat after helping with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts last year.

Group members ended up caring for the entire litter when they were born, she said.

However, Clark said all but one kitten from that litter died.

The mortality rate can be as high as 30 to 40 percent, she said, depending on the kittens’ conditions and how much time they spent with their mothers before being separated.

Clark said that as veterinarians they’ll have to detach themselves from their patients. She doesn’t name the kittens for fear of getting attached.

However, she and other students have found a solution to that problem – Clark’s parents permanently adopted two of the foster kittens, while Clementson also adopted two.

“That whole ‘getting attached’ thing – sometimes you can keep them without keeping them,” Clark said.