On a cool evening in late September, Barbara Crawford sits cross-legged on a bed at her house in Laurel, MD, talking to the four tiny kittens in a basket next to her. She’s just finished cleaning the 10-day-old kittens with baby wipes, and now it’s meal time—one of about five per day. Kittens at this age typically eat eight times per day, Crawford says, but she found that these kittens weren’t hungry that often.

She starts with a tuxedo-patterned cat whose paws are no bigger than Crawford’s fingernails. He fits in the palm of her hand, like each of his siblings do. His ears are still folded a bit, and his eyes are almost completely open, but not quite.

The other kittens squirm around, murmuring high-pitched meows. This is what healthy kittens do, Crawford says, wiggle and meow.

A landscaper brought this litter to Montgomery County Animal Services and Adoption Center (MCASAC) after he found them in the back of his truck. The county agency then called on Crawford to care for the kittens: One is orange, another is an orange polydactyl (which means he has extra toes), and the other is a gray tabby who also is a polydactyl.

Meanwhile, Crawford is also fostering four other kittens: 6-week-old Esme and Ines, and 10-week-old Noodles and Doodles, who are just about ready to get spayed or neutered, and then put up for adoption.

“This is my joy,” she says. “I am a nurturer.”

Kitten fosters like Crawford are critical to saving cats’ lives. During spring and summer, when most litters are born, animal shelters see an influx of kittens. People find them alone outside and conclude—often mistakenly—that they are orphaned, and bring them to a shelter. But because neonatal kittens (under 4 weeks old) require round-the-clock care, most shelters lack the resources to care for them. Sadly, many die as a result. But change is afoot. Some progressive shelters are now implementing kitten foster programs, based on Alley Cat Allies’ Wait Until 8 model, which empower people to care for kittens until they’re 8 weeks old. That’s when they can be spayed or neutered, and put up for adoption.

Crawford has cared for more neonatal kittens than any other foster at the Montgomery County shelter—more than 65 since 2015. These tiny kittens can’t eat, regulate their body temperatures, bathe, or even relieve themselves on their own. Fosters like Crawford help them by doing everything a mother cat would: feeding them regularly, keeping them warm, cleaning them, and stimulating them to do their business.

“She’s really had a lot of success with raising our most vulnerable kittens that come to the shelter,” says Joanne Heller, foster and rescue coordinator for MCASAC. “You give them to Barb, and they’re fat and happy in no time.”

Developing a System

Crawford has caring for neonatal kittens down to a science. She carefully tracks how much each one eats at every feeding. She records their names, weights, and birth dates. She also feeds them in the same order, so no one gets accidentally overlooked, even “at 3 a.m. when your brain is fried,” she says. Plus, she has devised a setup that allows her to care for multiple litters at once—the maximum number of kittens she’s had was eight.

Her kittens initially live in her bedroom. They stay in a carrier that has a felted wool nest and a heating disc that keeps warm for eight hours, because kittens can’t regulate their own body temperature until about 4 weeks old. Around that age, they start to move around, and Crawford moves them into a larger playpen. When they get too big for that, they’re given a large, multilevel cat crate in the bedroom, and get supervised playtime outside of the crate. At about 7 to 9 weeks old, they complete necessary vaccinations and can then socialize with the adult cats in the rest of the house.

That’s where Crawford’s husband comes in: He helps to socialize the kittens by playing with them and getting them used to human contact. At that point, kittens don’t require as much care as bottle babies. Still, the neonatal kittens are Crawford’s favorites because they need her the most.

“That’s the kind of thing that I thrive on,” she says.

Could You Be a Kitten Foster?

Every community needs residents like Crawford to step up and foster neonatal kittens. One of the biggest commitments is feeding, says Crawford. Neonatal kittens need to be bottle-fed every two to six hours, depending on their age. This means getting up in the night to feed them, and fitting it in during work hours.

Feeding kittens during the day is easiest for someone who tends to be home, but it’s not impossible for people who aren’t. Flexibility is key. Crawford has her own pet sitting business, so she can work around the kittens’ feeding schedule. She also notes that neonatal kittens can be brought to an office setting if permitted because they spend all their time in a small carrier.

As for expenses, some shelter programs, including the one Crawford is involved with, provide supplies such as food and litter to fosters. But Crawford buys her preferred brand of kitten formula and products like baby wipes.

Purrs and Snuggles

After Crawford feeds each kitten, she nuzzles her face against them and talks to them. She expertly gets them to eat slowly from a syringe, rubs a cloth on their bottoms to get them to relieve themselves, and grooms them with a toothbrush that feels just like mom’s tongue. An hour later, she’s done and is getting ready to pick up a lone kitten, number 26 of the year, who animal services asked her to take.

That’s just fine with Crawford, because caring for kittens simply makes her happy.

“At a certain point, I’m their whole world,” she says. “As soon as they see me, they all start to purr and they all come running for me.”

That affection is her favorite part of fostering. “To me,” she says, “the best sound in the world is a kitten’s purr.”