AMSTERDAM - Three weeks ago, Merlot, a mixed breed mother cat with tiger stripes, was living in the attic of a house with 14 cats and kittens.
After Merlot and her six-kitten litter were brought to the Montgomery County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter on Route 5S, officials investigated the home she came from, shelter Manager Debi Crandall said. They found that some of the cats and kittens tested positive for feline leukemia, a highly contagious incurable disease that can cause immune deficiency, cancer and blood disorders.
None of the cats were spayed or neutered and some had to be euthanized after the feline leukemia spread among the kittens that nursed from infected mothers.
The Leader-Herald/ Amanda Whistle
Barbara Wood is shown in her home in Hagaman on April 25 with a mother cat and kittens she is fostering for the Montgomery County Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
After Merlot tested negative for the virus, she got a second chance.
Today, Merlot lives with her kittens in a second-floor room in a foster home through the MCSPCA Emma's Hope Foster Care Program, which was initiated last fall.
The program is named after Emma Hope, a pup who was abandoned last spring and found with a shattered leg in a makeshift cast. Her leg was later amputated.
MCSPCA Board of Directors member and Program Coordinator Chris Fura took Emma Hope into her home with the intention to foster and socialize the pup, but chose to adopt the Australian cattle dog.
"She [Emma] got a second chance and we get so many animals," Fura said. "We want them to have a second chance too."
Fura said the shelter is at full capacity now - with the warm weather comes an influx of mother cats and kittens - and in need of volunteers. Only about five people have volunteered to be foster pet parents since the fall.
The shelter provides food, medical needs, cages, blankets and litter to people fostering the animals.
Fura said ideally someone interested in fostering a mother cat and kittens should have a spare room for the animals.
Once the kittens are ready to be adopted, they can return to the shelter.
Fura said people who are retired or perhaps can't commit to adopting a long-term pet are perfect for the job.
"Many animals need to be taught a home life," she said. "Maybe someone can't afford a dog but they can potty train one and acclimate one."
The shelter can house about 10 or 12 dogs at once.
"We have a good turnover though - especially with kittens," she said.
Barbara Wood has three dogs and four cats in her Hagaman home now, but that didn't stop her from fostering Merlot and her six kittens.
The cats live in her computer room and she said it's not a hassle to care for them.
"It's nothing," she said as the kittens crawled on her lap and played with one another in her home Sunday. "It takes less than a half hour to come and feed them and clean their litter box. The mom takes care of everything else."
Wood said she hated to see baby animals in a shelter.
"They need a home situation," she said. "They'll only be here a short time so they won't take anything away from my other pets."
Crandall said foster volunteers are needed more for socialization and training needs than the shelter's space constraints.
With the foster program, stray and abused animals get one-on-one specialized attention, giving them a better chance at socialization, Crandall said.
"We have a lot of dogs that are behaviorally challenged and not easily adopted out," she said.
She stressed that people who take on the commitment need to realize the responsibility.
"One thing I'd like to impress is that this is not just free dog or cat watching," Crandall said. "I'd like to see it used [to help] behavioral or health issues. We need people to invest in the animal. When they take one, they need to do their homework on the commitment."
Crandall said orphaned kittens could be the greatest challenge.
Crandall herself fostered three orphaned kittens that seemed healthy, lived for about three weeks, but died one by one.
"Sometimes they live and sometimes they don't," she said. "When people take on a commitment like that, it can be heartbreaking because they think it's something they did wrong."
Sometimes orphaned kittens are too young or weak to be tested for diseases and can't be cared for by another lactating mom for precautionary reasons. Crandall said some people have luck with orphaned kittens, but many times it's impossible to know if the mother had a disease that was passed to the kittens.
"I really hope we can get people on board, but people need to do their homework and know what they're getting into," Crandall said.
Fura said the MCSPCA officials are working on putting together a handbook that would include what to expect, tips and journal pages for foster families.
Fura said the program is not limited to Montgomery County.