DOWNTOWN — This year's "Kitten Season" has started early and is expected to fill Chicago shelters to the brim.
Kitten Season, when cats tend to give birth, typically runs from early spring until early fall, said Allison Tarr, the foster and adoption coordinator at the Critical Animal Relief Foundation. The group, which helps rescue and adopt out pets in Chicago, has already seen stray or abandoned kittens and pregnant cats coming in.
Almost "every female cat that's outside is going to come in pregnant at this time of year, unfortunately," Tarr said. "We're already seeing a ton of them."
PAWS Chicago, a no-kill shelter based in Lincoln Park, is expecting to bring in hundreds of cats and kittens in coming months. This year there could be even more than usual because the warm winter means Kitten Season started early, said Stacy Price, PAWS' director of Animal Operations.
"It's actually something that we kind of prepare for all year," Price said. "It's overwhelming, to say the least, the amount of kittens that come in."
PAWS has about 50 cats and kittens already, Price said, and the group expects to see that at least doubled by the height of Kitten Season. In all, PAWS took in 1,281 kittens March to September in 2015 and 1,127 over the same period in 2016.
Many of the cats PAWS and the Critical Animal Relief Foundation help come from Chicago Animal Care and Control. Others are relinquished.
What's best for the animals can vary, Price said: Some people bring in kittens without bringing in their mother cats, even if the kittens are too young to fend for themselves. Those kittens need to be fed specially and can suffer from health problems because they can't drink from their mom and may grow up with socialization issues.
But people should also consider if the cats appear to be in danger if not taken in, Price said. Ideally, people should help care for kittens without separating them from their mother.
"The best thing to do, of course, is going to be if they're able to foster them for that two-week period," Price said. "The best thing to do is to be able to keep kittens with their mom."
Those who don't bring in mother cats (and dads) can present another problem: It means that cat can have another litter. Cats give birth just 60 days after conception, Price said, so they can have multiple litters just in one Kitten Season.
Kittens and cats already filling shelters:
Video courtesy Critical Animal Relief Foundation
To prevent feral cats from having more kittens, PAWS offers low-cost spay and neuter surgeries, and Tree House can help people learn about trap, neuter/spay and return services for feral cats.
"If they know a cat that needs to be spayed or neutered, we'd love to help with that," Tarr said. "Ultimately, there's too many kittens that are still being born."
Prepping for Kitten Season can take months — or all year, as at PAWS.
Tarr said the Critical Animal Relief Foundation started lining up potential foster families for kittens and cats and gathering supplies before the season started.
PAWS also tries to get their cats and kittens into foster homes, asking the people who bring them in if they can care for them for several weeks, Price said.
"It's a little bit of work on their end, but it's high reward," Price said.
PAWS even tries to adopt out its adult cats with a "big push" during the winter, knowing they'll get less attention than kittens from animal lovers during Kitten Season, Price said.
Shelters also seek donations of food, supplies and money to prepare for the influx of cats. The Critical Animal Relief Foundation has an online wishlist of items people can buy to help, and supporters can make one-time or recurring donations to PAWS online.
Animal Control hosts free workshops to teach people how to feed the youngest of kittens — called "bottle babies" — when they're fostering. The next one starts 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Animal Control, 2741 S. Western Ave.