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How Kittens Go From Clueless to Cute | Deep look

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Fluffy kittens chasing a ball are beyond adorable -- but they sure aren't born that way. Practically deaf and blind, in their first few weeks they need constant warmth and milk to survive. This is a huge challenge for animal shelters, so they're working with researchers on ways to help motherless kittens flourish.

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DEEP LOOK is a ultra-HD (4K) short video series created by KQED San Francisco and presented by PBS Digital Studios. See the unseen at the very edge of our visible world. Get a new perspective on our place in the universe and meet extraordinary new friends. Explore big scientific mysteries by going incredibly small.


Every year, hundreds of thousands of kittens end up in animal shelters, in need of permanent homes.

But raising orphaned newborns into healthy, fluffy, frisky two-month-olds ready to be adopted requires an enormous behind-the-scenes effort. All across the country, volunteer foster parents log many sleepless nights bottle-feeding kittens every few hours. So researchers and shelters are trying to figure out ways to make it easier.

“A lot of people think fostering is taking kittens home and playing with them,” said Penny Dougherty, chief executive director of Kitten Central of Placer County, an animal shelter she runs from her house in Newcastle, California, 30 miles northeast of Sacramento.

Kitten Central receives most of its kittens from Placer County Animal Services. Dougherty cares for kittens up to one month old, as well as feral and stray cats with litters. Once the kittens weigh at least two pounds and have been spayed and neutered, she returns them to the agency so they can put them up for adoption.

“They’re very happy to have our services,” said Dougherty, “because so many shelters have to euthanize.”

When the days start getting longer, around January, cats start breeding. March is the beginning of what’s known among shelters as “kitten season.” The flow of kittens doesn’t slow down until November.

“Kitten season is kind of one of the banes of shelter existence,” said Cynthia Delany, supervising shelter veterinarian at Yolo County Animal Services, in Woodland, west of Sacramento. “Six or seven months out of the year we’re just flooded with these little guys.”

To steer clear of inundating shelters with newborn kittens, Delany’s advice is to leave any litters you might encounter alone unless they’re in immediate danger. Most of the time their mom will return, she said, so check back periodically.

In an effort to lessen the load on foster parents and increase newborn kittens’ chances of survival, Mikel Maria Delgado, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, is joining forces with Kitten Central and other animal shelters to figure out if there are optimum temperature and humidity levels that make it possible to feed newborn kittens less frequently. She has distributed incubators to the groups so that two or three kittens can be kept in each one for about three weeks.

---How long do kittens' eyes stay closed?
During the first week-and-a-half of their lives, kittens’ eyes are sealed closed and their ears are folded up, making them practically blind and deaf. They’re born this way because their brains aren’t developed enough to use those senses.

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If you find a litter of newborn kittens:

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