Did What: In 2005, Cat Adoption Team trained their first foster parent to administer at-home vaccines to their foster kittens. As of May 2020, CAT’s fosters have collectively administered nearly 22,524 vaccines to 15,652 cats and kittens.
Kristi Brooks, CAT’s Director of Operations, explains their training and processes, and details the incredible impact the program has had on their organization.
ASPCApro: Are there any special requirements for fosters who administer vaccines? Do they need professional veterinary experience?
Brooks: To become approved to administer vaccines, foster parents must attend a vaccine and sub-q clinic training. In this training they learn about proper storage of vaccines, how to mix the vaccine, how to change needles, proper location to administer vaccine, what to do if they “shoot through” (to keep the animal safe and to know if enough vaccine has been administered), and proper disposal. They also learn how to administer sub-q fluids for kittens and adults. They do not have to have professional experience. Once they finish training, we offer two options for supervised practice. They can either administer the vaccines with their own foster kittens while being supervised by their mentor or come into the shelter and perform preventative care on cats and kittens while being supervised by staff or mentors here. Once they have demonstrated that they can safely transport, mix, administer, and dispose of the vaccine and all other items, they are approved to administer vaccines on their own.
ASPCApro: What is your protocol for handling and disposing of sharps?
Brooks: Foster parents learn to change a needle between drawing up and administering the vaccine. Once they are finished with a needle, they deposit them into a sharps container. For us, that can be an official one that you buy off the internet or they can just use an old, cleaned jar (with a lid). Most of our fosters use the recycled container option. They then bring it to the shelter when it’s full and we dump them into our official sharps containers. But each shelter should come up with a plan that they are comfortable with and can administer efficiently.
ASPCApro: What impact has this program had on your animals, staff, and fosters?
Brooks: One of the most significant impacts has been on feline health. Since implementing this program, we’ve seen a big reduction in illness. We all have learned that each time you move a cat, it creates stress for them, and stress can cause illness. By keeping the cats and kittens in foster care where they are relaxed and thriving, we reduce that risk.
For the volunteers, this program shows that they are valued and trusted. They appreciate that we share knowledge and train them to become mini vet assistants. They are more engaged and enthusiastic, and in turn, and stay with us much longer. Everyone wants to feel engaged, valued, and trusted!
By far the biggest impact has been for the staff. By having a foster mentor program in place, almost all of the foster calls that used to go to the shelter (foster coordinator, shelter staff, medical staff) now go to volunteers who can help them. All of that time has freed up staff who are already busy taking care of the animals on site. No matter how well you are staffed during kitten season, it gets hectic! Why not have trusted, trained volunteers help you out and relieve some of that pressure so you can continue to do lifesaving work without burning out your staff?
ASPCApro: What hurdles did your organization have to overcome in getting this program off the ground?
Brooks: Our first hurdle was trust. This can be very scary for a veterinarian to consider if they don’t have a good understanding of what is happening in foster care or aren’t confident that this process could be done successfully. At the same time, if you have a vet on your team, you often have a better chance at starting a program like this. They can be involved in the initial trainings, see the program in action, attend meetings if they wish, etc. That builds trust in the trainings. Of course, you do need to have a plan in place if someone doesn’t follow the rules or fails at the training. You will need to be honest and open with volunteers about what is and isn’t acceptable so that everyone understands the expectations and no one can say they didn’t know about a protocol.
The second hurdle is planning good training. We have been doing in-person clinics, but now we are considering whether we could do this remotely or not. Smaller classes of about 6-8 people tend to work best so people can easily see what is going on and ask questions. If you get more than that, we find that some people will ask a lot of questions and others will stay quiet.
Our last hurdle comes anytime we hire a new veterinarian to our team. Whether they come in as the medical director or another staff veterinarian, we’ve found that it’s important to make sure that they understand how the program works and that they are comfortable with the process before they decide to join our team. This program is very successful, and we want everyone on board and excited about it from the beginning.
ASPCApro: What words of encouragement do you have for shelters who may be interested in or hesitant to start a similar program?
Brooks: Sometimes you just have to pilot a program and go for it with a few trusted volunteers. I love this because if you pilot it and it doesn’t work for you, you can always stop. But, when it does work for you (and it will!), you can train more people until all of your foster volunteers are skilled and can vaccinate all your foster animals at home!