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What I learned about cats, cuteness and compassion by fostering kittens

A 7-week-old kitten contemplates life.
A 7-week-old kitten contemplates life.
Joanne Eglash

I volunteered to foster kittens because I lost my beloved cat. And although I still had one cat (whom I renamed Queen Bee), my house and my heart felt empty. I wasn't ready to adopt a new cat, and I thought volunteering would be a way to help me heal as well as help in a much-needed area. What I didn't know: How much I would learn about the world of cats, compassion and uber-cuteness.

Here's what I discovered:

I had been worried about my own cat after her playmate suddenly vanished from her view. She continued to look for him day and night, chirping in all the places where he slept, checking under couches and the bed to see if she could find him. It may sound absurd, but practicing a certain type of meditation and visualizing her helped both of us. It's called compassion meditation, and I learned about it in "10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story" (click for details).

In it, author Dan Harris talks about various techniques of meditation, and how they helped him. Among them: Compassion meditation, which involves visualizing people (or pets) and sending certain positive thoughts, such as "May you be happy." I began to do this each night, including Queen Bee Cat and, later, when I received my first foster kitten, the kitten. It brought peace and calmness to my stressed-out brain, and that seemed to spread to the animals.

Fostering might sound like fun (and it is), but there's also a lot of work involved. Example: Wiping kitten derrieres, prying open tiny kitten mouths for medication and waking up at 2 a.m. to prepare stinky mixes of kitten food. But I also learned some tricks and got help with finding the right tools and techniques. For brushing soft kitten fur, I'm a fan of Le Salon Essentials Combo Brush - Small. And because you may need to bathe the kitten, depending on from whence he came, get a gentle brand formulated for kitties with sensitive skin, such as Hagen Le Salon Cat Shampoo, Gentle.

An embarrassing symptom that you're a kitten foster: Finding yourself singing "My Favorite Things," with extra emphasis on "whiskers on kittens," when you're in the grocery store (people turn, raise their eyebrows and laugh). Secret pleasure: Watching "The Sound of Music" while running around waving a ribbon in the air for your kitten to chase. He'll just purr when you sing, no matter how badly you wreck the harmonies.

Forging a relationship between your own cat and a foster kitten requires the diplomacy of Henry Kissinger and the sweet charm of Jennifer Aniston. The right toys help too. I invested in some new ones to distract Queen Bee Cat from the fact that a tiny bouncing ball of furry energy had invaded her empire. Their favorites: