how i get it done

How I Get It Done: Hannah Shaw, the Kitten Lady

Hannah Shaw, AKA
Hannah Shaw, AKA “The Kitten Lady.” Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Three years ago, Hannah Shaw was … well, Hannah Shaw. Now, after leaving her consulting job to work with cats full-time, she’s better known as the Kitten Lady, a professional kitten rescuer and educator. Her impact on the world of cat fostering is remarkable: Shaw has made more than 100 YouTube videos about caring for rescue kittens, taught workshops around the world, amassed nearly 1 million followers on Instagram, and started a grant program to give money to foster-related organizations. Most recently, she wrote the definitive how-to guide to caring for newborn kittens, Tiny But Mighty, and the forthcoming children’s book, Kitten Lady’s Big Book of Little Kittens. She lives in San Diego with her partner, Andrew Marttila, a cat photographer, and a rotating crew of foster kittens. Here’s how she gets it done.

On her morning routine:
I have multiple mornings because I wake up every couple hours overnight for feedings. Typically around midnight, I wake up, prep bottles, feed the babies, help everybody go potty, clean them up, and then immediately go back to sleep. For my actual morning, I usually wake up around 7 a.m., and again attend to my kittens. I’m usually fostering anywhere between 5 and 12 kittens at a time. I have two nurseries in my home: one for neonatal kittens and another for older kittens. Because the younger kittens need the most frequent and specialized care, I start with them. I do a feeding, check incubators and blankets, and make sure that areas are nice and clean. Then, I help the kittens go potty, and I weigh everybody and write down their weight. Once I’ve gotten all of that on my monitoring sheet, I go into the socialization room, which is for bigger kittens who are weaned — so, five weeks and older. These kittens eat and go potty on their own, so in there, I scoop litter, say hi to everyone, get fresh food and water, and make sure that everybody’s looking okay.

After that, I’ll usually go downstairs and open my laptop to get to work. My day is always broken up with kitten care: Once I feed everyone, the clock starts ticking toward to the next feeding. This morning, I actually did feed myself breakfast, even though I’m not a big breakfast person. I typically eat a huge meal later in the day — I’m talking a meal for seven people around 3 p.m.

On explaining her job to people: 
If somebody asks me what I do, I usually just say, “I work in animal welfare,” or now I can say, “I’m an author.” When somebody asks me to tell them more, though, I have to take a deep breath. I’ll say that I specialize in kittens, and that I create educational resources about how shelters can run and participate in programs that save the lives of vulnerable kittens. That’s when people will ask, “is that a job?” It’s definitely one person’s job: my job. Then people want to know how to get that job, and I have to tell them that you can’t apply for it on the internet. This job happened organically for me, and I’m very grateful for that. I think that I have a really unique passion, and I live and breathe this work.

On leaving a stable job to pursue her dreams:
Several years ago, I left a job that was really toxic for me and went into animal consulting. It was during this time, about three years ago, that I met my fiancé, Andrew, who also has a really weird job: He’s a cat photographer. I remember thinking at the time, How is that a job?

Andrew told me that he fully believed I could make kitten welfare into a full-time job. So, while still at my consulting job, I did this 26-page survey of more than 1,000 people and asked them about their experiences fostering, and one of the things I found was that the majority of animal shelters weren’t giving out any written information to kitten foster parents. This told me that I needed to create a training document that shelters can use, so I spent those couple months of my trial period looking for a sponsor to help with the printing and shipping of a 12-page booklet I wrote. What I found was that when you give people these resources, they want them! The requests just kept coming from shelters that wanted the booklet, and then they wanted me to come train them, and on and on.

On handling endless questions from concerned kitten owners:
In the beginning, I felt like I had a responsibility to be available to every person individually, but I now know that would burn me out so quickly. Now, I try to use all the requests from worried kitten fosters as inspiration to do something that will make a larger impact. For instance, if I’m seeing lots of people who want me to talk to them about panleukopenia, I don’t spend the next 24 hours responding to 200-some messages. Instead, I’ll make a video about panleukopenia. I wish I could take on every single kitten that needs me, but I just can’t do all of that. But I do genuinely hope that people can feel my desire to help them.

On how she decompresses from work:
I take a bubble bath almost every single night. I also like to have something to look forward to that’s not animal related, so I always try to have something on my schedule — especially traveling. Andrew and I try to do at least one big international trip every year because it helps me remember that the world is huge, and that there’s a lot more going on than what’s happening in my kitchen nursery. On a more regular basis, I love being in nature, so I try to go to the beach or go hiking when I can. When you get involved in this work and realize how great the need is, unless you literally put your own care on your to-do list, it’s very easy for it to fall to the wayside.

On coping with grief: 
If I lose a kitten, which fortunately does not happen very often — we did lose a kitten about a month ago, though, which was very upsetting — I let myself feel all my emotions for 24 hours. Crying is healthy. Screaming is healthy — whatever you need to do to have that cathartic release. Then, after I get that out of my system, I propel right into some kind of action, like learning more about the disease that the kitten had. I’ve been able to save a lot of kittens as a result of researching diseases that killed kittens in years prior. I can see the faces of the kittens that I’ve lost in the kittens that I can now save.

On travel:
This might sound silly, but having a little bit of loyalty to your airline and hotel chain goes a long way! I’m able to get upgrades and collect points and miles and whatnot. When you travel a lot, you want the comfort of knowing what to expect going in and out of an airport. I travel probably once a week, and every time I go to the airport, I go to this one Thai restaurant that has these really good tofu spring rolls. As soon as I set foot through TSA, I start craving those. My body is like, This is just what we do. Also, charge your laptop before you get on the plane!

On winding down at the end of the day:
After I have my bubble bath, when Andrew and I are ready to go to bed, we watch Netflix — a lot of Seinfeld, but we’re currently watching Stranger Things. We also often have one kitten who’s a little older or a singleton come sleep with us.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How I Get It Done: Hannah Shaw, the Kitten Lady