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Kids and kittens: Middle school students learn veterinary science by caring for cats

Lesson plan includes a crash course in disease, vaccines and good hygiene
Nico keeps an eye on Colton Cheese, 14, as he does his school work Thursday during his veterinary science class at Escalante Middle School. The class is raising four kittens. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Students in teacher Lu Boren’s veterinary science class at Escalante Middle School have been tasked with a great responsibility: Keeping four kittens safe and healthy as they grow enough to become eligible for adoption.

The kittens under the class’ care are the second litter Boren has ever introduced to her veterinary science class. The first litter was hosted in the first quarter of this school year. It started as a community service, Boren said Thursday. The kittens came from La Plata County Humane Society, and that’s where they’ll return for adoption when they grow to weigh at least 2 pounds.

Colleen Dunning, local Humane Society foster coordinator, said in an email that fostering is essential for the Humane Society.

“They (the students) are learning the essential role that fosters play in animal welfare while learning the basics of animal care,” she said.

Boren’s lesson plan has expanded since the first litter of kittens. This semester, students are helping their science teacher give the kittens vaccinations and dewormers that will help protect them from potentially life-threatening diseases, she said.

On Thursday, students finished the last of three presentations about the diseases the shots will protect the kittens from. The group presentation focused on feline panleukopenia virus, or feline distemper.

Feline distemper is also an easily transmissible, life-threatening virus that primarily affects kittens 2 to 6 months old. Luckily for Boren’s litter of approximately 7-week-old kittens, they have already been vaccinated.

A kitten gets weighed on Thursday as part of a veterinary science class at Escalante Middle School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Transmission of the virus that causes feline distemper occurs through contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids, the students explained. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, fever, rough hair, depression and neurological issues.

Boren asked the class how people can tell if a cat is depressed. After discussion, students settled on a lack of interest in food and sad or lethargic behavior.

The treatments for a kitten sick with feline distemper are hospitalization, isolation and the restoration of body fluids to improve the kitten’s electrolyte balance, students said. The best prevention for keeping a kitten safe is relatively simple: vaccination and good hygiene.

Students weigh the kittens each time they come to class to track their growth. Boren has the students make predictions about the kittens’ projected growth and then later record their observations.

The kittens are being weaned off their mother, Nani, who hasn’t accompanied her litter for the last two veterinary science classes.

Juliana McKown, 13, left, and Aubrey Bleth, 13, do school work on Thursday in their veterinary science class as one of the four kittens the class is raising walks around the table at Escalante Middle School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Where is Nani now? She is living with one of Boren’s students, Makenna Bard. Bard is fostering the mother cat until she can be spayed at the Humane Society. After that, Bard said, she hopes to adopt the cat permanently – if she and her mom can convince her dad.

This isn’t Bard’s first time working with felines. She temporarily took Boren’s last batch of kittens home over Christmas break and watched the current batch over a recent three-day weekend.

“I volunteered with the Humane Society with my older sister when I was younger,” she said. “I fell in love with the last batch of kittens, so I became an official foster for the Humane Society.”

Bard said she’s always loved animals and wants to become a veterinarian some day. She’s also had her sights set on being in Boren’s veterinary science class for years.

“Vet science is very fun, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to foster the kittens,” she said. “And I want to thank Ms. Boren.”

Jazlynn Smart, 14, and Reid Ruecker, 13, weigh one of the four kittens their veterinary science class is caring for at Escalante Middle School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Boren shares Bard’s enthusiasm for veterinary science. She said it is one of her favorite classes to teach. Boren, who has a biology and farming background, said she loves learning about animals and taking care of them.

“It’s one of the most popular classes in the school,” she said. “Adding these (kittens) to it has just been a blast.”

Sue McGovern, a special paraeducator, works with students in the Affirmative Education program. She said play time with the kittens motivates some of her students to focus on their school work. For one boy, having a kitten to comfort helped him socialize with other students.

“We’ll walk down the hall and he’s in charge of that kitten,” she said. “He’ll let everyone pet it. That’s helped him feel more comfortable being in the halls when other kids are out there.”

cburney@durangoherald.com

The veterinary science class at Escalante Middle School is temporarily raising four kittens from the La Plata County Humane Society. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
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