Few things make you feel more helpless than a sick kitten, especially a struggling newborn. Sadly, when fading kitten syndrome strikes, that’s exactly how you feel – helpless.
When all goes well, a mother cat (queen) giving birth is a special experience for everyone. But sometimes that elation turns to despair, when the newborn kitten fails to thrive. But what is fading kitten syndrome and why does it happen?
What is a fading kitten?
The definition of a fading kitten is a newborn that appears healthy at birth, but fails to thrive as expected. Fading kitten syndrome is not a specific disease, instead it refers to a variety of symptoms or signs that cause a rapid decline in a kitten’s health.
Some kittens struggle in the first two weeks of life, whereas other kittens initially seem to do well but then fade after two weeks. Sometimes a fading kitten is Mother Nature’s way of preventing faulty genetic codes being passed onto future generations. These kittens pass and often there is nothing we can do about.
In other cases, such as a mother with no milk, noticing early fading symptoms is an opportunity to nurse the kitten and increase their chance of survival. Early intervention by an astute human caregiver can be the difference between life and death for a fading kitten.
What causes fading kitten syndrome?
Many kittens that fade in the first two weeks are caused by ‘maternal’ factors. This can be anything from birthing difficulties or the mother not producing enough milk.
For example, a prolonged and difficult birth can cause distress and deprive the kitten’s brain of vital oxygen. This can compromise their health and lead to difficulty nursing, weakness, and further decline.
Kittens are incredibly dependant on their mother for survival. In a large litter, if the mother cat doesn’t produce enough milk, the less strong kittens can’t compete. They’re then on a slippery slide where they become even weaker and less able to fight for room at the milk bar.
Likewise the mother with poor nursing instincts, who leaves her kittens to get cold or refuses to let them feed, places her offspring at risk of hypothermia or malnutrition.
Kittens that struggle after two weeks of age may have come down with an infection which their immature immune system cannot cope with. Common infections include respiratory viruses (such as feline herpesvirus and calicivirus), bacterial infections, and severe intestinal parasite or flea infestations.
Signs of fading kitten syndrome
Two signs to be alert for are; 1) failure to gain weight and 2) lack of activity. Both of these you can monitor.
It’s a good idea to weigh newborn kittens daily, to check for steady weight gain. If one kitten falls behind the others, or loses weight rather than gain, then monitor them closely.
Likewise, take time to watch and observe the behaviour of the entire litter.
- Is there a kitten that’s always left out or is last to feed?
- Is there a kitten that sleeps away from the others?
- Is there a kitten that the mother ignores and doesn’t wash?
Identifying these more vulnerable kittens is important, as you must watch their progress more closely.
Also, keep a close eye on the mother cat. If she seems unwell or is reluctant to let the kittens feed, she may need help. Conditions such as an inflamed womb or mastitis do occur in cats and will make the mother sick. Helping the mother is key to helping the kittens.
The primary signs to watch for in kittens include:
- Poor appetite – kittens with fading kitten syndrome often have difficulty latching onto the mother’s teats to suckle or are disinterested in bottle feeding.
- Small size and failure to gain weight – they often have a very low birth weight and are smaller than their littermates, or even experience weight loss.
- Seeking comfort and warmth – they may have a low body temperature, feel cooler to the touch, shiver or seek to snuggle with warm objects or their pet parents to keep warm.
- Being unusually quiet – fading kittens often lack energy and may appear weak, tired and less active or vocal than their littermates.
- Sleeping away from the rest of the litter – they may prefer to sleep alone, away from more active and boisterous siblings.
- Slow in reaching development milestones – they may be slower to open their eyes, move around, or in their general coordination.
How to treat a fading kitten
First, get the mother and kittens checked by a vet. Veterinary advice is essential when dealing with a fading kitten. They can assess the underlying causes, provide appropriate medication and advice to raise the kitten’s blood sugar and guide you on supplementary feeding.
Keep the kitten warm
A fading kitten will struggle to regulate their body temperature, so it’s crucial that you provide some warmth. Here are some options:
- Place a heating pad on a low setting or warm water bottle wrapped in a towel near where the kitten sleeps.
- Create a cosy, comfortable sleeping area with blankets, towels or a pet bed where the kitten can snuggle and keep warm.
- Use a heat lamp a safe distance from the kitten’s bed.
- Keep the room temperature at a comfortable level (24C or 75F) in the room where the kitten sleeps.
- Use your body heat to warm a fading kitten making sure to support their head and neck as you hold them.
Raise your kitten’s blood sugar
A kitten who is lethargic and weak will usually have low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) which requires immediate action.
Sugar water can help boost blood sugar levels in fading kittens.
- Mix one part sugar with four parts warm water until the sugar is dissolved.
- Gently put a few drops of the sugar water on the kitten’s gums or under its tongue using a dropper or syringe. Do not squirt the liquid into the back of their throat which can cause choking.
- Ensure the kitten swallows the sugar water and monitor the response. You want to see the kitten become more alert or responsive.
- Repeat the process every 10 to 15 minutes if there are no signs of improvement, but avoid overfeeding.
Sugar water can help, these but kittens require specialised care. It is important that you seek professional veterinary advice and treatment as soon as possible.
If the fading kitten is able to nurse naturally, you can place the kitten on the mother’s nipple and watch over them while they feed. Make sure the bigger, more assertive kittens don’t knock the weaker kitten aside.
It the kitten is unable to latch on and nurse then it may be necessary to hand raise the kitten or supplement feeds from the mother using kitten milk replacer which provides the necessary nutrients for growth and development.
Just like baby formula, milk replacement formula for kittens needs to be warmed to the right temperature (usually recommended as 38C / 100F) and feed using a syringe or nursing bottle.
Hygiene is everything. Make sure you wash your hands before and after handling the kitten. Ensure that all feeding equipment is clean and sterilised, just as you would for a human baby.
Be sure you understand all that’s required when hand-rearing kittens. This includes wiping the area under their tail to stimulate urination and defecation, as the kitten won’t do this for themselves.
You should also weigh the kitten daily, so you can monitor how they’re doing.
Preventing fading kitten syndrome
Whilst you may not be able to prevent fading kitten syndrome, you can make it less likely.
A healthy mother
This starts with the mother, before she gets pregnant. Make sure the mother cat is in good health and is vaccinated, treated against parasites, and dewormed. Don’t forget, any fleas she has before pregnancy will be passed onto her kittens. Fleas are not just irritants; they suck blood and can lead to severe anaemia in vulnerable young kittens.
Vaccinate to protect mother and kittens
Protecting the mother with annual vaccinations against feline panleukopenia, feline calicivirus, and feline herpesvirus also protects her kittens. Kittens receive antibodies through the colostrum in their mother’s milk, which provides immunity against common respiratory viruses linked to fading kitten syndrome.
Make sure the mother has a good diet, rich in protein, minerals and vitamins. But avoid overfeeding as being overweight can increase the risk of birthing complications. Prolonged or difficult labour can compromise a kitten’s health.
Maintaining good hygiene when kittens are born can help prevent fading kitten syndrome. It is advisable to wipe the new-born’s navel with a dilute disinfectant (use a veterinary recommended product). This helps prevent bacteria tracking up the umbilicus and entering the abdomen which could lead to infection.
Temperature controlled environment
Take care of the environment where the litter is raised. Make sure the temperature is stable and warm enough (but not too hot). When kittens are warm, they have a good appetite and nurse more frequently and effectively. Adequate milk is crucial for their growth, immune system development, and well-being.
A clean home
Regular surface cleaning and vacuuming is also important particularly in areas where the kittens spend their time, to reduce the risk of illness. Since a kitten’s immune system is extremely weak, they are vulnerable to infection.
And last but not least, reduce stress on the kittens. Make sure the mother has a calm, secluded nest area so that she’s relaxed. The more relaxed she is, the better it is for the kittens.
Fading kitten syndrome is a heartbreaking condition but there are steps we can take to minimise the risk, improve survival rates and help newborn kittens grow healthy and strong.