Small kitten sleeping on a person’s hand

Key takeaway

While raising a new litter of kittens is exciting, it can also be full of ups and downs. One significant pitfall is having to face fading kitten syndrome. This umbrella term encompasses different conditions that can cause a kitten’s health to deteriorate. There are several ways to keep kittens healthy and ensure their health doesn’t worsen.

Caring for and raising newborn kittens is no easy task. After all, it requires patience and time. However, despite how much effort you put into taking care of them, some kittens won’t ever make it to adulthood. This is because they’re more susceptible to death during their first week of life and after weaning. 

Kittens that pass away between their birth and up until they’re weaned are commonly known as fading kittens.1 The phenomenon of kittens suddenly passing away during this time is referred to as fading kitten syndrome and affects up to 30 percent of kittens.2 Fading kitten syndrome also refers to a kitten’s inability to thrive as they grow.

FDS affects up to 30% of kittens

Although the condition is most often fatal, knowing the warning signs and how to properly care for your kitten can reduce the risk of this unfortunate outcome. Read on to learn more about fading kitten syndrome, including its causes, symptoms, and treatment options. You can also use the links below to get started. 

What is Fading Kitten Syndrome?

Fading Kitten Syndrome is an umbrella term for otherwise healthy kittens that suddenly become ill or pass away. While it’s not a disease, this can occur to any breed of cat and to kittens with or without mothers. The fading kitten syndrome age ranges from newborns to weaned felines, which generally happens around six weeks after birth.

There are many causes that can lead to a kitten’s health rapidly declining or crashing. In many cases, it’s caused by one or more factors, such as hypothermia (low body temperature), low blood sugar, infections, inherited illnesses, and maternal neglect. The likelihood of a kitten recovering from fading kitten syndrome is low.

Potential Causes of Fading Kitten Syndrome

Fading kitten syndrome can be caused by several factors, making it difficult to determine the exact cause. That said, a few potential causes include:

  • Feline panleukopenia3
  • Genetic diseases
  • Hypothermia4
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • Trouble during birth
  • Parasites
  • Infections (bacterial or viral)
  • Malformations
  • Low birth weight
  • Trauma
  • Maternal neglect

Oftentimes, veterinarians must speculate on why a cat may have fading kitten syndrome. Vets will do what they can to identify the underlying condition that’s causing their health to decline and administer treatment in an effort to save them. However, diagnoses must be made early to manage and stabilize their condition before it’s too late.

Potential Causes of Fading Kitten Syndrome

Symptoms of Fading Kitten Syndrome

Symptoms of declining health will vary from kitten to kitten and depend on the source of the problem. In certain cases, signs of fading kitten syndrome can be challenging to spot since they’re very subtle. We’ve listed a few common symptoms of declining health in kittens to help tell if a newborn kitten is dying. 

Low body temperature 

Kittens that feel cool or cold to the touch, especially in their limbs, may be experiencing hypothermia. A low body temperature of anything less than 99 degrees Fahrenheit is concerning.5 This can cause blood flow to decrease and kittens to become unresponsive.  Aim to keep kittens at their ideal temperature, which is 100 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit.6 

Lethargy

While it’s normal for newborn kittens to sleep a lot, it’s not healthy for developing kittens to be unable to stand or not respond to human touch. Lethargy (excessive sluggishness) can indicate that a kitten’s blood sugar is falling.   

Difficulty breathing

Exaggerated and/or mouth-open breathing in kittens means that they’re having a hard time breathing, thus limiting their ability to receive a sufficient amount of oxygen. 

Vocalization

While you may hear an occasional meow from kittens, loud, pained cries7 can be a sign that something is causing discomfort or pain. This shouldn’t be ignored, especially if it’s accompanied by other symptoms.

Kitten being fed formula with a bottle

Unable to suckle as normal

Suckling is essential for a kitten to receive the necessary nutrients from its mother’s breast milk. Fading kittens are often too weak to hold on to the nipple and nurse correctly. If you notice that a kitten is having a hard time sucking, consider bottle feeding with a high-quality kitten milk replacement formula. A veterinarian can help you choose the best one for newborn kittens.

Fading kittens are often too weak to nurse correctly

Discharge from the nose or eyes

Discharge from the nose or eyes can be a sign that an infection is brewing within your kitten’s body. This can be accompanied by sneezing and stem from bacteria or viruses. Make sure to keep a kitten’s space clean and sanitized to prevent them from picking up illness. Keep in mind that some eye-watering in cats is normal and often is not a cause for concern.

Inability to gain weight

As the weeks go by, your kitten should be gaining a minimum of three to four ounces per week.8 To keep an accurate record of their weight gain, weigh them at the same time every day. If you notice that their weight is remaining steady or they’re losing weight, contact your veterinarian. 

Diarrhea

Diarrhea can cause dehydration in kittens and prevent crucial nutrients from being absorbed. It can also be an indication of underlying issues, such as bacterial infections, colitis, or parasites. 

Preventing Fading Kitten Syndrome

Unfortunately, there’s no way to prevent fading kitten syndrome, and it’s often fatal. However, there are various steps you can take to minimize a kitten’s risk, including monitoring their overall health. Here are a few things to keep a watchful eye on:

  • Weight: Kittens should be gaining half an ounce every day.9 If the kitten weighs less than the rest of the litter by a significant amount or is losing weight instead, it’s a good idea to check in with your veterinarian. 
  • Bathroom schedule: Ensure that newborn and recently weaned kittens are urinating and passing stools every day. You may also want to note the color and consistency of their stool. 
  • Hydration: Water intake is incredibly important to minimizing the risk of dehydration and ensuring the kitten can flush out waste.
  • Food consumption: Kittens need to eat in order to receive the necessary nutrients for growth. If kittens are being bottle-fed, they should receive eight milliliters of formula per ounce of body weight per day.10 

When your kitten is born, a veterinarian can provide you with a list of crucial milestones your cat must meet in order to ensure they’re developing correctly. Not meeting the recommended milestones can indicate that there’s an underlying condition inhibiting their ability to grow. Further, if you notice any changes in your kitten’s behavior or health, seek help from your veterinarian right away. 

How to Help Fading Kitten Syndrome11

It’s essential to take action immediately once a kitten starts presenting symptoms of a fading kitten. Not doing so can be fatal for young cats. Use the tips below to provide care to kittens:

Ensure the kitten is in a clean, safe environment

A clean and safe environment prevents harmful bacteria and viruses from festering in the area where sensitive kittens are sleeping, playing, and eating. Cleaning up and making their space as safe as possible can allow them to feel more comfortable and promote good health.

Two kittens under blankets

Get the kitten warm

To keep a kitten warm, wrap them ina blanket or towel, leaving only their face exposed. You can also place a warmed-up water bottle under a towel or blanket for them to snuggle up to. Keeping a kitten warm is especially important since they can’t adequately warm themselves and a single towel or blanket may not be enough. However, don’t put any heating products directly on your kitten’s skin to prevent burns. Also, avoid removing them from their covering until you can confirm that they’re warm enough. 

Raise your kitten’s blood sugar

If the kitten appears weak and lethargic, it can be an indication of low blood sugar. Safe ingredients you can give kittens to raise their blood sugar include:

  • Honey 
  • Warm sugar water
  • Karo corn syrup 
  • Nutrical 

Make sure to provide them with small amounts of sugary substances every three minutes. If the kitten is unable to swallow, you can rub the sweet food mentioned on their gums and tongue. 

See your vet once the kitten is stable

One of the most important things you can do for your kitten is take them to the vet as soon as you notice symptoms.. 

Note that it can take hours for kittens to start feeling better and behaving normally. Despite following the emergency protocols above closely, a kitten may still not recover from fading kitten syndrome. 

Fading Kitten Syndrome: Frequently Asked Questions

Raising kittens is an exciting time. However, it can also be a time of worry. While we can’t tell you if your kittens will reach adulthood, we can answer frequently asked questions regarding fading kitten syndrome to ensure you’re prepared. 

What are the signs of fading kitten syndrome?

Signs of fading kitten syndrome will depend on what’s causing a kitten’s health to decline. In many cases, the symptoms and signs of an ill kitten include:

  • Low body temperature 
  • Lethargy
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Vocalization
  • Inability to suckle
  • Eye or nose discharge
  • Lack of weight gain 
  • Diarrhea 

How do you treat fading kitten syndrome?

Because fading kitten syndrome isn’t a disease, it can be challenging to pinpoint the cause of a kitten’s health issue. Ultimately, knowing why a kitten is sick is vital to administering treatment. That said, there are a few things you can do to help fading kittens, including:

  • Ensuring they’re in a clean and safe environment 
  • Providing warmth 
  • Raising their blood sugar
  • Seeing your vet as soon as possible

Does fading kitten syndrome go away?

Unfortunately, fading kitten syndrome won’t go away without intervention and can be fatal when left to progress. 

At what age does fading kitten syndrome occur?

Fading kitten syndrome typically occurs anytime from birth until a kitten is weaned from their mother.  

Final Notes

On many occasions, and despite your best efforts to stabilize the condition, fading kittens may still pass away. If you’re concerned about your newborn kitten’s ability to reach adulthood, don’t hesitate to speak with a licensed veterinary professional. A vet can provide you with key signs to watch out for and guidelines for taking care of newborn kittens. 

At Dutch, our priority is to ensure your kitten receives the appropriate care and treatments for a happy and healthy life. While we can’t assist with fading kitten syndrome, we’re proud to help you with other conditions, including cat skin conditions, cat anxiety, and behavioral problems.

References

  1. Small Animal Neonatology: They Look Normal When They Are Born and Then They Die, World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2006, https://www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?pId=11223&id=3859263&print=1

  2. Small Animal Neonatology: They Look Normal When They Are Born and Then They Die

  3. Feline Panleukopenia, Merck Vet Manual, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/generalized-conditions/feline-panleukopenia/feline-panleukopenia

  4. Fading Kitten Emergency Protocol, Jax Humane, https://www.jaxhumane.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Fading-Kitten-Emergency-Protocol_EDITED.pdf 

  5. Fading Kitten Emergency Protocol, Jax Humane

  6. “Bottle Feeding Kittens.” Best Friends Animal Society, https://resources.bestfriends.org/article/bottle-feeding-kittens.
  7. Fading Kitten Emergency Protocol, Jax Humane