Fosters and rescuers are always the first ones to take the force of the blow when it comes to coping with troubles caused by irresponsible breeders and owners. Countless litters of kittens and puppies end up in their hands every spring, and it’s their job to do whatever is possible to take care of them. One of the most common nightmares for all rescuers is the fading kitten syndrome.
Yes, it is as obscure as it sounds. Fading kitten syndrome can be caused by so many factors it’s hard to even make a list. Most of those factors are, of course, not known to the caregiver because they don’t know the mother’s disease history; sometimes they don’t even see the mother. Someone just left a box full of meows.
As every foster or caregiver knows, the survival rate depends on many factors and can’t be determined precisely. Although fading kitten syndrome might also occur in house litters where all possible care is already provided, it is much more common, almost unavoidable, in feral litters. This is why it’s very important to stay diligent and keep daily track of any changes in the kittens’ behavior.
This article is written with the intention to help every caretaker out there. We will list and discuss the fading kitten syndrome symptoms, and possible ways to treat them. We will also provide information on fading kitten syndrome care, both at home and at the vet’s.
Common Causes of the Fading Kitten Syndrome
The term fading kitten syndrome is not telling you much to begin with. It was coined by the caretakers to describe a common phenomenon that happens in cat litters, but also puppy litters. It covers a lot of ground and can have numerous causes.
The outcome of this condition varies from full recovery to death, depending on the background of the litter and the mother’s condition.
So what hides behind this gloomy sounding phrase? A lot of things, actually. We will try to cover the most common factors that may result in fading kitten syndrome.
Some of these are just impossible to know or prevent, but there are things you can do to make sure your kittens are not at additional risk.
#1: The Mother’s Health and Background
In many cases, you as a caretaker will have no idea about where the kittens came from. However, if you’re fostering for a shelter, try to get all possible info about the mother, because this will help you connect the dots and react quickly.
#2: The Mother’s Age
Very young queens giving birth for the first time might be in a lot of pain. The kitten might even get stuck in the birth canal, forcing the new mom to take desperate measures and try to pull it out with her teeth. This can lead to micro wounds on the kitten, which then cause infections and complications.
If someone was not there to help immediately, the newborn kitten can only depend on its fragile immune system to fight off the infection.
It is also often the case that new mothers don’t know how to take care of their babies and give their litter poor care. Such kittens can be malnourished and exposed to elements from the very start, which is a lot to fight with.
On the other hand, there is a much higher rate of kittens with congenital defects if the mother is an older cat. These defects can affect the respiratory system, cardiovascular system, or the digestive system. Unfortunately, there is not much one can do when this happens.
#3: The Mother’s General Health
A very important factor which often remains a mystery. Medical conditions such as obesity or malnourishment are common causes of congenital distress in kittens. What did the mother eat? What kind of water did she drink during the pregnancy? Did she have to hunt or was she confined to a small space?
Diseases such as FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) and FeLV (feline leukemia) are very common in roaming cats. While the mother can live a relatively long life with the virus, kittens are often condemned to a very short life.
Parasites, both internal and external, can play a huge role in the offsprings’ health. Some parasites act as vectors, meaning that they transmit diseases from host to host without being affected themselves. Such diseases can cause developmental defects in the womb, even if the disease is not lethal for the mother.
Some breeds have well-known problems with a high mortality rate of kittens. Luckily, most of those problems are well researched and known by now.
For example, many popular breeds suffer from a high risk of neonatal isoerythrolysis, hence experiencing fading kitten syndrome more often. This condition is caused by incompatibility between the mother’s and kitten’s blood type.
Domestic cats have three blood types: A, B, and AB. A is the most common type, and AB is very rare. However, type B blood has high levels of antibodies against type A, and to some extent, type AB. What does this mean for the mother-kitten relationship?
Mothers with type B blood basically kill their own kittens with a different blood type. It’s all fine while the kitten is in the womb, but the moment it sucks the first milk (called “colostrum,” which is full of antibodies from the mother), the kitten’s immune system is under attack. The kitten becomes anemic and has a very slim chance of survival.
Some of the breeds known to have B type blood are Persian, Somali, Birman, Devon Rex, Abyssinian, and British Shorthair. If you are about to foster kittens from a known purebred mother, this is an important issue to discuss with the vet. Make sure to find out everything you can before the kittens drink the first milk.
#5: Litter Related Issues
There are a few litter related issues that may cause fading kitten syndrome. The first one is the number of kittens in the litter. Too many kittens may lead to malnourishment even before birth, if the mother was struggling for food or was provided with poor quality food.
It can also be the case that she simply doesn’t produce enough milk for a big litter. This is very often the case and is very easy to solve with supplemental feeding.
The second issue can crop up with a kitten who is the runt of the litter. Kittens who are born underweight, or as we call them, runts, are almost always suffering from the fading kitten syndrome. However, that doesn’t mean they are doomed.
Depending on the reason behind their “runtiness,” you might be able to nurse them back to health with great success. These kittens should always be taken to the vet as soon as possible to get a diagnosis. From there, you’ll know what the odds are and what kind of care to focus on.
In any case, it’s important to know that kittens are usually born weighing between 90 and 100 g. They gain 10-15 g per day and should double their birth weight by day 10-14. Weighing kittens every day will give you a pretty good picture of their development.
#6: External Conditions
Unsanitary conditions are bad for kittens. By unsanitary conditions, we don’t mean keeping the litter in a dirty old shed. While colostrum received from the mother protects the babies from common bacteria and viruses, humans can bring in a lot of different risk factors that are not “familiar” to the mother’s immune system.
Make sure to wash your hands every time before you handle the kittens. Keep the litter away from busy areas, especially the hallways and other places where you keep shoes and other clothing you wear outside.
Also, make sure to change the blankets and pads daily. Bacteria multiply at an insanely fast pace, which can lead to tragedies. Wash their accessories with an odorless antiseptic detergent and rinse thoroughly, twice if possible. Don’t use fabric softener or any sort of unnecessary chemicals.
Oils, ash, chemicals, and similar are easily absorbed into a fragile and young organism, so keep the air fresheners, scented candles, and common house cleaning products away from the area where kittens reside. While those everyday house items are harmless to adults, they can be a death sentence to a kitten.
If you have dogs in the household, wash their paws after every walk. Even though early socialization is extremely important for every pet, maybe it’s best to limit the interaction between dogs and newborn kittens for at least two weeks.
#7: Environment and Temperature
Most mammals are poikilothermic during the first week of their life. This means that they can’t regulate their body temperature on their own; they depend on the mother or environment. Kittens who don’t have a mother are definitely destined to die if not provided a heat source.
An ideal way to solve this is to have an electric blanket, but fosters all over the world use bottles with warm water with great success. If you have to use the latter, make sure to change the water every 2 hours or less, depending on the climate. A heater without a fan can be used as an additional regulator.
What temperature do the kittens need?
- First week: 95-98°F (35-37°C)
- Second week: 97-100 °F (36-38°C)
- Third week and older: 100-102°F (38-39°C)
Fading Kitten Syndrome Symptoms
The biggest problem with this condition is diagnosing it on time. Sometimes, when the clues are clear, it might already be too late. This is why it is extremely important to take the kitten to the vet the very same moment you notice something’s wrong. Don’t leave it for tomorrow, because it can already be too late.
Another important safety measure is weighing the kittens every day to track their progress. If a kitten doesn’t gain any weight that day, it’s time to contact a professional. Here are some other symptoms that might be caused by the fading kitten syndrome:
- Lethargy. If the kitten doesn’t get up or move as much as the others, can’t stand, has a limp or any other moving difficulties, it might be hypoglycemic. This is the best case scenario. Other causes might be genetic or caused by mechanical injuries.
- Decreased interest in food. This can be caused by various reasons from digestion problems to hypothermia. And while it doesn’t say anything about the nature of distress, it is a sure sign you need to go into emergency mode.
- Low body temperature. If the body is cold to the touch, it’s definitely a bad sign. Although it’s sometimes hard to tell because of the fur, try touching the ears or the paw pads. If these regions are cold, there are circulation problems, and you might be dealing with hypothermia.
- Pale gums. Check the kittens’ gums every day after feeding. Healthy gums are pink, just like in humans. If the gums turn pale, or even worse, white, go to the vet immediately.
- Unusual crying. Kittens are very, very loud creatures, any foster will tell you. But there are normal sounds they make to call for their mother (or human counterpart) when they are hungry or need grooming. You will definitely recognize a different type of cry that signals discomfort or pain.
- Irregular breathing. Gasping for air or very slow breathing is a telltale sign that something is wrong. It can be a very easily solvable matter like reducing the heat, but it can also signal congenital disorders like underdeveloped lungs.
- Floppy kitten. This term is commonly used by the puppy fosters, “the floppy puppy”, but we borrowed it for the sake of clarity. When you handle a kitten, it is normally very wiggly and lively—almost resistant to handling. But if the body feels limp when you pick it up, it is commonly a sign of hypoglycemia, aka low blood sugar. This is a very frequent condition and is usually very easy to solve.
- Dehydration. Although not a symptom per se, diarrhea, even in small amounts, can lead to dehydration which is a serious problem for a kitten. Since kittens can’t regulate water loss as efficiently as adults, dehydration can quickly cause kidney failure and other serious problems.
Fading Kitten Syndrome Care
While there is no better care than vet care, it is not always wise to rush the kitten to the vet. This is especially true in cases of hypothermia or dehydration, where there are many things you can do at home to improve the kitten’s condition. Since these two symptoms are most frequently occurring, let’s discuss them first.
#1: Treating Hypothermia
Even though you did everything right, the temperature is correct, and you are making sure it doesn’t oscillate a lot, not all kittens are the same. Remember those cute videos where one kitten is always buried under its littermates? That kitten needs some extra warmth, and you can easily provide it.
If you have a heating pad, put a towel over it and wrap it around the kitten. Make sure to leave the head free so the kitten can breathe normally. Never place the kitten in direct contact with a heat source, because you can get it burned or dehydrated.
Another way is to take two socks and fill them with rice (uncooked, of course). Tie each of them up, making a rice filled cushion, and put them in the microwave for three minutes. Wrap a thin towel around the kitten and sandwich it between the socks. Repeat after about half an hour, but heat one sock at a time, so the kitten doesn’t lose both heat sources simultaneously.
In dire situations when you need to warm a kitten fast, and you are outside or don’t have anything at hand, you can wrap it in a cloth and warm it with your own body. If you can, put the kitten on your chest, under the clothes, but make sure it can still breathe.
Important note. Do not feed a hypothermic kitten! This condition slows down the digestive tract and ingesting food can lead to severe constipation, vomiting, or diarrhea. Wait until the kitten is back to normal body temperature. This also goes if you have a combination of a floppy and cold kitten. Warmth first, then sugar.
See Also: How Cold is Too Cold for Cats
#2: Treating Dehydration
Dehydration always occurs when the kittens get overheated, so try to keep the temperature as close to ideal as possible. Mother cat frequently grooms her kittens, keeping their fur from drying. This is because kittens can’t regulate water loss and lose it easily through skin perspiration and breathing.
The easiest way to mimic the natural environment is to do what a queen would do. After you stimulate the kittens to pee and poop with a wet cloth, take a clean, damp cloth and groom their fur. This will keep them sufficiently moist until the next feeding.
If you can, get an air humidifier in the nursery room and set it a bit higher than usual. If this is not an option, keep a couple of water bowls near the heat source to increase relative humidity.
#3: Treating Hypoglycaemia
If you have pure dextrose in the house, that’s great. If not, you can use honey, agave, or maple syrup. Put the sugar syrup in a bowl and add a bit of water, so it becomes runny but still stays on your finger.
Take your floppy kitten and offer some syrup using a syringe. If it doesn’t want to eat, gently apply the syrup on the gums and the roof of the mouth with your finger. Rub gently, and the sugar will get absorbed into the skin.
You can repeat this process every five minutes, to let the sugar get into the blood. Make sure to do these breaks because the sugar needs time to get absorbed properly.
#4: Treating a Kitten Which Doesn’t Want to Eat
First of all, make sure the kitten did its business in between two feedings. If it didn’t, repeat the butt and belly massage routine using a clean wet cotton pad. If this is not the problem, inspect its belly. If it’s swollen and hard, it might have digestion problems, and it’s time to visit the vet.
If there are no visible signs of distress, take the kitten to the vet immediately. Refusing food can be caused by many things, and guessing will only waste precious time.
All other signs might be a combination of the aforementioned conditions or caused by something you can’t know. If you tried everything to make your kitten better, but there is no progress, the only thing left to do is visit the vet. They will definitely be able to help you proceed.
Some kittens just decide to refuse the syringe out of the blue, although nothing is wrong. If this is the case, you might have to start tube feeding. Visit your vet and let them show you how because this is a very delicate matter. If you miss, you might fill the kitten’s lungs with milk instead of its belly. Or just ask the vet to do it instead.
Fading kitten syndrome can be treated in a couple of minutes, or hours, depending on the kitten and cause. But never wait for more than a day to take the kitten to the vet, because their state can deteriorate surprisingly quickly.
We grappled with this topic in the best way we know how, but make sure to stay realistic. If you are taking care of an abandoned litter, there is a huge chance some of them will not survive. And this is by no means your fault. You did the best you can. After all, if it weren’t for you, none of them would be alive.
Taking care of kittens is a demanding task. We can’t stress enough how difficult it is to raise a mammal baby without its mother, but we know that is not going to lessen your efforts. Stay strong and fight. It will pay off in the end, trust us. There is no better feeling than seeing your hand-raised bundles of joy going to a loving, forever home.
How did you find our article? We hope it proved to be helpful and we would certainly appreciate any feedback! Let us know in the comments section below. Next, check out our article on how to care for newborn kittens.