During the pregnancy and after the birth, the greatest fear that I have was the “Fading Kitten Syndrome”. But I was lucky. All the five kittens grew well and healthy, and they all became happy and playful kitties.

But what does that syndrome mean?

The newborn kittens are very vulnerable and can fade and die extremely quickly, that’s why their mothers usually take care of them a lot in the first few days. Lotto slept so little in the beginning, she was taking care of her kittens almost 20 hours in a day: licking them, nursing them. Even when they’re sleeping, when it’s the time, she was waking up them and let them suck her breasts.

But, the mother also must eat (and eat a lot) to produce milk. This means, in the nature, going to hunt (or begging humans for food – always give food to female cats if possible) and leaving kittens alone temporarily.

And the problem begins. In the first days, the newborn kittens are unable to regulate body temperature by panting or shivering. So, if the environmental temperature too hot or too cold, the kitten(s) can become sick and eventually die. If the environment is too hot, it’s called hyperthermia and it’s called hypothermia otherwise.

A Fading Kitten
A fading kitten. She was found in a box in the street. Some lovely people tried to save her, but it was too late. Unfortunately, she eventually died.

There are another reasons of the fading kitten syndrome, so, the house kittens can also suffer from that, not only the feral kittens. Unfortunately, apart from the hyperthermia/hypothermia, the problem is very difficult to detect until the final crisis, despite it generally grows gradually. That’s why it’s really important for the carer to keep a close eye on the kittens and how they are thriving.

  • Viral, bacterial or parasitic infections.
  • Trauma (when a kitten falls from height or is crushed) – this is obviously easy to detect, too.
  • Birth anomalies like left palate, flat chest, umbilical hernia etc.
  • Extremely low birth weight.
  • Hemolytic anemia – this condition can occur when a kitten has a different blood type than its mother. When the kitten nurses during the first days of its life, it ingests antibodies that attack its blood cells. In fact, scientifically, this is the real “fading kitten syndrome”, also known as Neonatal isoerythrolysis or hemolytic icterus. In cats, the antibodies are already present in the queen’s blood before parturition. The blood group antigens are similar in structure to the antigen of a common bacteria in the gut of cats leading to antibody formation. Kittens obtain the majority of their immune response from the colostrum, and are not born with a strong immune response. When they absorb the mother’s antibodies against their blood type it causes lysis of the red blood cells leading to anemia. Symptoms include lethargy, weakness, depression, pale mucus membranes, fever, and blood in the urine. Hypoxia may lead to forebrain disease, increased heart rate and respiratory rate, and liver or kidney disease. Animals suffering from this disease must be taken to a veterinarian immediately. Treatment includes fluid support and blood transfusions. The condition is most commonly seen in kitten with type-A blood born to mothers with type-B blood since type-B cats form very strong anti-type A antibodies. The condition is less common (and less severe) in type-B kittens born to type-A mothers. It can be prevented by blood typing the mother and kittens. If there is a blood-type mismatch, the kittens should not be allowed to nurse for 72 hours from the mother to prevent the passage of antibodies in the colostrum. After that, the kittens can be allowed to nurse naturally.
  • Maternal neglect. This could be due to the mother being nervous, inexperienced or sick.
  • Inability of a smaller kitten to compete with other kittens (especially for breast milk).
  • Inadequate nutrition to the queen during pregnancy or after birth.
  • Abandonment by the mother cat – queens have an instinct about their litters, and will often abandon the weakest kitten.

How to detect

The early signs of the syndrome are subtle but often detectable. Observe the litter carefully to detect the kittens who has fading kitten syndrome as early as possible. Sick kittens will often be smaller than other kittens in the litter. They may not right themselves when turned on their backs. They may not root and suckle normally. Their eyes may not open at the usual age of five to 14 days.

If you see any kitten that is not nursing regularly, off to the side and not with the litter, mewing constantly, is vomiting or has diarrhea, seems weaker than the others or is not gaining weight, you will need to figure out why.

Prevention and Treatment

The syndrome usually requires treatment by veterinarians. But you can prevent some crises by taking care of the room temperature and feeding the queen with high quality food. During their first week, kittens should be kept between 88 and 92 degrees F (31-33 degrees C). For the next 2 weeks they still need temperatures of 80 degrees F (26-27 degrees C) or so. When they reach 5 weeks or so they can tolerate a lower room temperature.

You can also keep an eye on their weight. Healthy kittens should gain 7 to 10 grams per day. Experts recommend that kittens be weighed on a gram scale at least once daily (and many experts recommend weighing twice daily). High-quality gram scales can be purchased at kitchen supply stores, smoke shops (you can guess what purpose gram scales serve for some people), and online.

There are some benchmarks of a kitten’s growth, such as the eyes opening at 5 to 14 days, crawling in 7 to 14 days, and sleeping alone at 6 weeks. Observe them carefully. If you see a kitten failing to meet these benchmarks, consider fading kitten syndrome and take action.


M. Özgür Nevres

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