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Fading Kitten Syndrome

Fading Kitten Syndrome

Fading kitten syndrome is the critical emergency situations that require emergency veterinary medical attention. Never waste precious time in these instances. At the very first sign of distress, get your kitten to an emergency veterinary hospital as soon as possible.

The causes of fading kitten syndrome can be divided into three groups: environmental, genetic, and infectious.

The critical nature of the neonatal period has been emphasised above and certain losses are inevitable over this period, even with optimum neonatal management It is important, therefore, in investigating kitten mortality in a cattery to establish the extent and pattern of losses and to assess whether these losses are acceptable.

Extensive databases on kitten mortality exist for cat colonies, but much less information is available for breeding catteries. An acceptable maximum figure for mortality rates up to weaning is probably around 10 per cent, half of these representing stillbirths. Average birth weights of mixed breed, colony-maintained cats are around 100g. However, much lower normal birth weights should be expected in some pedigree kittens, particularly of the lighter framed Oriental breeds, which tend to have much larger litters.

Regular weighing of the kittens can provide a useful assessment of performance and had the added advantage of accustoming the kittens to handling from a young age. Colonymaintained cross-bred kittens will gain up to 30g daily, but weight gains may be much more modest for pedigree kittens, particularly for kittens from large litters.

There are limited ways in which young kittens demonstrate distress, irrespective of the underlying cause. They may be much more restless than normal, fail to sleep contentedly for prolonged periods as should normally occur and may cry excessively. They tend to wander aimlessly predisposing themselves to chilling.

The queen may appear to neglect sick kittens and they maybe found away from the next box. They cease feeding and the suckling reflex becomes depressed. In view of the limited range of clinical signs sick kittens display, clinical examination is generally unrewarding. In many cases a diagnosis can be made only at post-mortem examination and this will often reveal infections and congenital abnormalities which would otherwise pass unnoticed. This may ennoble preventative action to protect the remainder of the litter or may provide useful information on which to base future breeding plans.

The major causes of death in young kittens are environmental and managemental factors, maternal factors, infections and congenital conditions.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts and care, a kitten will die. Whether it be FKS (Fading Kitten Syndrome) or an unseen problem with the kitten’s internal organs or disease, it is always difficult to lose a kitten that you may have bonded closely with.

Fading Kitten Syndrome: We compare this to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Suddenly a kitten that appears to be healthy begins to fade. No matter what measures are enacted to save this fragile being, it slips away and you are left with so many questions and an ache in your heart. Did you do the right thing? Could you have prevented this needless death? Chances are you did everything humanely possible to save this kitten. Perhaps the kitten was robbed early on of that first critical period where mom’s colostrom could have saved him. You will never know.

Experienced cat rescuers, and even cat breeders have all encountered this devastating occurrence. There is nothing anyone can do to stop it; only love the kitten while he is among the living and mourn him in his passing.

Although your veterinarian can identify any risk factors that are unique to your kitten, the risks listed here call affect most or all kittens. What you do at home, alone, with the help of your veterinary heath care team will preserve your kitten’s wellness and create the potential for a long, healthy life.

Infectious Diseases

Infectious disease may be present in the queen before or during pregnancy. Therefore the potential exists for passing along the disease to her unborn litter. In case of infectious diseases such as Feline Leukemia, Feline Infectious Peritonitis and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, your kitten may exhibit a variety of signs or symptoms that should alert you to seek emergency veterinary attention. Please familiarize yourself with these fatal diseases so that you are informed of them and you have a better understanding of what to expect.

Infectious causes of kitten mortality are more common during the late nursing or early weaning period than during the neonatal period, although there are exceptions. Young kittens are susceptible to a number of viral infections, some of which (feline panleukopenia virus, feline leukemia virus) may be contracted in utero. Panleukopenia virus infection acquired before birth or just after birth can produce changes in the cerebellum (the portion of the brain concerned with motor function, balance, and coordination), intestinal tract, and bone marrow. infected kittens may have lowered resistance to other infections, diarrhea, and a wobbly walk. Feline leukemia virus infections can cause stillbirths and fading kittens, in addition to other signs. Young kittens are also susceptible to infection with viruses that cause respiratory disease (feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus).

Bacterial infections are usually acquired across the placenta; during passage through the birth canal; via the umbilical cord, gastrointestinal tract, urinary tract, or respiratory tract; or through skin wounds. However, kittens nursing from queens with mastitis (mammary gland inflammation) may become infected themselves, manifesting signs such as fever, lethargy, depression, bloating, and diarrhea. Mastitis in queens can be the result of infection with any of a number of bacteria, but Streptococcus spp. (spp. stands for species, plural), Stapbylococcus spp., and Escherichia coli are the most prominent. Affected animals become feverish and may refuse food; infected glands appeared, swollen, and painful. It may be necessary to remove kittens of queens with mastitis and let them nurse from another queen or give them milk replacer. Veterinary attention should be sought immediately. Antibiotics may need to be given to the kittens as well as to their mother. In addition, surgical drainage procedures may be necessary to reduce swelling in the affected glands, especially if an abscess has developed.

Bacterial infections – An important route of infection in new-born kittens is the umbilicus. The kitten may be infected by vaginal organisms during birth or by opportunist organisms in the environment after birth. Infection may track up the umbilical vessels to cause a liver abscess or it may lead to peritonitis. Several kittens in the litter, or frequently the complete litter, may be affected. Close examination of the umbilicus will sometimes reveal slight discoloration or swelling. Antibiotics are indicated for treatment, but the response in established cases is poor.

Pathogenic Organisms – Upper Respiratory Infections (URI’S) can have a devastating effect on your newborn kitten, so recognizing the signs and symptoms early on and providing treatment and care at the onset can further your kitten’s chance of survival and long-term good health. Any time the respiratory system is compromised by infection warrants immediate veterinary care. Common symptoms of respiratory infections/stress include discharge from the eyes and nose, sneezing, coughing, fever or hypothermia, breathing distress, inability to eat, lethargy, and weight loss. At the first sign of any of these symptoms, please contact your vet and seek immediate care.

Another quite common source of infection in pre-weaning kittens is infected milk from mastitis in the queen. In acute mastitis the queen will show clinical signs, but in chronic mastitis the queen may seem well and her mammary glands may appear normal. Mastitis leads to gastroenteritis in the kittens with diarrhoea and occasionally vomiting. The kittens must be separated from their mother and hand-reared.

The bacteria agent Chlamydia can produce signs ranging from mild conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eyelids to life-threatening pneumonia. Infection with Bordetella bronchiseptica, another bacterial agent, is being reported with greater frequency than in the past. Respiratory tract signs predominate in infected kittens, with pneumonia being the most serious.

Viral and chlamydial infections – Viruses can be a major cause of disease in young kittens in breeding catteries but not usually until a little later. Kittens are most vulnerable between four to six weeks of age when maternally derived immunity is waning. The respiratory viruses and chlamydia are generally the most important infections in kittens.

Congenital Defects

Congenital anomalies are those that involve the cardiovascular system, respiratory system, and the central nervous system. A kitten’s health success depends on the queen’s general overall health status. Having a healthy queen can mean the difference between a sickly kitten and a healthy kitten. Proper diet and regular health care for the queen will better ensure healthier kittens in the long run. Signs and symptoms of congenital anomalies are clear, and most are visibly noticeable. A kitten that has a congenital anomaly will often have a low birth weight, inability to progress in the normal growing stage, and will often seem sickly from birth onward. The signs can be many, depending on the individual problem, but contacting your vet at the onset of any signs of stress, growth dysfunction, or anything else that appears abnormal will ensure the best chance of effective treatment to rectify the situation.

Defects present at birth may affect any organ system, with grossly apparent anatomic birth defects occurring in up to 10 percent of nonsurviving neonatal kittens. Birth defects that are not grossly obvious (microanatomic birth defects) also occur. Although many defects are apparent during the early stages of the kitten’s life, some may not manifest themselves until later in life. Congenital defects are often inherited, so breeding of cats with such defects should not be considered, unless it is known with certainty that the defect is not inherited.

Some of the more common birth defects involving the nervous system include cerebellar hypoplasia (usually caused by feline panleukopenia virus infection of the queen or kitten), spinal cord defects like Spina bifida (especially in tailless cats), and various storage diseases caused by inborn errors of metabolism (e.g., GMI/GM2-gangliosidosis, mucopolysacchiaridosis, mannosidosis, and globoid cell leukodystrophy). Congenital cardiovascular diseases reported in cats include various septal defects, valve defects, aortic stenosis, patent ductus arteriosus, and tetralogy of Fallot. Portosystemic or portocaval shunts are being diagnosed more frequently than in the past. This defect allows blood flowing from the intestinal tract to bypass the liver, resulting in a variety of clinical signs such as drooling, behavior changes, increased thirst and urination, stupor, incoordination, and stunted growth.

Except for cleft palate, congenital defects of the gastrointestinal tract are fairly uncommon and include failure of normal development of segments of the intestine, abnormal development of the anus (atresia ani), megaesophagus, and pyloric stenosis, Craniofacial malformations occur primarily in Burmese cats but occasionally are seen in other breeds as well.

Respiratory system defects include chest wall abnormalities and pectus excavatum. Hereditary deafness, affecting either one or both ears, is common in white cats. Congenital hernias (especially diaphragmatic, peritoneopericardial, and umbilical) are fairly common defects in cats.

There are many congenital abnormalities of cats which may become apparent during the first few months of life and some of these may cause death of young kittens. Some will be discovered on casual examination of the kittens, but in other cases a post mortem examination will be required to reveal their presence. Many inborn errors of metabolism are recognised in man and other species and these can only be diagnosed in life, often requiring sophisticated laboratory investigation. A few such congenital defects of metabolism have been recognised in cats, but they have received little consideration in this species and it is likely that they may account for some of the occasional losses encountered in young kittens.

Infectious diseases

Infectious diseases are a serious threat to the health of your kitten. Although most kittens are born with antibodies against certain diseases or receive them in their mother’s milk, these antibodies disappear after a few weeks. Unless the kitten is protected by vaccinations, it will be susceptible to various infectious diseases. Upper-respiratory disease, feline panleukopenia, rabies and feline leukemia are some common examples. Several of these can be fatal. To reduce the risks of infectious disease, follow your veterinarian’s advice for vaccinations. Typically, these include several in a series when your kitten is between the ages of 8 and 16 weeks.

- Internal parasites often cause digestive disease in young cats. Some common specific parasites are roundworms (ascarids), hookworms, Giardia, coccidia. and tapeworms. These parasites can debilitate your kitten, causing diarrhea, a pot belly and vomiting. Your veterinarian can advise you about control and prevention of internal parasites.

- External parasites in kittens include fleas, ticks, ear mites and certain fungi can cause “ringworm” (even though it isn’t a “worm” at all). As you pet your kitten, carefully check its skin for evidence of parasite infestation. Fleas often cause skin disease marked by scratching, hair loss, and small raised crusts on your cat’s skin. Finding fleas, flea debris (“Flea Dirt” – flea feces, which look like black pepper), or tapeworm segments (shaped like sesame seeds) on your pet’s coat are signs of flea infestation.

- Ticks appear as brown or white parasites attached to a pet’s skin. Mites are microscopic and they cause ear disease and skin irritation. Ringworm fungus causes a circular patch of hair loss almost anywhere on the body.

Your veterinarian call diagnose skin disease and use safe insecticides and fungicides to rid your kitten’s body of external parasites and reduce the number in the environment. Your veterinarian also has brochures that will help you understand and control the life cycle of these parasites.

3 common infections with tips to follow if you discovered them


Hypothermia occurs when kittens cannot sufficiently produce enough core body heat to regulate their internal temperature. This can be the result of the queen neglecting the kitten, crowding from siblings, infections, infectious disease, hypoglycemia, and an insufficient amount of heat during birthing, nursing, or other instances. Hypothermia can be extremely fatal in a matter of minutes to hours, so recognizing these signs as they occur can mean life or death to your kitten in her first few weeks of life. Your kitten may experience coldness to her extremities, inability to nurse (whether from queen or nurser bottle), lethargy, and a serious sense of immobilization. In this instance, please contact an emergency veterinary hospital immediately.


* Call an emergency vet hospital IMMEDIATELY

* Provide a comfortable environment that reaches at least 85°F to maintain her surrounding heat environment

* Provide additional blankets, towels, or fleece to help kitten raise her internal core body temperature

* Use a hot water bottle to place beside her to raise her internal core body temperature. Plastic soda bottles work nicely in the absence of hot water bottles

* Provide a heating pad to help raise her internal core body temperature. Be very careful that you put a towel or blanket between the heating pad and your kitten so that you do not risk burns or excessive heat. Heat lamps can help, but are a potentially dangerous method of warming. Please use extreme caution if you must use a heat lamp. Be certain that the heat lamp is not placed directly on or above your kitten or too close to cause burns or excessive heat

* DO NOT feed kitten formulas to kittens who are suffering from hypothermia or who have rectal temperatures of less than 95°F. Raising kitten’s temperature is paramount before nutritional measures. Please consult your vet for more information concerning nutritional measures during hypothermia

NOTE: Kittens do not develop a “shivering reflex” during the first 6 days of life, so it is extremely important that you monitor your kitten’s extremities for signs of coldness and that you monitor her for other signs that may indicate serious hypothermia (noted above). If you suspect your kitten is suffering from hypothermia, please contact an emergency vet hospital IMMEDIATELY.


Hypoglycemia occurs as a result of many factors, but can best be classified with “Fading Kitten Syndrome” and it’s symptoms. This can occur as a result of internal infections, hypothermia, infectious disease, insufficient collostrum from the queen, and pathogenic infections from insufficient nutrition, and other infections. The symptoms described above in Hypothermia may also be present in a hypoglycemic kitten, those being: coldness to the extremities, inability to nurse, lethargy, immobilization, and an appearance of “crashing” (jerking or seizure activity may also be noticed). Should you notice any of these signs, please contact an emergency vet hospital IMMEDIATELY. Time is critical in these instances, and like hypothermia, hypoglycemia can be fatal in a matter of minutes to hours.


* Call an emergency vet hospital IMMEDIATELY

* Provide adequate warming measures as described above for hypothermia. Remember to warm gradually, do not implement harsh heat sources

* Make sure kitten’s environmental heat source is at least 85°F

* In the event your kitten seems to be “crashing”, you can give a 1/4 teaspoon of glucose (in the form of sweetened jam or jelly), or you can gently rub a small amount of Light Karo Corn Syrup on her gums. Either procedure can be applied every 15-20 minutes until the kitten is responsive. If the kitten is completely unresponsive, call an emergency vet IMMEDIATELY. If the kitten does not respond do not attempt to apply these measures as you don’t want her to choke or aspirate in her lungs

* If kitten is responsive, a nutrient/electrolyte solution (available from Life-Guard or Norden’s) in the form of sweetened jam or jelly, corn syrup or an electrolyte liquid form can be given every 25-25 minutes until kitten shows improvement. In all instances, please contact an emergency vet for further instruction

* DO NOT feed kitten formulas during a hypoglycemic episode. Your kitten could choke or aspirate the formula into her lungs and this can be fatal

NOTE: DO NOT attempt feline CPR, you could actually cause your kitten more health damage in the process or fatal brain injury. Please contact an emergency vet hospital for further instruction. A veterinarian may talk you through the critical steps of life-saving procedures, but please do not ever attempt these procedures without a vet’s instruction.


Anemia in kittens are most commonly noted as idiopathic, meaning of unknown origin, but a few factors to consider are: infectious disease, parasitic infection (blood-sucking fleas or ticks), internal blood parasites, and internal bacterial or viral infections. As noted above, hypothermia and hypoglycemia can eventually or quickly set in and further worsen the situation. Signs of anemia might include: pale or white mucous membranes (gums, tongue, or even skin), inability to sufficiently nurse or eat, lethargy, fever, weakness, wobbly stance, and immobilization. If you suspect your kitten may be suffering from anemia, please contact an emergency vet hospital IMMEDIATELY.


* Call an emergency vet IMMEDIATELY

* If your kitten is suffering from severe anemia, hospitalization may be the best method of treating your kitten. Your vet can treat her symptomatically and provide her the best treatment options to ensure the best chance for full recovery.

Internal parasites such as Roundworms, Hookworms, Coccidia, and Giardia can leave a kitten in seriously ill health. Fleas and ticks can also have a devastating effect on your kittens health. Never attempt to treat these parasites yourself in newborn kittens, your vet can properly and effectively treat them. Most products for these problems are fatal to kittens, so please contact your vet for help if these situations occur. Older kittens can be treated later when your vet deems them old enough, but dewormers should never be given to very young kittens. Please ask your vet for further information.

DO NOT attempt to treat kittens for fleas or ticks without a vet’s approval or advice. Newborns and very young kittens cannot tolerate the harsh ingredients and chemicals in flea and tick products, and some products may be fatal if misused, or if the improper product is applied. Please never use OTC (over the counter) products on kittens or cats of any age, not only are these products often ineffective, but can prove fatal as well. Fatal allergic reactions can occur as a result of ANY flea or tick products in young kittens, so please take every measure to call or consult with your vet for the proper treatment. He/she knows which product may best suit your particular kitten’s needs.

Statistics: Kitten losses are highest in the queen’s 1st and 6th litters and thereafter. Kitten loss rates are also twice as high in a one-kitten litter. Kitten losses are lowest in the queen’s 5th litter. Losses are also fewest in a five-kitten litter. Middle-sized queens have fewer kitten losses than larger or smaller queens.

Hemolytic Disease of the Newborn (Neonatal lsoerythrolysis)

The two most common blood types in the cat are type A and type B, with the allele (one of a pair of genes for a given characteristic) for type A blood being completely dominant over the allele for type B blood. As a result, cats with type A blood may be either homozygous (genotype AA having the same two alleles at a given location on a chromosome) or heterozygous (genotype Ab, having two different alleles at a given location on a chromosome), but blood type B cats must always be homozygous (genotype Bb). Approximately 95 percent of type B cats have high levels of antibody directed against type A blood cells. Therefore, when a type B queen gives birth to type A kittens (as can happen when bred to a type A male), antibodies in her colostrum destroy her kittens’ red blood cells, resulting in a profound anemia, This condition, termed neonatal isoerythrolysis (NI), usually becomes apparent within one or two days after birth and can be rapidly fatal. Severe depression, anemia, jaundice (yellowing of the mucous membranes), brownish-red urine, necrosis of the tail-tip, and respiratory difficulty may be seen. The diagnosis of NI is confirmed by blood typing. Affected kittens should be removed from the mother as soon as signs are seen, foster-nursed or fed feline milk replacer, and given supportive care. Because passage of antibody in the colostrum is transient, affected kittens can be returned to their queen after twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Neonatal isoerythrolysis can be prevented by avoiding the mating of type B females to type A males.

Diminished Local or Systemic Immunity

Diminished immunity can exhibit many effects on your newborn or older kitten. The most common signs of illness include weakness, lethargy, inability to eat or drink, weight loss, and a general malaise. Your kitten may develop other symptoms as they progress, and seeking immediate veterinary care will greatly increase her chances for stabilization and recovery.

Nutritional Disease

During pregnancy and lactation a queen should be fed a nutritionally complete and balanced diet, such as a good quality kitten food. Her immune system is equally as important as those of her unborn litter. For both queen and newborn kittens, a quality diet is essential for proper growth and development and to help build a strong immune system with which to combat serious common illnesses. Feeding an improper diet, or one that does not meet a complete daily requirement need for kittens, can result in disastrous consequences. Do not feed growing kittens raw meat, raw whole milk products, or a “natural-only” diet, as these do not meet the nutritional requirements for these critical growing stages. Feeding such diets can deplete your kitten of vital nutrients and minerals and cause a host of problems such as vitamin deficiency-related disease, skeletal and abnormal growth problems, as well as Central Nervous System disorders and organ developmental problems.

Teratogenic Effects

Teratogenic effects occur when the queen has received, or is presently receiving, certain drugs or medications. If the queen is receiving certain medications, it is best to check with your vet to make sure it is completely safe to let the kittens nurse from her. De-wormers, for example, should never be given to a pregnant or lactating queen, as the medication can cause problems in utero or after birth of the kittens. Other medications in the queen can cause improper growth development in kittens as well as deformities and fatalities.

Low Birth Weights

Low birth weights can be the result of abnormal growth mechanisms, skeletal deformations, premature birth, infectious disease, and congenital anomalies. Almost every litter will produce at least one kitten who is smaller than her siblings, but it is up to you to ensure her proper care and nutrition to ensure she has an equal a chance as those of her siblings. Make sure your “runt” of the litter is either nursing sufficiently or that you are supporting her properly with kitten formula. If she develops certain signs or symptoms, this should alert you to direct and immediately seek veterinary attention.

Traumatic Birthing

Traumatic birthing can result in dystocia, cannibalism by the queen, and maternal neglect. If you are fostering or nurturing an orphaned kitten, please be responsible in her care in the very beginning. That means supporting her with kitten formula, keeping her warm and comfortable, and providing her with veterinary supportive intervention when necessary. If you do have a queen who has given birth and seems to neglect her newborns, it is your responsibility to step in and do whatever is necessary to sustain life. Cannibalism occurs when a nervous or high-strung queen cannot discern how to properly and maternally care for her new litter, and it is considered an instinct over which the queen has no control. Also, intact tomcats may possibly kill newborn kittens as a means of territorial issues, and this is another example of instinctive behavior. If you have other cats in your home, please protect your newborn(s) from danger at all costs. Seperate them if necessary until the kittens are old enough to defend themselves and are developed enough in strength, endurance, and stature.

Environmental and management factors

Post mortem examination fails to reveal a clear cause of death in a large proportion of kittens which die within the first few days of life. Undoubtedly environmental and management factors, particularly chilling and failure to suckle, considered above, are responsible for many of these. The loss of occasional kittens may simply reflect inattentive queens, but major losses in the first few days of life suggest some basic mismanagement problem. This can be investigated satisfactorily only by visiting the cattery, by detailed study of the normal husbandry measures and by assessment of breeding records.

Maternal factors

Management of the queen is crucial in the general management over the neonatal period. Maternal factors may also play an important role in infectious problems either through contributing to protection or predisposing to infection.
The queen is the major source of early protection against infectious agents in the form of MDI derived from colostrum. However, the queen may also predispose to infectious disease by acting as a source of infection as a consequence of her carrier status or development of mastitis. She may also play a role in umbilical infections.

Miscellaneous disorders

Young kittens are very vulnerable to trauma and this is an important cause of death. External injuries may not be obvious, but recent trauma may become evident on post-mortem examination.

Neonatal isoerythrolysis

This condition involves an incompatibility in the blood group of the kittens and their mother It can occur if a group B queen has group A kittens. Some such queens have potent antibodies against group B blood. These antibodies are present in the colostrum and will be absorbed for up to the first 24 hours after birth. They destroy the red blood cells leading to anaemia. Affected kittens may die in the first two to three days. This problem is more frequent in certain breeds which have a high prevalence of group B individuals – such as British Shorthairs, Birmans and Devon Rex.


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