Raising a newborn kitten? Worried about fading kitten syndrome? Unfortunately, you should be.
There is no gentle way to put this: During the first weeks of their lives, kittens are at an increased risk of dying.
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Some estimates put the survival rates of newborn kittens at an average of 75 percent, and as every experienced rescuer knows, sometimes entire litters simply don't make it.
It's not always easy to know why a kitten doesn't survive. Death may come quickly, or after a prolonged period of several days or even weeks, and the cause may be as clear as significant trauma, or as mysterious as a kitten dying peacefully in its sleep. The generic term for the death of kittens is Fading Kitten Syndrome, and it's a catch-all phrase that's often used when the cause of death is unknown.
Following this somber introduction, let's turn to the positive. If you're looking after young kittens, there's a chance you may be able to save them from dying. Knowledge is key in caring for young kittens, especially if they are orphaned and you are their only caregiver. If you know what to look for in advance, and what to do when early signs show up, you may still be able to reverse the process and save the kitten's life.
1. Know the common risks to the lives of young kittens
It's not a pleasant topic but in this case, knowledge may give you the power to save a kitten's life, so let's review the list.
- Temperature/chilling - Kittens are unable to effectively regulate their own body temperature. If they are left in an environment that's too cold or too hot, they can suffer hypothermia or hyperthermia, respectively, and die.
- Malnutrition - Newborn kittens that don't get enough nutrients are likely to stop thriving and die. Their mother's milk is the best food for kittens and if that's not available, they must receive a milk-replacement formula that's appropriate for kittens such as the ones available in the Petag Kitten Milk Replacer Kmr Emergency Feeding Kit.
- Infectious pathogens: Kittens are too delicate to fight off a severe infection, whether bacterial, viral, or fungal. This is especially true of orphaned kittens, as nursing queens provide their kittens with some amount of immunity from the antibodies in their milk.
- Parasites: Internal parasites (worms and protozoa) or external ones (fleas, ticks, and mites) can easily kill a young kitten as they take away nutrients its body requires for sustaining life and growth.
- Non-infectious diseases: The most common lethal non-infectious disease in kittens is pneumonia caused by inhaling fluids during birth or by inhaling milk formula instead of swallowing it. Other conditions can be just as lethal.
- Birth defects: Severe birth defects often result in the birth of a stillborn kitten. However, some birth defects allow a kitten to survive while in the womb. Such a kitten may look healthy at birth, only to deteriorate within a few hours or days and die.
- Physical trauma - Any trauma incurred at a young age, such as a drop or fall, a bite from an older animal, or even a traumatic birth, can cause injuries preventing the kitten from thriving.
- Dehydration - This goes hand in hand with malnutrition as the kittens' only source of water is their mother's milk. When feeding orphan kittens, carefully follow the instructions when preparing the formula so the kittens get the nutrients AND the water they need to survive.
2. Know when there is an increased risk for Fading Kitten Syndrome
Some kittens are more at risk for early death. They need extra care to make sure they're not failing to thrive:
- Premature kittens.
- Orphaned kittens.
- Kittens with visible birth defects.
- Runts (kittens that are noticeably smaller than their littermates).
- Kittens in litters of more than four (the more kittens for the mother to handle, the more likely some of them are not to be properly fed or cared for).
3. Track your kittens' weight
Sometimes the only indication that something is wrong is a kitten's inability to gain weight. When that happens, you must seek help sooner, rather than later. Learn more about Weighing Newborn Kittens And How This Could Save Their Lives.
4. Watch for elimination
The mother cat will encourage kittens to eliminate and then clean up their secretions, so you may not be able to see the consistency or quantity of their urine and feces. When caring for orphaned kittens, you should encourage them to eliminate. When you clean up the "produce", keep an eye on it for diarrhea or constipation. Either condition can be dangerous for the kitten.
5. Watch the mother cat for signs of distress
The mother cat's health can sometimes provide the first indication that the kittens may soon be going downhill. A sick or malnourished queen puts the kittens at risk. You may have to care for the kittens and provide extra feedings to save their lives, and it's best to start sooner rather than later.
6. Keep your kittens warm - but not too hot
The harsh reality is that a cold kitten is very likely to become a dead kitten. This cannot be stressed enough. Newborn kittens cannot regulate their own body temperature. If their body becomes too cold, they are also unable to digest their food and their condition can deteriorate within hours. Read more about Hand Rearing Kittens: What You Need To Know To Save A Newborn’s Life for suggestions on how to keep the kittens' environment warm.
7. Keep pathogens at bay
As mentioned above, kittens - particularly orphaned kittens - are susceptible to infectious diseases. Keep other cats away from your kittens and thoroughly wash your hands before handling the kittens. Keep the area generally clean and hygienic.
8. Avoid over-handling kittens
Socializing kittens is important from the time they open their eyes. Until then, they need to focus on feeding and sleeping. Even after they open their eyes and as you begin socialization, make sure the kittens get plenty of time to nurse and sleep. Don't allow children, or adult guests, to handle the kittens to an extent that will interrupt their feeding and sleeping patterns.
9. Care for rejected kittens as soon as possible
Sometimes the mother cat rejects a kitten, either because she senses something is wrong with the kitten, or because she herself is not well. If you notice one of the kittens being kept away from the others or being refused nursing, you must intervene right away. Remove the kitten from the mother and raise it as an orphan kitten. Read more in this guide: Hand Rearing Kittens.
10. Be prepared - Get supplies in advance
If you are caring for a pregnant cat, be prepared to have to hand-rear one or more of the kittens. As our article Pregnant Cat? What To Prepare For The Birth explains, you should be ready to feed kittens on your own, with appropriate gear and a kitten milk replacement formula. Hopefully, you won't be needing any of it, but if you do, you don't want to be wasting precious time going out for supplies.
11. Be prepared - Find your mentors in advance
Unless you're a very experienced rescuer, chances are you'll need help in your efforts to save a kitten from Fading Kitten Syndrome. If possible, find a mentor in advance. If you foster, this can be someone working within the rescue organization you work with. If you're a registered breeder, this could be your breeding program mentor.
If you're not sure who to reach out to, let us know in the Pregnant Cats & Kitten Care forum. You should also find a veterinarian who can work with you. Not all vets are experts on newborn kitten care but they can always help you with the basics and carry out procedures that may be needed to treat a sick kitten.
Caring for newborn kittens is a challenge. When something goes wrong, that challenge intensifies, as the responsibility for the life of a precious kitten may literally lie in your hands. Unfortunately, you may not always be able to save a kitten that's failing to thrive but hopefully, equipped with enough knowledge, you'll be able to give it the best possible chance.