Fading kitten syndrome

There are few creatures more defenceless than a newborn kitten, eyes closed and barely able to crawl. Without the help of their mother and the watchful eye of a caring owner, they can be vulnerable to any number of ailments, including fading kitten syndrome. 

Most cat owners are unlikely to experience fading kitten syndrome directly. This is because kittens should be in the care of their mothers until they’re at least eight weeks old and because of the fact that the standard vetinary advice is to ensure kittens are neutered when they reach four months. However, it’s still a good idea to arm yourself with knowledge on the subject in case you do find yourself caring for a litter of kittens. 

What is fading kitten syndrome?

Fading kitten syndrome, also known as failure to thrive, is not a disease in itself. Instead, it’s a catch-all term for various developmental problems that can affect newborn kittens. It can be a problem for many kittens in their first weeks, and sadly, by the time you notice the problem, it’s often too late to save them. 

What are the symptoms of fading kitten syndrome?

Because there are many different underlying causes for fading kitten syndrome, the signs can be many and varied. In general, if you spot a lethargic kitten in a litter, a kitten not eating or drinking water, you should start paying it closer attention. A low body temperature, failure to open its eyes at the right age, and a low body weight are also frequent signs of a kitten in danger. If you have the slightest worry, you should take your kitten to a vet immediately.

To help you know what you should be seeing, here are the key stages in a healthy newborn kitten’s young life: 

  • Up to seven days – weight up to 120 grams.
  • One week to 10 days – weight between 120 and 170 grams. Eyes start to open.
  • Two weeks – weighs 170 to 230 grams. Eyes now open, and starts crawling.
  • Three weeks – weighs 230 to 340 grams. Teeth begin to show and starts walking, albeit unsteadily.
  • Up to five weeks – weighs up to half a kilo. Starts eating solid food.
  • Up to seven weeks – up to to 680 grams. Playful and curious.
  • Eight weeks – weighs up to 1 kilo.

After eight weeks, a kitten should be through the danger period for fading kitten syndrome (with all nine lives intact), and should be ready to leave its mother and find a home. 

Find out more about bringing a new kitten home

What causes fading kitten syndrome?

It’s often the runt of the litter that succumbs to fading kitten syndrome. Nursing during the first three days after birth is key. During that 72 hours, the mother’s milk is known as colostrum, which contains anti-bodies to protect against disease. If a kitten is too weak to get enough colostrum during those first few days it can spell the start of a rapid downward spiral. Fading kitten syndrome can also be caused by an inattentive mother, or, indeed, by the mother’s abandonment of her kitten. 

Even seemingly healthy kittens can suddenly fade and die. This is usually down to what’s known as an ‘occult disease’. These might include:

  • genetic problems acquired from the mother, which are likely to affect the kitten in the first two weeks
  • viruses, which show up in the kitten after weaning
  • bacterial infections which are usually a secondary – but sometimes fatal –problem for an already weak kitten.

Once again, if a kitten is showing any signs of problems, it should be taken to a vet immediately. 

Is fading kitten syndrome treatable?

With luck, a vet will be able to treat both the root cause of the fading as well as any secondary problems, like bacterial infections or internal parasites. There may be symptoms, like dehydration or malnutrition, that will require ongoing care from the owner. Sadly, in some cases the kitten will be beyond treatment and the only humane course of action will be for it to be put to sleep.

Please note: We don't cover pets up to 8 weeks old and fading kitten syndrome isn't included. Pre-existing conditions are also not covered.

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