Fading kitten syndrome at a glance
About: Fading kitten syndrome describes kittens who appear to be normal and healthy at birth but either slowly or suddenly fade and die.
Causes: Maternal neglect, blood type incompatibility, infection or congenital abnormalities.
Treatment: Depends on the underlying cause but may include supportive care such as fluids or supplementation.
Fading kitten syndrome is characterised by apparently healthy kittens who slowly or suddenly fade and die. Kittens, especially very young kittens in the first two weeks of life are very vulnerable and up to 11% of kittens will die before they turn 8 weeks old.
Kittens can fade and die extremely quickly, so it is always important for the carer to keep a close eye on the kittens and how they are thriving. If they show signs of fading, urgent veterinary attention is necessary.
There are many possible causes of fading syndrome which can be infectious or non-infectious. Some of which include:
- Congenital defect. Cleft palate, flat chest, umbilical hernia and other abnormalities.
- Environmental temperature too hot or too cold (hyperthermia/hypothermia). Especially in the first week because newborn kittens are unable to regulate body temperature by panting or shivering.
- Maternal neglect. This could be due to the mother being nervous, inexperienced or sick.
- Prematurity and or low birth weight. If just one kitten is undersized, then placental insufficiency is the likely cause, if the entire litter are undersized, a poorly nourished queen is a likely consideration. 
- Traumatic/difficult birth.
- Environmental toxins.
- Dehydration (vomiting or lack of milk can all lead to dehydration).
- Neonatal isoerythrolysis (blood type incompatibility). A life-threatening condition caused when kittens who have type A blood nurse from their mother who has type B blood during the first 24 hours of life which causes the destruction of red blood cells (hemolytic anemia).
- Large litters with not enough nipples for the number of kittens.
- Inability of a smaller kitten to compete with other kittens
- Inadequate nutrition to the queen during pregnancy or after birth.
- Viral infections.
- Bacterial infections.
- Parasitic infections.
Often there is no apparent cause for fading kitten syndrome.
Is fading kitten syndrome contagious?
It can be if it is caused by an infection.
As newborns, if kittens aren’t eating, they are sleeping. Symptoms of fading kitten syndrome can include the following:
- One kitten sleeping away from the mother and siblings
- Crying excessively
- Newborn kitten not nursing
- Weakness and weight loss
- Jaundice (yellowing of the gums)
- Reddish brown gums
It is advisable to keep a good track of each kitten and weigh them every day to ensure they are gaining weight. They should put on around 7 – 10 grams per day (there may be a large weight gain one day, and a small one another, but be aware of overall weight gain). Below is a rough timeline for normal kitten development.
- 0 – 3 days: The umbilical cord is still attached
- 0 – 10 days: The eyes are closed
- 2 weeks: The teeth start coming in
- 2 weeks: The kitten begins to stand, the eyes and ears open
- 4 weeks: The kitten begins playing and exploring her environment
Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of the kitten(s) and obtain a medical history from you. Questions asked may include maternal nutrition during and after pregnancy, the delivery, how she is mothering the kittens, possible exposures to chemicals, toxins, and infections. He will also be interested in the blood type of the queen if that is known.
If a cause is found, then treatment is aimed at addressing the underlying condition. This may include;
- Antibiotics to treat bacterial infections.
- Treatment of parasites.
- Fluids to treat dehydration.
- Bottle or tube feeding.
- Intensive supportive care for kittens with viral infections which can include fluids and nutritional support while the kitten fights the infection.
- Bottle feeding or supplementation may be necessary for large litters or small kittens.
- Blood transfusion for kittens with neonatal isoerythrolysis, even with aggressive treatment, the prognosis is poor.
Even with aggressive treatment, often kittens are too weak to pull through. It is incredibly important to seek veterinary attention the moment you see a kitten acting out of sorts. If several kittens die it may be worth having a necropsy performed to see if a cause can be determined, especially if you plan to mate the mother again.
 Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook – Delbert G. Carlson and James M. Giffin.