By Hannah Shaw
Fading kitten syndrome is a set of symptoms that are associated with a failure to thrive in neonatal kittens. Fading kitten syndrome is not a single disease. It can have many underlying causes, many of which lead to rapidly declining health, or even death, without immediate intervention. Caregivers can help kittens with fading kitten syndrome by monitoring for its signs and acting quickly when treatment is necessary.
Causes of Fading Kitten Syndrome
Fading kitten syndrome can occur for a variety of reasons, including “environmental factors, congenital defects, parasites, bacterial or viral infections, and even human error in hand-raising kittens,” says Ellen Carozza, a licensed veterinary technician and a fading kitten expert from NOVA Cat Clinic in Arlington, Virginia.
Due to the immaturity of a neonatal kitten’s body and immune system, even seemingly small factors can trigger a domino effect. For instance, what might start as a small bout of diarrhea can quickly result in dehydration and hypothermia, causing vital bodily functions to fail. Any number of factors can trigger fading kitten syndrome, but the important thing is to recognize the symptoms and to intervene immediately.
Symptoms of Fading Kitten Syndrome
Early signs that a kitten is fading may include lethargy, lack of interest in nursing, sleeping separately from the litter, and whining Caregivers may notice that the kitten’s skin is less elastic, which is a symptom of dehydration. The kitten’s face may start to look gaunt and triangular if it is not getting adequate nutrition.
Fading kittens may also fail to gain weight normally (or even worse, lose weight), which can be determined by weighing the kitten at least once a day. Kitten caregivers should not wait until a kitten is in crisis to take action. “With kittens, time is of the essence,” says Carozza, adding “the likelihood of fading kitten syndrome does go up when hand raising kittens because not everyone knows what to look for or when to act fast and get help.”
If a kitten is showing any of these signs, the best thing to do is to immediately bring her into a vet, without waiting until the following day. Finding an emergency veterinarian who has experience in feline pediatrics will increase the chances of survival for a fading kitten, as neonatal kitten care is a very specialized focus area in the veterinary profession.
Fading Kitten Syndrome: Treatment Options
Treating fading kittens in a veterinary clinic can be frustrating for both providers and clients. But Carozza and the team at NOVA are saving neonatal kittens on a regular basis. Her advice to other veterinary professionals? “Don’t be afraid to treat the little guys and think outside of the box with their care,” she says. “Sometimes the issue causing the fading is easier than you think; you just need the right diagnostics, medication, and blood products.”
Fading kitten treatment should address both the cause of the fading and any secondary symptoms. Through an examination and diagnostic testing, a vet can determine any treatable illness such as respiratory infections or internal parasites, and can prescribe appropriate therapies. However, fading kittens typically also have secondary symptoms—such as dehydration or hypoglycemia—that must be addressed through supportive care.
In some cases, a kitten’s condition may be too advanced. “Some kittens may not survive no matter what you do,” says Carozza. Late signs of fading kitten syndrome may include symptoms such as abnormal breathing, extreme lethargy, neck arching, or odd vocalizations. If these symptoms are present, a veterinary professional should determine if it is likely that the kitten can be saved. In advanced cases, euthanasia may be the most humane solution. Through early intervention, caregivers can hopefully avoid this scenario.
How Kitten Rescuers and Foster Parents Can Help Fading Kittens
Those who frequently care for neonatal kittens, such as kitten foster parents and rescuers, will benefit from learning advanced kitten care skills that can save a fading kitten. Tube feeding, for instance, may save the life of a fading kitten who is unable to suckle or swallow. Subcutaneous fluid therapy, when carefully dosed by an experienced caregiver, can help provide essential hydration to keep a kitten’s body functioning. Proper administration of iron, vitamin B12, or dextrose can also help some kittens bounce back.
Each of these lifesaving skills should be learned and administered under the supervision of an experienced veterinary professional, as every kitten’s situation will be different and will require specific treatment tailored to their needs.
The most important thing for caregivers to know is that fading kitten syndrome does not have to be a death sentence. “By acting quickly, understanding the symptoms, and working with the right veterinary team, the chance of survival goes up exponentially,” explains Carozza. “The biggest killer to these little guys is waiting.”
Caregivers can give kittens the best chance by planning ahead. By learning advanced care skills, knowing the early signs, monitoring kittens carefully, establishing a good relationship with a veterinarian, and creating an action plan ahead of time, caregivers can lay the groundwork for a high chance of survival.