Getting help early could save your kitten’s life.

Raising a litter of kittens is an exciting adventure, but also a big responsibility. Besides making sure those little fluff balls are safe, warm, and fed, you have to keep an eye out for fading kitten syndrome. 

This life-threatening condition affects up to 30 percent of kittens, according to the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, and spotting the symptoms takes a watchful eye. Providing care at the earliest stages of fading kitten syndrome gives kittens the best chance of survival. Read on to learn what causes fading kitten syndrome and how to tell if one of your kitties has it.

hand holding newborn kitten
Credit: Zelma Brezinska / EyeEm / Getty

What Is Fading Kitten Syndrome and What Causes It?

Fading kitten syndrome is an umbrella term for kittens whose health starts to decline in the first several weeks of life. What makes the condition so frustrating is that pinpointing the exact cause is often impossible. 

"In about 80 percent of the cases no diagnosis is made, we simply don't know what causes some kittens to become ill while their littermates thrive," says Lauren Demos, BVMS, Hons, DABVP (Feline), chief veterinary officer for Pettable and correspondent for Top Vets Talk Pets.

When veterinarians are able to identify a cause of fading kitten syndrome, it can be from a number of things, including: 

Belly button infections (omphalophlebitis)

A common diagnosis for kittens with the syndrome is inflammation of the belly button, Demos says. Bacteria travel up from the place where the umbilical cord was chewed apart by the mother cat or cut during a c-section.

Genetic issues

Some kittens may have genetic problems, says Demos. They can survive in their mother's uterus but once born, they have difficulty thriving on their own. For example, a cat born with a heart condition could lead to fading kitten syndrome.

Neonatal isoerythrolysis

Neonatal isoerythrolysis is a condition that occurs when a mother cat and kitten have different blood types, and is more common in pedigree cats. The antibodies in the mother's milk will attack the kitten's red blood cells, Demos says. "In this situation, the kitten starts off healthy. Then within a few days or a week, the kitten's health will start to go downhill."

What Age Do Kittens Get Fading Kitten Syndrome?

Fading kitten syndrome affects kittens in the first four to six weeks of life—the time between birth and being weaned from their mother. Unfortunately, there's no way to prevent it. The best you can do is to track how often kittens are eating, how much weight they're gaining, and how often they pee and poop every day. That way you can spot the first signs of trouble and contact your veterinarian right away. 

Recognize the Symptoms of Fading Kitten Syndrome

The first signs of fading kitten syndrome are subtle. Kittens should gain about 10 grams of body weight a day. If you notice one of the kittens is not gaining weight, is losing weight, or is falling behind the others, that's a key indicator of the syndrome, Demos says. Weighing them daily will help you keep track of this.  

Also, closely watch the litter. You may notice one kitten that seems left out of activities like nursing and playing with siblings. The mama cat may even push the kitten away and not let it nurse. Those are red flags. 

A kitten affected by the syndrome may also have symptoms such as: 

  • Loss of appetite (not eating as much as littermates)
  • Dull hair coat
  • Lack of meowing or other sounds
  • Weakness and fatigue

How to Take Immediate Action (Treatment)

A kitten that isn't nursing and cuddling with mom and littermates can quickly become dehydrated. Her body temperature and blood sugar can drop dangerously low, too. 

To warm your sick kitten, wrap her in a towel to contain her body heat. You can also apply a hot water bottle or heating pad to the towel—never directly on the kitten since it could burn her. 

If your kitten seems weak and tired, rub sugar water, karo syrup, or honey on her gums to boost blood sugar and then call your vet, Demos says. "A kitten with low blood sugar can die very quickly. It won't hurt to give your kitten a little bit of sugar."

The most important thing you can do for your kitten is seek veterinary care. Antibiotics can help kittens with belly button infections. Treatments for parasites or other illnesses may help as well. 

It's important to remember that kittens have no physical reserve to fight infections or deal with issues. Contact your vet right away if you're concerned about fading kitten syndrome. Health problems in newborn kittens can quickly turn serious. That's why the number one thing you can do for your young kitties is closely monitor them to catch the earliest signs of a problem.