fading kitten syndrome

Fading Kitten Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

What Is Fading Kitten Syndrome?

It is good to know what fading kitten syndrome is if you are a cat owner – especially to a newborn kitten. It is a syndrome that can affect all cats and it, unfortunately, can be fatal in many instances. However, with quick treatment, kittens can be nursed back to health so knowing what the syndrome is and what its symptoms are, is key to making sure that your kitten stays in prime health.

Fading Kitten Syndrome is not something that can be seen as a solitary illness, however. Instead, it is a variety of symptoms and weaknesses that are caused by many issues in kittens.

Here we look at those causes and what the symptoms are for easy early identification as well as the treatments that are offered to cats with fading kitten syndrome and what caregivers can do to help prevent the disease from developing in the first place.

kittens affected by fading syndrome

Fading Kitten Syndrome: The Causes

The causes of fading kitten syndrome are very varied but it is thought that the following can be key drivers of a cat developing the syndrome:

  • Rejected by mother: As in humans, the mother’s ability to supply, but also provide milk is key. If the kitten is rejected by its mother or even if the mother is present but unable to nurse the kittens (either due to wanting or an inadequate milk supply), a kitten is already on the back foot when it comes to maturing. They can become malnourished so that they are at risk of developing other illnesses or picking up a life-threatening virus.
  • Trauma: If any animal suffers a trauma, their ability to cope with shock is always much less than in humans. However, if a kitten is involved in a trauma, they are at risk of developing fading kitten syndrome as the shock of the trauma can lead to hypothermia – especially if that trauma means that they are sadly separated from their mother.
  • Parasites: Parasites like roundworm or coccidia have often been linked to fading kitten syndrome as they have been identified as a key cause behind the breakdown in a young cat’s immune system so that they are unable to fight off other nasty bugs and infections. In fact, when the immune system completely breaks down, a cat is said to be suffering from thymus atrophy.
  • Bacterial or Viral Infections: Similar to parasites, a bacterial or viral infection can cause the start of fading kitten syndrome and are more often than not what are found to be why a cat has passed away. For instance, a cat could contract sepsis from bacterial infections or a viral infection, like FIV (or feline AIDS) is another trigger for the syndrome to develop.
  • Hereditary issues: As in humans, some of us are predisposed to picking up bugs and illnesses. Hereditary issues can cause the beginning of fading kitten syndrome as some cats just are not built with a strong immune system or perhaps they have other serious defects surrounding their heart or circulatory system. It would be like a human baby boy being born with a heart defect – he would be more susceptible to other illnesses. It is the same with cats but they go on to develop fading kitten syndrome.
  • Hemolytic anemia: This is when a kitten has a different blood type to its mother. This has been thought to be another cause of fading kitten syndrome. Sadly, it means that through a mother’s milk, a kitten will ingest antibodies that will then go on to attack its own blood cells.

The similarity that links all these varied causes is that eventually, a kitten’s immune system cannot cope due to being far too immature to deal with the symptoms of illnesses. These symptoms then bring about other catastrophic side effects like dehydration and hypothermia. These side effects can cause internal organs to begin to shut down and so a kitten’s body starts to fail on them. Sadly, this is when fading kitten syndrome can be fatal.

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Fading Kitten Syndrome: The Symptoms

So what are the symptoms of fading kitten syndrome? Knowing them is key to identifying and then treating your new pet.

  • Lethargy: This is one of the key signals that your new little kitten is unwell. If they have little interest in their surroundings, keep a close eye on them to see if they perk up at all. If they are just keen sleepers like many newborn cats are, then they should at some point pick up in energy in time. Those that have deeper rooted problems will just want to lie down for most of the day. This is when lethargy is more than just sleepiness and tiredness.
  • Disinterest in suckling: If your kitten does not want to, or is unable, to nurse from its mother, or when being hand-reared, then a closer monitoring of he or she is needed. Proper nursing is vital to them getting stronger and putting on the appropriate amount of weight whilst maturing. Milk is also full of vitamins and nutrients that is needed for a kitten’s growth.
  • Separating themselves from the litter: This is a behavioral sign that can be a signal to a caregiver that their kitten is not quite right and should be taken to a vet. If you see your kitten separating themselves from the rest of the kittens in their litter, they may be unwell as well as worsening their ability to nurse as much as they should be. This is a double edge sword and critical to be aware of as a fading kitten syndrome symptom.
  • Dehydrated skin: Dehydrated skin on a kitten can be hard to see, but it is a vital sign to caregivers that their cat is not well. If your kitten’s face appears gaunt, taut and even very triangular in shape, they could well be dehydrated and measures need to be taken to up their bodily fluids.
  • Fluctuating weight: Kittens should gain around 7 to 10 grams of weight a day. Owners should purchase a set of good quality scales that are accurate enough to monitor small alterations in a kitten’s weight. Aim to weigh kittens at least once a day. If they are not gaining weight, it is a good idea to go to the vets.
  • Unable to turn from their backs: Kittens should be able to turn themselves over if placed on their backs. If they can’t, it could signal that something more serious is wrong with them and close attention should be paid to them to see if there are any other signs of fading kitten syndrome.
  • Unopened eyes: Kittens should open their eyes about 5 to 14 days after birth. If your kitten still has their eyes shut after this time, or have not opened them a couple of days after the rest of the litter, think about taking them to the vet or paying closer attention to their nursing.
  • The Runt: More often than not, if a kitten passes away from fading kitten syndrome, he or she will have been the runt of the litter. It comes down to their DNA make up and ability to fight off infections. To identify the runt, just look for the smallest kitten in the litter.

When fading kitten syndrome has already taken a strong hold, owners will see neck arching, abnormal breathing and perhaps weird sounds coming out of their kitten’s mouth. If you notice any one of these symptoms, go to the vets immediately.

mother cat feeding her kittens

Fading Kitten Syndrome: The Treatments

Treating fading kitten syndrome is a two-pronged affair. Firstly, diagnosing that it is fading kitten syndrome that is affecting the kitten is fundamental. Secondly, the cause and symptoms of the syndrome need to be addressed.

This may call for many tests for the poor little kitten to go through, from checking for parasites to seeing if a kitten’s respiratory system is working properly. However, it is only after these tests are carried out that a kitten can be offered the treatment to ease their pain. For infections, this will often mean a course of antibiotics, but vets will often treat a kitten for dehydration too to ward off any further issues that fading kitten syndrome cause. Other means a vet will employ to make a kitten feel better is using thermal support to ward off hypothermia as well as giving them sugary food to eat in an effort to get their weight back up.

Sadly, fading kitten syndrome can develop too quickly to save a cat and vets may look to put them to sleep to save them from further suffering. This will be the very last resort for any vet, but it highlights how and why owners should be on the lookout for fading kitten syndrome so keenly.

What Else Can Be Done to Help Kittens with the Syndrome

For those that are going to be looking after kittens frequently and often, simply swatting up on the symptoms of fading kitten syndrome can help save a cat who develops the disease.

However, owners can also learn how to tube feed which helps any kitten who cannot swallow their milk or does not know how to suckle. There is also something called subcutaneous fluid therapy which can provide a young kitten a lifeline. This form of treatment will ward off fading kitten syndrome as it will ensure that a kitten has the optimal levels of hydration that are so key to keeping a kitten’s organs functioning. This type of therapy can also be used to administer key vitamins and minerals like iron, B12 or even a sugar solution of dextrose.

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Vets are all too happy to help teach cat caregivers these techniques to ensure that young kittens remain healthy. They have specialized knowledge that they will impart in layman’s terms to make certain that cat litters have the best chance of survival.

It is vital to know that fading kitten syndrome does not immediately mean that your cat will pass away. Instead, through education, cat caregivers are creating an environment that kittens will prosper in. Knowing the signs of fading kitten syndrome will enable a quicker identification of the problem and consequently a swift start to treatment. Early diagnosis is the best way to ensure a cat’s lead a long and happy life.

kitten with fading syndrome

The Bottom Line of Fading Kitten Syndrome

Time is of the essence when it comes to fading kitten syndrome.

It is fundamental for kitten caregivers to know that they should not wait to see if their kitten simply gets better with time. A kitten’s health can quickly deteriorate when suffering from fading kitten syndrome so it is best not to leave things to chance – take your kitten to the vet straight away if you have any sort of worry that something is not quite right with one of your litter.

Emergency vet appointments are never something that pet owners want to have to use, but never an appointment that caregivers regret going to. If possible, go to a vet that specializes in kittens as this will further help your kitten’s chance of survival.

Kittens that are at risk are ones that are fostered, but all the information included in this article is pertinent to cat owners or even well-versed breeders. It is essential for everyone to realize that fading kitten syndrome is not a death sentence but that waiting until a kitten is in crisis could mean that their chances of survival are materially diminished.


  1. J Bucheler, Fading Kitten Syndrome And Neonatal Isoerythrolysis, National Library of Medicine
  2. Clare Meade, Fading Syndrome In Kittens, Wiley Online Library
  3. Kalwas-Sliwinska, Fading Kitten Syndrome. Part I. Causes And Predilection Factors, CAB International

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