Fading Kittens – How To Help Sick Kittens

Sick Kittens

Although queens are usually good mothers, there are sadly occasions when kittens do not thrive after birth, and are at risk of dying. These are often described as fading kittens. There is no single cause of fading, but it is agreed that the protection provided by the mother’s milk in the early stages of life, known as colostrum, helps to ensure the kitten’s health in the crucial period after birth, before its own immune system is fully functional.

Sick KittensOrphaned kittens are at greatest risk of dying in the early stages, simply because they have not had the benefit of their mother’s early milk. ‘Formula’ milk for kittens does not have such a beneficial effect.

Q. What can I do to reduce the likelihood of losing a litter?

Ensure that the queen’s vaccinations are up to date before pregnancy, so that her immunity to infections such as FHV is boosted; this will then be passed on to her kittens.

Olostrum is produced by a queen before she produces full milk. It contains protective antibodies, which can be absorbed directly across the kitten’s intestinal tract into the blood immediately after birth.

In some litters, one kitten may be significantly smaller than the rest, and this kitten is often described as the runt. Such kittens are most likely to die, simply because they are not as strong as their littermates, and may not have obtained adequate colostrum. Supplementary feeding may be needed to help the runt survive, especially in the case of a large litter of six or more kittens.


On rare occasions, a kitten may be born with a congenital abnormality, which prevents it thriving. The most common condition of this type is a cleft palate, where the roof of the mouth is not properly sealed over. This will cause milk to run back down the kitten’s nostrils rather than entering the stomach, so that affected individuals will fail to put on weight. One of the commonest infectious causes of fading kittens is feline herpes virus (FHV). This will depress the kittens’ appetites, causing dramatic weight loss to the extent that they probably will fade away and die rapidly. The actual cause of death in such cases is typically pneumonia.

  • There are special milk replacements for kittens, but no substitute for colostrum, so it is better to foster newly-born kittens to a queen with a litter of the same age.
  • One in ten kittens may die in the first fortnight, with whole litters being lost if there is FHV.
  • If all the kittens are failing to thrive, there could be something wrong with the mother, such as mastitis – inflammation of the mammary glands.

Q. Is there any treatment for fading kittens?

This depends on the cause. If FHV is involved, the outlook is very bleak, as antibiotics will not overcome the virus. Supplementary feeding may help, but if the kittens are very weak, this must be done with care, to prevent the onset of pneumonia.

Q. My queen lost her last litter to FHV. Will her next litter be safe?

If she is vaccinated, then the chance of any problem is low. FHV only survives for one day outside the body, so there is no trace of the original virus in your home.