Signs of illness in kittens – developmentally immature, chilling, worms and feline herpesvirus

Newborn kittens
Newborn kittens. Photo: Pinterest.
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Kittens are susceptible to various disorders, from digestive ailments to the deadly feline herpesvirus. People should familiarise themselves with the following symptoms as they may indicate something is wrong with a young cat.

  • A kitten who is rejected by his mother maybe ill.
  • Kittens who avoid nursing may be suffering from some disorder. Some kittens, however, simply need to be taught how to nurse. Such a kitten can be nursed by hand.
  • A kitten who constantly cries is signalling that something is wrong. It may be either sick or hungry. Healthy kittens are usually quiet.
  • If a kitten moves slowly and with great effort, it may be ill. Healthy kittens are vigorous and quick-moving.
  • If the skin of a kitten is not resilient by which I mean that when the skin is gently pulled it does not snap back into place, the kitten could be suffering from dehydration.
  • Pale gums instead of being red or pinkish may indicate malnutrition.
  • A potbellied kitten may be suffering from constipation, parasites or inadequate milk intake.
  • Diarrhoea is the symptom of a serious intestinal disorder. Mucous mixed with blood in the stools may indicate a roundworm or hook worm infestation.

Many kittens suffer from roundworms; tapeworms and hookworms are also common internal parasites (endoparasites) in kittens and cats. Diarrhoea is one common symptom of worm infestation. Worms can kill kittens.

RELATED: Can worms kill kittens?

You should have your veterinarian check your kitten’s stools to make certain they are worm-free. Kittens with roundworms should be dewormed at two or three weeks of age. A second deworming treatment should be given a 5 to 6 weeks of age.

Father cat shows contempt for his newborn kitten who lost his mother in kittenbirth
Father cat shows contempt for his newborn kitten who lost his mother in kitten birth. Screenshot.

A leading cause of early death in kittens would be chilling. As is the case with human babies, kittens are extremely vulnerable to a variety of medical dangers during the first 15 days of life. Two of the greatest killers of young kittens are chills and the disease known as feline herpesvirus.


When a kitten is born her body temperature is about that of her mother’s. The temperature drops to about 92.5°F -96°F over the first two days, rising to about 98°F by the end of the first week. In the first few days of life, kittens are unable to compensate for heat loss when the temperature drops lower than the temperature of the nest. The body temperature of a kitten can drop quickly.

The symptoms include kittens becoming restless and starting to cry. The colder she becomes, the higher-pitched her crying. If she is not warmed up soon, the kitten will die.

The treatment is to keep a chilled kitten moderately warm but do not attempt to affect an instant, huge rise in temperature. Place the kitten beneath your sweater or jacket next to your skin. To prevent chilling, the room temperature where the maternity box is located should be 70-72°F and free from drafts.

Fading kitten syndrome

Fading Kitten syndrome can be due to the feline herpesvirus; a very insidious disease. Immediately after birth, the mother might appear healthy, her milk production seems adequate and all the kittens are nursing normally and yet, a few hours later, a kitten can be dead.

The cause might be the deadly feline herpesvirus acquired by kittens as they pass through the vagina during birth. It usually affects kittens one week after birth. Kittens affected by this virus who are older than three weeks will not die from it, but will suffer mild symptoms from the infection.

The symptoms include a cessation of nursing, yellow-green diarrhoea, acute abdominal pain, vomiting, pitiful crying and laboured breathing.

The treatment, if you notice any of these symptoms is to consult your veterinarian immediately. Treatment will depend upon the age of the kitten and the extent of damage incurred.

Fading Kitten syndrome can also apply to the developmentally immature kitten. These kittens are at a disadvantage in terms of survival because of their low birthweight and lack of muscle mass. They may be unable to breathe properly or nurse effectively. They may struggle to maintain body warmth. The weight maybe considerably below that of the siblings. They might be crowded out by the siblings. They might be forced to nurse at the least productive nipple. They become chilled, dehydrated and they might develop a “shock like state due to circuitry failure”. Their temperature drops as does their heart rate and breathing.

Their vital functions become depressed and they lose their crawling and writing ability and end up lying on their sides. Poor circulation affects the brain resulting in muscle tremors which progresses to coma and periods of breathlessness lasting up to a minute at which point their ill-health is irreversible and they will die.

Sometimes the mother can be infected with toxoplasmosis, feline leukaemia, feline panleukopenia or feline infectious peritonitis which she transmits to her kittens in utero. These kittens will be small and weak at birth after which they sicken and die within the first few days.

Sources: myself, The American Animal Hospital Association Encyclopedia of Cat Health and Care and Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook.

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