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By Dr. Urs Giger, University of Pennsylvania

“Born totally dependent upon their mothers, new born kittens , even in the best circumstances with attentive mothers and well maintained nursery environments, may die during the first few days of life. While a small number of kitten losses may be unavoidable, a high mortality rate causes concern for breeders and Veterinarians.  Many newborn kittens appear healthy, active and keen to nurse only to fade during the first few says of weeks of life.

Cat breeders usually are experienced at detecting signs of distress, when kittens are constantly crying, stay separate from their litter or lack vigor.  Looking for signs of hypothermia, weight loss or becoming dehydrated are part of the breeders constant vigil. 

Fading kitten or wasting conditions are general terms that describe signs of many helath problems that can lead to kitten mortality.  Unfortunately, fading in young kittens is not very well understood.  Typically the kittens fail to gain weight or thrive.  Pinpointing the cause can be difficult for Veterinarians because causes can range widely from problems of pregnancy or parturition, environmental maintenance, physiologic maladjustment, infections, traum, inattention by the mother and genetic disorders.

Birth weight is an important predictor of kitten survival.  Kittens that succumb during lactation or immediately after they’ve been weaned often had a low birth weight and/or poor growth during early to mid-lactation.  Kittens should weight no less than 90 to 100 grams at birth and should gain a minimum of 10 grams a day.  Failure to gain weight over any 24 hour period is worthy of investigation.

Due to the small size of their stomachs, in the beginning kittens my nurse up to several times an hour, eventually tapering off to four to six times a day for the first few weeks.  Infrequent or weak  nursing can be one of the first signs of environmental problems such as chilling, birth related problems or various other health conditions.  Hypothermia can be an effect or a cause of inadequate nursing.  Kittens that do not receive sufficient milk may cry constantly, be restless or extremely inactive, and fail to achieve the expected weight gain of 10 to 15 grams a day.

From a nutritional standpoint the first 36 hours may be the most significant period of a kitten’s entire life.  During this time, mothers produce colostrums, a special “first milk” that provides a passive immune defense.  A kitten’s failure to acquire this passive immunity puts them at risk for infectious conditions. 

Colostrum contains maternal antibodies that are absorbed by a kitten’s intestinal tract.  Once absorbed the immunoglobulins filter to the blood stream, where they bind to bacteria and viruses.  The intestinal tracts of newborn kittens are only capable of absorbing intact antibodies for 16 to 24 hours after birth. In older kittens and adult cats, normal digestive processes would result in complete destruction of these antibodies, making them unavailable to the body as immune defense. Although material antibodies are important, they may also cause problems.  Blood type A or AB kittens born to type B mothers are at risk of developing neonatal iserythrolysis as the absorbed colostral antibodies can destroy the red blood cells of the kitten leading to anemia and often death in the first few days of life.  

Colostrum sometimes is not enough to fight the organisms that cause some types of wasting.  Also, some mothers just are not naturally good mothers, putting their kittens at risk for exposure or starvation.  It is a good idea to make sure the mother is producing enough milk and is not having mammary gland problems.

Older kittens with wasting disorders usually appear depressed and anorectic.  They may have complicating respiratory or enteric conditions or even skin or systemic infections.  Since young kittens have less energy reserve than adult cats, they often have little or not tolerance for anorexia.  Their survival depends on their mothers ability to care for them and their ability to suckle and to digest, absorb and utilize nutrients.  Prolonged inadequate food intake can compromise metabolic functions to the point that an anorectic kitten could die within one or two days.

Kitten mortality tends to vary among catteries, breeds and individual queens.  Monitoring new litters for potential problems is a must.  The list of causes of fading kittens is:  *Inadequate environmental management, especially poor control of temperature, humidity and degree of crowding.  *Maternal trauma/neglect.  *Birth trauma.  *Infection.  *Inborn error of metabolism.  *Immature physiologic processes.  *Inadequate lactation.  *Neonatal isoerythrolysis.  *Congenital anatomic defects.



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