Kittens under 8 weeks old are extremely fragile. Their body temperatures need to stay warmer than you may think and drop very quickly. They are tiny and extremely susceptible to a multitude of illnesses and diseases, and they can become very sick very quickly if they are not eating enough and/or frequently enough.
When a kitten becomes frail, lethargic, or sick, this is called “Fading Kitten Syndrome” and it’s extremely life threatening. Kittens can go from great to terrible in a matter of minutes, with no warning, and sometimes for no reason at all. It’s important to recognize the symptoms and know the steps to take if and when you are faced with a fading kitten.
Know The Signs:
The two main causes of FKS are hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and hypothermia (too cold of body temperature) so these are the two areas we focus on when dealing with a fragile kitten.
Step One: Get That Kitty Warm Again!
Even though you have provided your kitten with a heat source, you must now apply additional heat for this kitten – remember to never apply a heat source directly to the kitten’s body as this can cause serious burning and even overheating (aren’t kittens complicated?). The best thing you can do in this situation is called a “Burrito Roll.” Take a heating pad, place a blanket or towel over the pad, place the kitten on top of that (with his/her head near the edge) and wrap the kitten up in your double layer “burrito” so that he/she is completely rolled up in the heating pad and blanket. You want to make sure it isn’t too tight so that the kitten can breathe, and that the kittens face is easily accessible for your next step.
If you do not have a heating pad, you can do two things. Keep your dryer running constantly with towels and replace the outer layer towel with a warm dryer towel every 5 minutes (be sure to still keep a blanket or towel in between your warm towel and the kitten) OR you can fill up two large socks with uncooked rice (tying the ends so the rice will not spill out), and warm them in the microwave for 3 minutes. Place a rice filled sock on each side of the kitten with a blanket or towel wrapped around the kitten still) and reheat one sock at a time every 30 minutes. It’s important that you reheat one at a time so the remaining heat from one sock will keep the kitten from cooling completely in that 3-minute time span. It seems short, but it’s enough time to undo all the progress you may have already made.
Step Two: Get Kitty’s Blood Sugar Back Up
A cold kitten should not be given food or started on this second step. Once their body is no longer cold to the touch, their ears have warmed up, or the pads of their feet are no longer cold, you can start step two.
Fill a bowl or Tupperware dish with sugar water or a syrup (like maple or agave syrup – you may have to add a tiny bit of water to make it a little more runny). It’s important that this mixture is still very sugary and thick, but runny enough to distribute to the kitten. You can administer this sugary mix in two ways – rubbing it directly on to their gums with your finger, or dropping 3 drops into their mouths with a syringe. If the kitten is unresponsive or not swallowing the mixture, you do not want to try to force it down their throat as this can cause them to aspirate, or choke. Instead, focus on getting the syrup directly on to their gums and tongue/roof of their mouth.
The goal is to apply the syrup to their mouths no more than every 3 minutes. Set a timer to help yourself keep track. If you go over 3 minutes, you may as well not even be administering the sugar. If the kitten is EXTREMELY lethargic, shoot for every minute and a half to three minutes. Again, never wait longer than 3 minutes to reapply the syrup.
Generally, it is not recommended to rush the kitten to the vet, as tempting as this may seem, for many reasons. The kitten will continue to drop in body temperature and blood sugar, as you drive them to your vet. It’s more important to raise both their body temperature and blood sugar levels, rather than get them to a vet, who will only follow the same above steps (if the kitten makes it that far). Additionally, even an emergency vet clinic works on a first come, first serve basis, which means you may sit their waiting, when you could instead be at home making this kitten your top priority. The sooner you are able to administer these two steps and focus all of your attention on the kitten, the better chance the kitten has of a successful recovery.
There is no set time for a kitten to recover from FKS. Sometimes you are lucky, and the kitten recovers with 30-60 minutes. Other times, it takes a kitten a few hours to fully recover and be able to stand, move, and eat again. (We should note how important it is that you never try to feed a kitten suffering from FKS. You must ALWAYS wait until the kitten has made a full recovery before offering formula or gruel).
As sad as it is, some kittens do not recover from FKS. Cats generally have such large litters because kittens are so fragile and can pass away so easily. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a fading kitten, is keep him warm and comfortable until he finally does pass. It’s disheartening and extremely sad, but please do not give up on the amazing work you are doing! Many times kittens fade for no fault of yours, or have an illness that is unknown. There are many support groups on social media and through animal rescues where you can find stories and help if you are having a hard time accepting and moving on from the grief of losing a kitten, and we encourage you to do some research and find these groups to help you cope with the loss. Remind yourself that without you, this kitten (and his/her littermates) would probably have never stood a chance at survival, and not only have you given them that, you have shown them love and made their time comfortable.
Thank you for taking on the demanding job of kitten care; it’s exhausting and difficult, but is so rewarding. You’ve done and are doing an amazing and wonderful thing!
For additional help, please check out these great, in-depth resources:
Note: Photos used from Best Friends Animal Society, San Antonio Pets Alive!, and Austin Pets Alive!
Guest Blog by: Sondra Davenport, Neonatal Kitten Expert
Urban Paw is an innovative pet products company providing pets with the best sleep possible. From cat huts, cat cuddlers and cat houses to dog mattresses, dog huts and dog houses, Urban Paw offers long lasting pet beds and stylish pet beds for dogs and cats. Affordable pet beds designed for comfort and style, Urban Paw is dedicated to helping cat rescues and dog rescues raise funds and awareness for animals in need.