Why do Kittens Become Sick?
By:Dr. Linda Simon
Author: Dr. Linda Simon
Dr. Linda Simon is a veterinary surgeon working with seven years of experience. She is a fellow of the British Veterinary Association and specializing in animal medicine. Also, she has been the Woman magazine resident vet for the past two years and writes a regular column for them, focusing on pets and their health.View all 18 articles Learn about our editorial process
Updated on: 10/15/2020
Kittens can either be born with health issues or develop them once they are out in the big evil world. Small kittens are particularly prone to becoming ill as they have yet to mount an effective immune system. Luckily, they do receive their mother’s antibodies in her milk, which is why it is so crucial for them to be fed in this manner.
Little ones can become ill when kept in an improper environment, such as an area that is too cold, dirty or is overcrowded. For example, feral kittens born outside in harsh weather conditions may fail to thrive if too cold and wet to feed as they should.
A sick mother is unlikely to care for and nourish a litter, especially if her diet is not adequate. Those that have not been vaccinated may well be disease carriers and many of these diseases can be passed on in the womb and during lactation.
Lactating mothers require more calories and many will be fed on kitten food to provide the additional protein and energy that they need. Those that are malnourished may not be able to provide adequately for their offspring, who may quickly ‘fade’ and pass away after birth.
READ MORE: Best Probiotics for Cats
Can Kitten be born with a Disease?
While most kittens are born healthy, certain illnesses can be seen in young kittens, many of whom are already born. These include:
- Parasites. The mother cat can pass on fleas and worms to their little ones either in their milk or externally. This is why it is important to treat kittens for parasites as early as two weeks of age and to continue their treatment throughout kitten-hood. Symptoms are not always obvious but can include itching and diarrhea.
- Viral infections such as FIV, FELV, Calici and Herpes virus can all be passed from mother to kitten. The ‘cat flu’ viruses (Calici and Herpes) can cause symptoms such as runny eyes, reduced appetite, and sneezing. Symptoms should be mild in healthy cats but may be severe in those who have not received enough colostrum or are runts.
- Neonatal Isoerythrolysis. This condition occurs when the mother’s immune cells attack the kitten’s red blood cells as they are seen as ‘foreign’. The mother’s antibodies are passed on in the first milk (colostrum). Symptoms can include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes) and failure to thrive.
- Cerebellar Hypoplasia. If the mother was infected with the Panleukopenia virus while pregnant, one or several kittens could be affected. They may exhibit ‘jerky’ movements when walking and can find it hard to judge distances when jumping. There is no cure, but those that are mildly affected will live relatively normal lives.
- Congenital defects. Some little ones are born with abnormalities, including cleft lips and palates, heart defects and skeletal disorders. It may be genetic or may have been caused by something that happened to the mother cat during pregnancy, such as ingestion of a toxin.
READ MORE: When to Wean Kittens
What are the Symptoms of a Sick Cat?
There are many different symptoms that a sick cat can display, depending on the underlying issue. When your pet ‘doesn’t seem right’ or isn’t acting as they normally should, there is likely something going on and it’s time to start the detective work.
A myriad of symptoms can be displayed by an unwell kitty including vomiting, diarrhea, and increased/decreased hunger, an increased/decreased thirst, lethargy, cough or sneeze, panting, a bloated abdomen, etc. Often, an unwell cat will have quite vague symptoms that are hard to describe, such as a reluctance to play or a desire to hide away from the family. These signs can be seen with a range of illnesses and are simply an indicator that something is going on.
Much like in humans, which symptoms a cat will display depends entirely on the illness they have. However, symptoms are rarely specific for one specific thing, so a vet check (and often some diagnostic tests) is generally recommended. For example, coughing can be seen with asthma but it can also indicate an upper respiratory tract infection or lungworm. Similarly, increased appetite is a sign of diabetes, but those with an overactive thyroid also experience this symptom.
READ MORE: Raising a Kitten
Do runt Kittens have more Health Problems?
A ‘runt’ is defined as the smallest in the litter and it is not uncommon for one kitten to be born smaller and to remain smaller than the rest of their siblings. These kittens have typically received fewer nutrients in the womb and have a smaller appetite and are weaker once born.
In the early days, the runt can be more likely to pass away, mainly if they are not feeding well or being ‘bullied’ by the rest of the litter. They may well need an extra hand and some bottle feeding.
In some cases, the small size of the kitten is directly caused by a congenital defect such as a cleft palate, which In some cases, the small size of the kitten is directly caused by a congenital defect such as a cleft palate, which makes feeding more difficult. So, it is always important to check runts over thoroughly for any direct cause of their reduced size.
READ MORE: Helping a Cat with Eye Injury
What can cause a Kitten to die?
Sadly, it’s true that sick kittens are far more likely to pass away than sick cats. Most deaths occur in the first week of life. This is because they have lower fat reserves and are more prone to low blood sugar and hypothermia. Those born to unvaccinated mothers and who perhaps did not get enough breast milk, typically have low levels of circulating antibodies and are less able to fight infection.
Some cats are born with congenital diseases (such as heart defects or intestinal malformations) which can make them very ill and, if left untreated, can cause them to die.
When a kitten is ill, we always need to take it seriously and many will need to be admitted to the veterinary clinic for intensive treatment, which may include oxygen therapy, antibiotics, and intravenous fluid therapy.
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