Kittens are one of life’s simple joys, which is why it is so heartbreaking when they don’t live to their adulthood. It is important to recognize that, in many situations, there is very little that can be done to prevent a kitten’s death.
In their first year of life, pedigree cats have an average mortality rate of 34.5%, while non-pedigree cats have an average mortality rate of 10-17%. Kitten mortality rates are generally highest in the first week of life (over 90%) and fluctuate until after kittens have been weaned.
In this article, we’ll discuss the mortality rate of kittens, fading kitten syndrome, and the biggest reasons for a kitten’s death.
What is the Mortality Rate of Kittens?
An average litter of kittens is anywhere from three to five kittens. This varies, of course, and a litter may just be one kitten or could be as big as twelve kittens. On average, cat owners expect one kitten to not make it, but there are also instances in which all the kittens do live. (Source)
There are many different ways to look at the mortality rate of kittens, but none of them make the topic any less sad. With a 34.5% mortality rate in pedigree kittens makes having these riskier compared to non-pedigree cats with their mortality rate of 10-17%. In the first week of a kitten’s life, no matter their pedigree, kittens have a mortality rate of over 90%, which drops after this week is over. Pre-weaning, a kitten’s mortality rate is approximately 15-30%. (Source)
Fading Kitten Syndrome
The term “fading kitten syndrome”, instead of being used to identify a specific sickness, is used to describe a large number of problems that can cause death in kittens. When kittens die anytime between birth and weaning, this is what fading kitten syndrome is referring to. Fading kitten syndrome appears as kittens getting sick and dying suddenly when, in truth, they’ve probably been sick from the beginning and haven’t shown very many symptoms.
These symptoms include many different things and can be shown in a variety of ways, but the most common are these: (Source)
- low body temperature
- pale gums
- low respiratory rate
- failure to root and nurse or eat
- lack of weight gain/more than 10% weight loss
Contributing Factors to the Kitten Mortality Rate
Many potential problems could arise in the birthing process. Prolonged labor and dystocia are perhaps the most significant causes of death for kittens. These can be direct results of hypoxia or trauma in the queen (mother cat). Hypoxia during birth can cause many issues for kittens that could also result in death. Kittens that have suffered from this will be weak and slow, and they will fail to nurse. Hypoxia can also result in stillbirth.
Physical trauma could also cause problems in the kitten, such as a drop or fall, or a bite from an older animal when they are still young. Even hard births can cause trauma in kittens.
Congenital abnormalities are often present in stillborn kittens, with 10-20% of stillbirths being marked with obvious physical defects. These abnormalities are more frequently seen in pedigree cats, as it is more likely that some inbreeding has happened in the pedigree cats. Some common defects include cleft palate, umbilical hernia, and skeletal defects. Severe defects usually result in stillbirth or early death.
Low Birth Weight
When they are born at a low weight, kittens become susceptible to a variety of threats. These threats include hypothermia, dehydration, respiratory failure, and sepsis. Low weights in kittens can usually be traced back to maternal malnutrition or bad health, congenital disease, in utero infections, or conditions that resulted in poor placental blood supply.
The environment that kittens are brought into is very important. There are many different factors that need to be certain way to keep kittens in the healthiest condition possible. Kittens become at risk when they are exposed to extreme temperature and humidity, poor hygiene, overcrowding, and over-handling.
The kittening room should be well-ventilated, draft-free, 65-75°F, and 55-60% humid. This provides an optimal environment for kittens, at least until they have gained more weight and a well-established routine.
To avoid malnutrition in kittens, make sure to provide good nutrition for the queen. The queen’s nutrition affects the quality of the milk she produces, which directly affects the nutrition of the kittens, as that is their primary source of nutrients. If kittens don’t get adequate nutrition, they may have a greater risk of developing hypoglycemia as adults.
It is important to note that kittens should not lose more than 10% of their body weight in their early days. While it is normal to see a bit of weight loss at the beginning, they should be quickly gaining that weight (and more) back as they nurse regularly.
Neonatal Isoerythrolysis (NI)
Neonatal Isoerythrolysis, or NI, is the immune-mediated destruction of a kitten’s erythrocytes by its mother’s antibodies. This happens within the first 24 hours of life, which is when the kitten is absorbing colostrum while nursing. The antibodies enter the kitten through the colostrum and begin their attack. This condition is most common when one of the kitten’s parents has Type B blood.
When a kitten shows symptoms of this particular disease it should be removed immediately from its mother and fostered to a Type A queen. Another alternative is to allow the kitten to be fed by formula for the next 24 hours. After this point, it should be safe to return the kitten to its mother.
While a kitten is at risk of a lot in the first few weeks of life, infection isn’t one of those things. It is actually involved in relatively few early deaths. Infection starts to pose a more significant threat when kittens reach 3-4 weeks old. At this point, kittens have had the opportunity to be exposed to more bacteria and viral infections.
Though vaccines can help with this, kittens don’t start receiving vaccines until they reach 8 weeks old, which creates a time in which kittens are much more vulnerable to these diseases and infections.