What's Wrong with My Kitten?

Kittens can go from feeling fine to sick as a dog very quickly. Watch for these signs of illness.

Mother cats, or queens, have so many kittens because in a natural setting few babies survive. With predators, disease, parasites, accidents and birth defects, a queen is fortunate to have any kittens make it to adulthood. Even in a cattery setting with a vetted, well-fed queen, kittens struggle to beat the 20% mortality rate. Unfortunately with orphan kittens, it’s even higher.

In almost every medical situation, you’ve been instructed to call or go to the vet. That’s because issues you might not even notice in a mature cat can quickly kill a bottle baby. Some conditions can become deadly overnight or even within hours.

Be proactive to protect the kitten and your own pets. Hold a weigh-in each morning. Her weight should increase a little each day. It should never decrease. Don’t let her come in contact with your pets unless they’re vaccinated and healthy. And always wash your hands before and after handling the kitten.

Despite the angelic face, she could have already come in contact with deadly diseases and parasites. You don’t want your pets giving her diseases either. When she’s three weeks old, ask your vet about worming and vaccinations. Since she can’t benefit from her mother’s immunity, you need to give her every other advantage, that includes earlier than usual vaccinations.

Signs that your kitten could be in trouble:

  • Body temperature over 103°F or under 99°F
  • Constant crying
  • Decreased appetite
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Continuous diarrhea
  • Losing weight or failing to gain weight
  • Dehydration
  • Bleeding
  • Trauma
  • Lethargy
  • Pale gums

Here are the most common health problems that threaten your baby.

Diarrhea isn’t a disease. It’s the umbrella description for runny or watery poop. It can be caused by internal parasites, bacteria (or lack of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract), or viruses like a panleukopenia (distemper), feline leukemia, or a corona virus. More mundane causes include: change in diet, stress, or overfeeding. If she’s experiencing a mild case of diarrhea but acts happy and alert, try adding more water to the formula or cut back on the amount you feed her.

Checking for dehydration:

  • She’s passing dry and hard poop
  • Her gums and mouth feel sticky or gummy to the touch. A healthy mouth should feel moist.
  • Her pee will appear darker than usual: dark yellow, red or brown.
  • Tenting skin, which is a more accurate indicator in kittens over six weeks. Pull up on the skin at the scruff of the neck. If it only takes a second to snap back, she should be fine. If it takes longer or doesn’t return to the muscle, she is dehydrated.


Your kitten can become plugged up as a result of dehydration. (Yes, we’re back to that again.)

Add a little more water to the formula, or if you’re weaning, to her gruel. It could also be a symptom of an intestinal blockage or foreign body. If she doesn’t pass a stool in 48 hours, you definitely need to see a vet. If she begins to vomit, take her to the vet immediately.

Upper Respiratory Infections (URI)

Kittens are more susceptible to disease than adult cats, but orphans are even more at risk for upper respiratory infections. Don’t treat her with over-the-counter medications, as many contain aspirin or acetaminophen, which are toxic to cats. As soon as you notice sniffles or sneezing, take your orphan to the vet. You can’t begin treatment too soon with kittens so vulnerable.

URIs are very contagious, so if you have other cats, keep the sick kitten contained in a bathroom. With these three diseases kittens usually experience:

  • nasal and eye discharge
  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • sneezing
  • possibly mouth ulcers
  • limping from joint pain.

Just like human colds, kitten colds must run their course. Vets treat the symptoms. Your kitten may receive antibiotics to fight bacterial infection. Kittens might also need subcutaneous (under the skin) fluids. Because congested kittens cannot smell their food, they won’t eat, and your vet may recommend force feeding or tube feeding. A vaporizer will help loosen nasal gunk.


If you found her outside, your kitten may arrive with a thriving population of fleas. While fleas only measure 2mm, and individually only consume a small drop of blood, collectively an infestation in an orphan kitten can cause potentially fatal anemia. Fleas will also give your kitten tapeworms. So the poor little thing is attacked from outside and from within.

Only use flea treatment labeled safe for the age and size of your kitten. You can safely remove fleas from kittens younger than eight weeks by combing them thoroughly with a very fine-tooth flea comb.

It can be difficult to see the little booger if the kitten has dark or dense fur, but just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not feasting on her blood. Give the baby a bath with kitten-safe shampoo. Once you eyeballed the fleas against the suds, pull them out using the flea comb.

Fading Kitten Syndrome

In this devastating condition, a kitten who appears healthy begins to rapidly fade away for no apparent reason. This usually happens within several weeks of birth. Causes range from a virus to a birth defect to blood incompatibility with the mother. These kittens act healthy one day, then stop nursing, lose weight and die. FKS is more common among pedigreed cats than the kitty population at large.

Don’t be deceived by all the warm, fuzzy feelings (and there are a boatload of them), there may be some tearful moments. Sometimes the kittens are just too weak, or sick to make it. But if those terrible moments come, just remember, that without you she couldn’t even have made it that far. You at least gave her a chance.