Identifying and Caring for a Sick Kitten

Do you enjoy being sick? Of course not! It is easy to understand that being a sick kitten is no fun. And as an owner seeing your small helpless kitty undergo sickness can be quite upsetting.

Sick kittens cry quite a bit, have a poor appetite and are inactive. If the problem is not addressed quickly, the kitten could die.  Kittens need quick action because their kidney's operate at only 25% of that of an adult, causing very fast dehydration.

What can you as the owner do to address any kitten health problems? You can start by calling your Vet or if the matter isn't urgent, ask our Vet a question and we will answer it for free here.

Note that some circumstances are perfectly normal. For example. kitten ears and eyes remain closed until 3 to 16 days after birth. Eyes that appear off center (Divergent strabismus) is normal until age 8 weeks.

As the owner, and the human in charge - you are responsible for making sure your kitty is well cared for and nurtured back to good health. If you know what kitten illness your kitty is suffering from - kitten care is a bit easier. It is also important to understand the difference between a sick kitten and one that is simply tired.

Non Emergencies

list of sick kitten symptoms that are not emergenciesFor these sick kitten non-emergencies, monitor and call veterinarian for advice

Is Your Kitten Sick or Just Fatigued?

Just like us, kittens can get sick for any number of reasons. Maybe your kitten has recently undergone surgery and isn't quite healed yet.

Maybe your kitten just has a mild Upper Respiratory infection or cold, or perhaps she has kitten fleas.

Your adventurous little missy may have injured herself while climbing or jumping. The signs your kitty displays should help you find out what is wrong with her. Kittens that are just born do not have any natural immunity until they start feeding on the mothers milk. In the short period between birth and feeding they are exposed to bacteria and other pathogens that could cause illness.

Signs of Kitten Fatigue

It can be easy for an inexperienced kitten owner to mistake a fatigued kitty for a sick kitten. Kittens are growing a lot during their first year of life, so a lot of sleep is normal. Sleep helps build your kittens immune system, and helps her to develop into a healthy full grown adult cat. 

It is perfectly normal for your kitty to be fatigued after any of these things: 

  • Vaccinations
  • New Medications (such as dewormers or anti-flea)
  • Stress (such as during a Vet visit or when moving to a new home) 

If your kitty is sleeping a lot but still has a healthy appetite and good co-ordination she is more than likely just fatigued.

Fading Kitten Syndrome

A kitten may display fatigue if she is suffering from fading kitten syndrome. The syndrome can occur after birth or several weeks later.

If they are born and do not receive the right amount of heat or is injured during birth, it can lead to death. Kittens that are born underweight are also at risk.  A low birth weight kitten may be crowded out by others in the litter.

If the kitten does not nurse properly, it can lead to shock and dehydration. The kittens temperature can drop resulting in breathing difficulty and and change in heart rate.  If the temperature moves below 94F (34.4C) more kitten health problems occur. Signs include a kitten that lies on the side after losing the ability to crawl or get up.

If the condition and signs go untreated, the kitten will die.

Some kittens that were born looking normal, but fail to thrive and grow normally after several weeks could be suffering from fading kitten syndrome. This could be the result of kittens that are smaller in size or that are not nursing normally.

It is thought that the condition may be caused by exposure to a virus such as:

  •  FIP
  • FeLV
  • Streptococcus canis
  • Genetics
  • Nutritional deficiency (taurine deficiency)
  • Toxins
  • Poor care from the mother

Diseases such as FIP or FeLV may come from an infected mother.

Signs Your Kitten is Sick

  • Kitten diarrhea (sign of a problem that needs immediate care due to the risk of dehydration)
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Sneezing
  • Poor Appetite
  • Limping
  • Behavioral Changes
  • Whimpering
  • Lack of Activity or Lethargic behavior
  • More vocalizing
  • Coughing or other respiratory problems

These are all symptoms of some type of intestinal irritation from something the kitten ate.

The same irritation can cause diarrhea.

Healthy vs. Sick Kitten

A healthy kitten will feel round and firm to the touch. They will want to nurse and you will see moisture around the tongue and mouth.  They will also seek the warmth of a parent. Healthy kittens also tend not to cry.

Signs of a sign kitten include:

  • Slow movement
  • Appear drab and limp
  • Cold to the touch
  • Look like they "hang" when held
  • Little interest in nursing from mother
  • Easily tires
  • Sleep with legs apart or splayed
  • Necks bend to the side
  • Make sounds for 20 minutes or more
  • Rejection by the mother (often when body is cool, which can be corrected through warming.)  


These are the most common kitten health emergencies that require immediate attention from a veterinarian.

  • Breathing Problems:
  • Choking and Coughing

Review these kitten health symptoms as a guideline for when emergency treatment is needed.

list of sick kitten symptoms that are emergenciesThese sick kitten emergencies require immediate veterinary care! Failure to do so could result in death

Coughing and Choking

 Coughing or choking can indicate that fluid is collecting in the lungs. This can keep the kitten from getting the oxygen needed to avoid other problems. Coughing is related to:

  • Viruses
  • Fungal pneumonia
  • Allergic bronchitis
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Bacterial infection

Kitten Respiratory Problems

 If you see the kitten laboring with each breath, it could be a sign of a problem such as an infectious diseases and even pneumonia.   It could also indicate that a foreign object such as grass is caught in the trachea or throat.  Other causes are heart failure, allergies and the ingestion of a poison or toxin.  All of these mandate a trip to the veterinarian. Diagnosis is usually via an X-Ray to see what is causing the problem.

Upper Respiratory Infection (URI)

Upper respiratory issues  are the common cause of kitten breathing problems. An upper respiratory infection (URI)  is a common cause of kitten coughing.

Symptoms include:

  • Runny nose and nasal congestion
  • Runny eyes
  • Sneezing

Nasal congestion can keep the kitten from nursing. Failure to nurse can cause problems such as the formation of bacteria in the bloodstream which in turn can cause a condition called sepsis conjunctivitis and blindness.

In this case a veterinarian will show you how to carefully pry apart the eyelids as soon as lid separation occurs. The eye is then cleaned with saline solution. Antibiotics are applied every 2 to 4 hours.  A humidifier can help with the nasal congestion while fluids provided by a line placed just under the skin that contain nutrition will help combat the bacterial infection.

If a kitten has trouble breathing he should be taken to a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Kitten Diarrhea and Vomiting

Diarrhea and vomiting, either together or separately can indicate multiple kitten care issues including:

  • ingestion of toxins
  • Viral or Bacterial Infections
  • Ingestion of a foreign object
  • Parasites

Both cause the kitten to quickly become dehydrated, requiring immediate care. A kittens condition can rapidly decline in just a few hours.

Injury or Trauma

There are countless ways a fragile kitten can become injured.  This includes:

  • Car Accident
  • Injury from an animal or pet
  • Falls

These injuries can cause kitten health problems such as:

  • External skin wounds
  • Internal bleeding
  • Lacerations
  • Broken bones
  • Shock
  • Internal injuries
  • Pain

Injuries can be life-threatening.  If you suspect anything, see a veterinarian to prevent a simple problem from becoming difficult to treat.

Kitten Bleeding

Bleeding for a known problem that doesn't go on too long or when you know the cause, such as a cut toenail is not an emergency.

Bleeding that results in a significant loss of blood could cause the kitten to go into shock. If this is the case it required immediate veterinary care.

Eating a Foreign Body

Kittens are extremely curious and may eat something that she shouldn't. Some objects can cause kitten stomach problems such as a perforation or obstruction.  If these objects get caught they could lead to suffocation and choking. 

Cats are particularly attracted to long thin objects such as fishing wire, rope, ribbon or string.  All of these require immediate attention.

Kitten Pain

There are several signs of kitten pain:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Panting
  • Restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Pacing

If you see these signs of kitten pain, see a veterinarian.

Kitten Poisoning

Call a veterinarian or poison control hotline such as the one offered by the ASPCA if you believe that your kitten has ingested a poison.  Common poisons include:

  • Poisonous plants (true lilies and others)
  • Antifreeze
  • Cleaners
  • Medications (OTC and RX)
  • Fertilizer
  • Gardening products
  • Rodent poison (rodenticide)
  • Chocolate
  • Insecticide

Kitten Allergy Symptoms

Kitten allergy symptoms can be seen after exposure to an allergen such as an insect bite or a vaccination reaction.  Symptoms include:

  • Collapse
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Facial swelling
  • Itch
  • Hives

If you see any of these kitten allergy symptoms, see a veterinarian who will address any health problems with supportive care, while seeking to understand the cause of the problem.

Kitten Fever

There are multiple reasons that can cause a kitten fever such as heat stroke and infection. If a kitten has a temperature higher than 104°F see a veterinarian.

Kitten Weight Loss

Weight loss can be indication of a sick kitten.

  • Kittens that are 25% under weight at birth as compared to others in the litter have a poor chance of survival
  • Weight loss of less than 10% in first 24 hours of life: watch carefully
  • More than 10% weight loss in 48 hours after birth, but no gain in 72 hours: kitten may not survive, see veterinarian for instructions on supplemental feeding

If the cause of the weight loss is not congenital or due to disease, a kitten can be saved through placement in an incubator and fed by hand.

Kitten Dehydration

Kittens are at risk of dehydration due to decreased kidney function at birth. The decreased function results in frequent urination. The urination could result in dehydration if the kitten is not nursing properly.

Kitten dehydration symptoms:

  • dry mouth
  • bright pink tongue
  • poor muscle tone
  • lethargy or weakness

A simple test to detect dehydration is to pinch the skin. If it pulls back into shape, the kitten is not dehydrated. If it stays in a fold, then the kitten is dehydrated.

If a kitten is  not doing well, is cold and is losing weight, it could be dehydrated.  To address any dehydration provide kitten formula which will provide nutrition and water.  Warm the formula to avoid chilling the kitten.

Diagnosis of Kitten Health Issues

To diagnose a sick kitten, a veterinarian will take a blood test to check blood glucose levels, white blood counts and levels of urea (nitrogen levels in the blood). The blood test can determine if problems such as low blood sugar exist (hypoglycemia).  A urine sample may also be needed.

Hypoglycemia in kittens is caused by higher than normal metabolism, nursing problems, hypothermia (low body temperature), and bacteria in the bloodstream (called sepsis).

Urine tests, umbilical discharge, diarrhea, and discharge from the nose can all be examined for signs of infection.

Congenital Defects

Kittens can suffer from a number of congenital defects.  These include:

  • Cleft palate (prevents nursing)
  • Navel hernia (cause prolapse of abdominal organs)
  • Heart defects (cause circulatory failure)
  • Esophageal closure
  • Pyloric stenosis
  • Atresia
  • Problems or malformations near the eyes
  • Skeletal malformations

Caring For A Sick Kitten

There are things you can do to make your ill kitty feel better faster. These include making a safe kitten haven, helping your kitty keep clean and just being there for him or her.

  • Your kitty might not feel like eating, but eating will help your kitten to regain her strength faster. Try to make sure they eat something, even if it is just a little bit. If your kitten flat out refuses to eat - take them to the vet.
  • Create a safe private kitty haven. Make this an area where you kitty feel safe and comforted. Make sure she has her favorite blankets, fresh food and water. Encourage the family members to leave her in peace, but make sure to check in on your kitten from time to time to ensure she hasn't gotten worse. Disinfect the area where the kitten is kept using a solution that contains bleach (32 parts water to 1 part bleach).  Rinse and disinfect all bowls and toys.
  • Felines are very clean and fastidious. Ensure your sick kitty is able to stay clean and tidy, even if she is not up to much grooming herself. Use a warm moist cloth to wipe away sleep from the corner of her eyes and wipe her nose. Particularly for long haired cats - fur can become quite a mess. Gently brush your kittens fur to keep it tidy. 

Remember that a sick kitten relies on you to help nurse them through their illness. Take care of them, keeping a watchful eye out in case your kittens sickness develops into something worse. If you notice your feline is not getting better - take her to your veterinarian.

The veterinarian will monitor kidney and liver function closely to adjust treatment accordingly.

In the sad case that a kitten passes away, a veterinarian may want to determine the cause in order to avoid the problem sin other kittens in the litter.

Free Brochure on Caring for Kitten Health Problems

Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Thomovsky on neonatal sick kitten care.
Available in a free Ebook

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Identifying and Caring for a Sick Kitten


What Causes Cats and Kittens to Vomit

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