Fading Puppy and Kitten Syndrome
What Is It?
The failure to thrive in newborn puppies and kittens, or neonates, is often labeled as fading puppy and kitten syndrome. The syndrome can occur from birth to nine weeks of age, but it is usually reserved for nursing babies. Affected neonates can decline quickly and die, so immediate detection and treatment are key to survival.
Normal Neonate Behavior
- Week one and two – Normal puppy and kitten neonates sleep and nurse. They spend most of their time in a group and cry only briefly when hungry.
- Three to eight weeks – The amount of activity increases dramatically after the second week. The eyelids separate between five and 14 days. Ear canals open at six to 14 days. Other benchmarks are crawling at seven to 14 days, forelimb support at 10 days, and locomotion at three weeks of age. Teeth appear at about six weeks of age, commonly delayed in toy breeds. By the age of five or six weeks, sleeping alone is normal. These benchmarks can vary dramatically among breeds and family lines.
Clinical SignsBe sure you know what to look for and what to do if you see any of these warning signs:
- Failure to gain weight
- Staying away from the rest of the litter
- Failure to suckle
- Crying and crawling from being uncomfortable
- Cyanosis or "Blue Baby"
- Occasional sloughing of tail and toes tells us we are missing the signs of illness
CausesThe causes of fading puppy and kitten syndrome are divided into three groups: environmental, genetic, and infectious.
- Hypothermia – Puppies and kittens' body temperatures vary with the environment during the first week of life, thus making them easily susceptible to becoming too cold or too hot. They are able to shiver when they are about six days old, and this helps keep them warm. They develop the ability to pant in response to overheating within the first week. Neonates that are too cold are unable to digest food or nurse. Their heart rates drop, GI shuts down causing bacteria absorption, and moms decrease care (Bitch Culling). Hypothermia is less of an issue in warmer climates but still is a major complication the first three weeks. Too hot is equally an issue; a good sign that it is too hot is a restless puppy that is spread out and not touching litter mates.
- Maternal factors – Overweight or older moms are more likely to experience neonatal loss. Slow birthing puts puppies at risk the first week, so you should increase monitoring of these litters.
- Maternal neglect – This is rare in dogs and more common with queens. Mom's reluctance to lie with and warm the neonates, refusal to permit nursing, or lack of sufficient milk production must be identified. Large-breed or overweight dogs may also step on or clumsily crush puppies lying down.
- Environmental toxins – Avoid pine oils and phenols as well as bleach or quaternary ammonium (e.g. Parvosol—Neogen) residue. Neonatal skin is thin and translucent, allowing chemicals to be readily absorbed through the skin. Breathing chemical fumes is also a concern. If you are losing babies post-birth, bedding material and products used to clean the whelping or queening box could be the issue. Better to use gentle cleaners with little odor, and remove all residue before contact with the neonates.
- Genetic or congenital factors
- Physical defects – Although uncommon, abnormalities of the mouth, anus, skull, and heart can be causes. Pectus excavatum (Pigeon Chest), cleft pallet, or any issue they are born with should be identified.
- Birth weight – Kittens have a normal birth weight of 100 ± 10 g (3.5 ± 0.35 oz). Kittens with a birth weight of less than 90 g (3.2 oz) have poor survival rates. The normal puppy birth weight varies with breed. For example, Pomeranian birth weights are about 120 g (4.2 oz), and Great Danes weigh about 625 g (22 oz). While pups and kittens may lose a small amount of weight (< 10 percent) during the first 24 hours of life, weight gain should be steady after that. Pups should gain 10 percent of birth weight daily for three weeks, while kittens should gain seven to 10g (0.25 to 0.35 oz) a day. Babies that are 25 percent smaller than siblings have a 50 percent chance of issues in the first three weeks.
- Neonatal autoimmune hemolytic anemia – Cats have two main blood types, A and B. Some kittens' blood types do not match the queen's blood type. Kittens with type A blood that ingest colostrum while nursing from a queen with type B blood absorb antibodies that destroy their red blood cells, which leads to severe illness or death.
- Infectious agents
- Because of their immature immune systems, puppies and kittens are at risk for infection if mom is ill, through umbilicus, gastrointestinal, or contaminated environments. A clinical sign of bacterial infection in nursing pups is "fading puppy."
- Common bacterial infections: E-Coli, Klebsiella, Staphylococcus intermedius, and ß-hemolytic strep are common causes. Cephalosporins can be safely used in the neonate kitten or puppy and covers these organisms effectively.
- Viral infections: Many viruses affect neonates. Two common are:
- Canine Herpes
- Canine Parvovirus – Type 1 & 2
- Feline Herpes – Type 1
- Coronavirus – On the rise, causing diarrhea and feline infectious peritonitis.
What to DoIf a neonate starts laying away from the group, crying constantly, acting restless, or failing to nurse, they should be removed and examined at once.
Because the exact causes of fading puppy and kitten syndrome are seldom known, your veterinarian will initially focus on supportive care and diagnostics. Initial therapy will include providing supplemental warmth, nutrition and especially glucose, a broad spectrum antibiotic, and fluids to stop the fading until the cause is identified. Blue babies may get a blood transfusion and oxygen when needed, and antibiotics will be started.
If you see anything of concern and don't know the cause, get your veterinarian involved sooner rather than later. Bring in the mom and the entire litter for examination. Be sure to bring records of weight gain since birth and any other data you have collected. History of mom's exposure to other dogs or cats during the last third of pregnancy, as well as the travel history and exposure to cats/dogs who are showing is important. Location of the litter, temperature, exposure of the whelping and queening box to other animals, and birthing issues are all helpful. Mom's ease of delivery, appetite, diet, vaccinations, mothering skills history, and medications used is also needed.
Timely veterinary care provides the best chances for saving these neonates' lives. Congenital defects should be identified and corrected when possible. In purebred cats, blood types of the tom and queen can be helpful. Intensive treatment of ill neonates is time-consuming, yet extremely rewarding.
If you need help, call us at 800.786.4751.
Donald Bramlage, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Former Director of Veterinary Services at Revival Animal Health
Donald Bramlage, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, practiced veterinary medicine for 30+ years and is known for his work in managing parvovirus. He received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Kansas State University in 1985. He served as Revival's Director of Veterinary Services from 2011 until his retirement in 2019.
The materials, information and answers provided through this website are not intended to replace the medical advice or services of your personal veterinarian or other pet health care professional. Consult your own veterinarian for answers to specific medical questions, including diagnosis, treatment, therapy or medical attention.