What Can Go Wrong With My Kitten?

By Sandy Eckstein
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Martinez, DVM

A kitten is a jumping, snoozing, rolling, playing ball of fun that can provide hours of entertainment. But kittens also need proper care and attention to ensure they grow up happy and healthy. So WebMD asked Drew Weigner, an American Board of Veterinary Practitioners certified specialist in feline medicine and a past president of the Academy of Feline Medicine, how to avoid kitten pitfalls.

Q: Can my kitten get diseases from her mother?

A: Most definitely. They can get feline leukemia, FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), and any number of parasites. The list goes on and on.

But because the test for FIV detects antibodies, kittens will sometimes test positive from the antibodies they receive from their mother, without actually having the disease. When they're retested at six months of age, most will be negative.

Q: How soon does my new kitten need to see a vet?

A: We tell our clients to bring any new kitten in within 24 hours of being adopted, just so we can make sure it's healthy and we can help them get it started on the right foot.

Kittens are actually more fragile than they appear, and problems can arise quickly. The big three things that I see are hypothermia, or low body temperature, hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, and dehydration. When a kitten isn't doing well, those are the three reasons we usually see. And they're easy to keep at bay, by keeping them warm and being sure they're nursing or, if they're no longer nursing, being sure they're eating. And that's a problem we see. People give kittens dry food when they're very young and they don't have any teeth. They need canned food.

Q: At what age should my kitten start his vaccinations? Why is this important?

A: The first round of vaccinations should be given at about eight weeks of age, because that's when the immunity a kitten gets from its mothers starts to wear off.

Q: What are some diseases that could harm my kitten, and what can I do to prevent them?

A: There are two big categories. One is parasites, which can be internal, such as worms, or external, such as fleas. The other broad category is infectious diseases. Distemper is not that common any more, but it's devastating to kittens. Feline leukemia everyone knows about, and there are many, many others. That's why it's so important to have your veterinarian check your kittens at a very young age.

Q: Can my kitten be infected with parasites, such as roundworms, coccidian, and Giardia? How are those treated?

A: Absolutely. Roundworms, hookworms, and others are easily treated with medications that are very safe for kittens. Coccidia and Giardia are protozoa, and there are anti-parasitic medications and antibiotics to treat them.

Q: What is “fading kitten syndrome” and how is it treated?

A: It's not a very well defined syndrome. It's also called failure to thrive. It's something that usually happens within the first two weeks of life. It can come from environmental factors, such as maternal neglect, or it can be physical, such as congenital birth defects, low birth weight, anemia. Various infections also can play a role.

The biggest thing to keep in mind is that kittens are very fragile, just like infants are, when they are born. There are a lot of things that conspire against them. But if we keep them warm, make sure they're nursing, check for signs of infection, we can head off problems.

Q: Are many kittens born with birth defects? Can they be helped?

A: We don't see a lot of birth defects. Many kittens born with birth defects don't survive. Birth defects also are more common in purebred cats, because of the way they're bred. Purebred cats have more health issues, too. It has to do with genetics and a smaller gene pool.

Q: Are kittens prone to respiratory problems?

A: It's almost standard issue with kittens. They have little immunity at this age, and these diseases are fairly easy to transmit. It's airborne, it can come from contact with another animal that has it, you can even transmit it on your hands from one kitten to another. It's very common, particularly in kittens from shelters, where if one kitten has it, they all get it. But it's usually not a fatal disease. It's a nuisance, but it's very treatable.

Q: What is causing the gummy discharge from my kitten's eyes?

A: It's oftentimes an upper respiratory infection, and that's a catchall phrase. That can cover things like conjunctivitis, sinusitis, and rhinitis. If your kitten has runny eyes, clean them with a cotton ball dipped in warm water. But if it lasts for more than 24 hours, you should see your veterinarian. Although it's usually not anything serious, I've seen kittens go blind from this when it was left untreated. It's also more common in younger kittens. By the time kittens reach 16 weeks, it should stop reccurring because their immunity will be built up by then.

Q: My kitten has fleas. Should I be concerned? Can I put flea treatments on him?

A: It's a very important issue. Fleas are bloodsucking parasites. In a great big cat, that's not particularly serious. In a tiny little kitten, it is. They don't have a lot of blood, and they're virtually defenseless - they're not grooming themselves yet, they barely know how to scratch. These fleas are going to town and the kittens get very anemic and they can die from this.

There are flea treatments you can use on kittens, but you have to be very cautious. Some treatments meant for older cats can kill a kitten. You also don't want to bathe your kitten, because it can drop his body temperature. And we don't recommend using over-the-counter products, because they're much less effective and much more toxic than what veterinarians have to treat fleas.

Q: The inside of my kitten's ears are red and inflamed. What's causing that?

A: There are many things that can cause that inflammation, but the most common thing is ear mites. These are bugs that live in the ear canal that look like aliens. Kittens usually get them from their mom.

They're very treatable. But it's important that you have your veterinarian clean your kitten's ears first. And please don't try to do this yourself. I've seen lots of damaged kittens' ears from Q-tips and things. Once the ears are clean, your vet will give you medications to put in the ears that will kill the rest of the mites.