Malnourished Kitten Syndrome

I have only come across this once personally, and had thought it was an isolated case caused simply by a kitten suckling repeatedly on a ‘bad’ teat. However recently I have heard of two other cases, apparently without cause, and it seems this is not simply a one-off event.

Kittens who seem otherwise healthy are strong and active, but fail to gain weight. If left these kittens die. Sometimes within a couple of weeks of birth, and sometimes some considerable time later, managing to hang on despite malnutrition. It is terribly distressing to see a kitten in this condition, particularly when no cause can be found, and all the help you give the kitten does nothing.

My own experience was that I was asked to look at a kitten in an otherwise normal litter of 6 which had not gained any weight since it was born, and was now a week old. This in itself was very worrying: the breeder should have been concerned within 24 hours of the weight gain halting, not waiting a week until she did anything about it. My first advice (over the phone, before I had seen the kitten) was to take the kitten to the vet and put it onto an antibiotic, which the breeder did. When I was able to get to see the kitten the next day it was apparent that there was nothing wrong with it, other than that it was simply starving. As the breeder was not available to hand-feed the kitten I brought it home with me to look after it.

When I started hand-feeding I was surprised that although the kitten fed well (voraciously in fact), and also suckled well from the queen I had with kittens who fostered her, the kitten did not gain weight. I was stumped for a bit, but then remembered a film I had seen asking for aid for starving children: in the film the charity said that a small amount of money would buy rehydration salts for each child, as malnourishment meant they could not absorb food without this supplement.

I mixed her next feeds therefore with Lectade solution (small-animal rehydration salts from the vet) instead of plain water. She immediately began to gain weight and within about 5 days no longer needed my support. She was always a small kitten, but began to gain normally after that and was fine. However, without the rehydration she would not have survived. When I asked the vet about her not gaining weight he had no ideas, so I guess I was just lucky remembering about malnutrition and rehydration salts. However, my original thought - that the kitten was feeding from a ‘bad’ teat’ may easily have been wrong in light of these other cases: the kitten may have had a problem that prevented her from absorbing food, and could have been feeding normally, just not getting anything out of it.

Kittens are born with many organs immature, including the digestive system (which is why they cannot eat meat right away). The mother’s milk should be sufficient, but evidently in this condition the bowel is not sufficiently developed to absorb nutrition from the mother’s milk normally. Rehydration salts are designed to be absorbed very easily in the gut, much more easily than simple water, and adding it to the formula seemed to break the barrier that was preventing the kitten from absorbing enough nutrition to grow and for the gut develop normally. As soon as sufficient nutrition got into the system, the kitten’s natural development took over and the digestive system sorted itself out.

In one of the recent cases the kitten survived 6 weeks (which was when I heard about it), but was no heavier than he had been when he was a week old. He looked terrible, just skin and bones, and did nothing but sleep while his sister was running about and gaining weight. His heart was apparently normal, and antibiotics had not helped. The breeder tried hand-supplementing him, but I had forgotten about my experience with rehydration until it was too late. It was heartbreaking for the breeder to have this kitten survive so long and then to lose him to malnutrition when she did everything she could to support him, there was plentiful food and nobody could see why he was not gaining weight. Possibly my solution would not have worked, but we didn’t remember in time to try.

A note on rehydration: I recently visited a breeder who had a litter of very tiny undersized kittens who were 8 weeks old, and who had stopped gaining weight after a bout of diarrhoea. She was quite worried about them. I asked her about rehydration and she said that naturally she had been giving them rehydration salts several times a day since they had been ill several weeks before. When I asked what product she was using, it emerged that she was not using small-animal salts, she had been feeding the kittens Dioralyte: HUMAN rehydration salts. I wondered why she thought that something designed for humans was appropriate for tiny kittens, and why she hadn’t connected their weeks of malnourishment and continuing lack of growth and development with the fact that she had been destroying their electrolyte balance, and all for the sake of saving a few pence by not buying the right veterinary treatment for the situation.

You can’t raise healthy cats ‘on the cheap’. I don’t know what happened to this litter of kittens, but I’m pretty sure I know why they were so unwell despite having recovered from the diarrhoea that was the original cause of their problems. I suggested a nutritional supplement from the vet that was quite expensive, but given the cost I suspect they may not have received it.

NOTE: two breeders have noted that hand-reared kittens are much more vulnerable to worms than those reared by the mother. Both these litters were siamese, and both found that they had to worm the kittens every 2 weeks or more to keep them on track. Sometimes kittens seemed to need worming more often. The kittens were checked for anything that might be wrong that would show on blood work, but the results of this were normal. Worming fixed the problem. So beware: hand-reared kittens can starve if they have a heavy burden of worms, and if a kitten looks wormy (thin but with a fat belly) they may have worms even if you have only recently given them wormer. Worm again!