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How to Tell if a Newborn Kitten Is in Distress?

| Updated September 26, 2017

Newborn kittens are so tiny and delicate-looking that you may find yourself worrying about them constantly, but usually there’s no need. Most of the time kittens do just fine and need very little help from humans, but it’s still a good idea to keep a close eye on your kittens, just in case. There are several ways you can tell if a newborn kitten is distressed so that you can give him the help he needs right away.


Weigh each young kitten every day and keep track of the weights. A kitten that is not doing well will often fail to gain weight, a definite sign of distress. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the average newborn kitten weighs about 3.5 ounces at birth, and will be around 7 to 10 ounces by the time he’s a week old. If a kitten fails to gain weight every day he may need supplemental feeding with feline milk replacer.

Respiratory Problems

Kittens are susceptible to a variety of both upper and lower respiratory problems, which can cause anything from mild distress to pneumonia and death. Common signs of respiratory problems include trouble breathing, coughing, sneezing and mucus or other discharge from the eyes and nose. Respiratory problems are typically contagious, so if one kitten has symptoms it’s likely that his siblings will be showing signs soon. Immediate veterinary treatment may be able to help them.


Newborn kittens spend a lot of time sleeping, but they also wiggle around the nest area and nurse frequently, especially during the first few days after birth. Any kitten that seems listless, lacking in energy or that feels cool when you touch him is likely to be in distress. The mother will often move such kittens to the side, away from the others, and leave them there. Distressed kittens may also cry a lot, indicating that they are uncomfortable and unhappy. Happy newborns are usually quiet most of the time.


When a kitten is born, his mother chews off the umbilical cord, normally stopping shortly before she reaches the kitten’s belly. Her teeth crush the blood vessels in the cord, thus preventing any bleeding. If the mother is inexperienced or just not doing her job right, the kitten’s umbilical cord may continue to bleed. Kittens are so tiny that it doesn’t take much blood loss to cause distress. Tie off the umbilical cord with a bit of dental floss to stop the bleeding. If there’s no cord left, hold some clean gauze on the area and call the vet for help.