Understanding Cat Pregnancy and Birth

Estimated Reading Time 7 minutes
Understanding Cat Pregnancy and Birth

How can you tell if your cat is pregnant? What should you do to keep your cat and her kittens healthy and safe? We’ve got the answers! Keep reading for easy tips and guidelines for cat pregnancy and labor.

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Is my cat pregnant?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple test available at your local pharmacy to help tell you if your cat is pregnant. If you have a female cat that’s 6 months of age or older, has not been spayed or sterilized and ventures outdoors, it’s possible for her to become pregnant.

In the early days and first few weeks of pregnancy, you won’t be able to detect or know that your cat is pregnant. A queen typically behaves as she normally would with the same affection and activity. As her pregnancy progresses, you’ll notice that she’ll begin to gain weight and her stomach area will get larger. This can often be confused with putting on weight from overeating.

During the final week of pregnancy, queens often begin nesting or searching for a suitable place to give birth. She usually finds a quiet, dark place where she’ll feel safe, as giving birth is a very vulnerable time. Prepare a kittening bed using a cardboard box or cat bed lined with newspaper, old sheets, or towels. The bed needs to be warm, cozy, and private but accessible so that you can keep an eye on your cat.

When will my cat have a heat cycle?

Intact female cats, or queens, come into heat or become sexually mature and able to become pregnant at about 6-7 months of age. Heat cycles in cats happen every 2-3 weeks several times a year. Female cats encourage the attention of male cats by posturing and vocalizing loudly (often quite annoying to owners), become very affectionate, and roll frequently. Posturing is seen when queens are stroked, and they raise their hindquarters and tread the ground with their back legs. The urge to mate can be so strong that your indoor cat will attempt to escape outdoors to mate.

Cat Pregnancy Timeline

From the day of mating until the due date, pregnancy, or gestation, in a cat varies from 60-67 days, usually between 63-65 days.

Does my cat need any special food or supplements during pregnancy?

A queen’s nutritional needs change during pregnancy, giving birth, and nursing kittens. She requires increased calories as well as other vitamins and nutrition. Pregnant queens need an increased number of meals daily and a diet formulated for pregnant females or kittens. Diets formulated for pregnant queens or kittens provide the additional nutrients needed during pregnancy and nursing. Talk to your vet about nutritional recommendations and specific types/brands of food your cat needs during pregnancy and while she’s nursing. Remember to slowly blend the new food with her regular food over 7-10 days to prevent stomach upset, vomiting, or diarrhea.

Can cats sense they are pregnant?

Cats are very sensitive to changes in their environment as well as their own bodies. The change in hormones during pregnancy may make your cat more affectionate or more aggressive.

How many kittens can we expect?

Cat litter size has been reported to be, on average, between 1 to 8 kittens. There are reports of larger litters of kittens, but the average number born to a cat is 4.

How long does it take for a cat to give birth?

The length of time from the first stage of labor, which can last up to 36 hours, through the second and third stages will depend on the number of kittens. Cats can also experience interrupted labor which can last between 24-36 hours. Once the queen has progressed to the second stage of labor with stronger, more frequent contractions and/or noticeable straining, delivery of a kitten may take between 5-30 minutes.

Giving birth (labor) in cats is divided into 3 stages:

1. First stage labor involves contractions that typically aren’t visible. You may be able to see or feel the kittens (fetuses) moving. The cat will often make repeated visits to the kittening bed and some cats will ask for reassurance from the owner. Some cats may begin scratching and bed-making and sometimes even pant.

The queen usually stops eating about 24 hours before labor begins and her temperature may drop by 1 degree. NOTE: In cats having their first litter, this first stage of labor can last up to 36 hours.

2. Second stage labor involves stronger, more frequent contractions or noticeable straining. Once this second stage of labor begins, delivery of a kitten may take between 5-30 minutes.

3. Third stage labor follows immediately and is the passing of the fetal membranes, including the greenish-black tissue of separated placenta or “afterbirth”.

Afterbirth normally is passed after each kitten, although occasionally a second kitten will come so quickly that the afterbirth from the first kitten may be temporarily delayed. With the birth of each kitten, the queen will tear open the membranes and clear the mouth and nose area of the kitten, bite off the umbilical cord and often eat the afterbirth. The time between kitten births varies but usually lasts between 10 minutes up to one hour.

NOTE: If the queen is actively straining for 30 minutes without producing a kitten, the birth canal may be blocked, and she needs emergency veterinary care.

Kittens may be born either as an anterior presentation (headfirst with the forelegs extended) or as a posterior presentation (tail and hind legs emerging first). A breech presentation is one in which the hind legs are extended forward (towards the kitten’s head) and the tail and bottom are presented first. With a breech presentation, the kitten may become stuck in the birth canal. This situation may require an emergency surgery called a Cesarean section or C-section. If the delivery proceeds normally, the kitten will emerge after a few contractions.

NOTE: Owners should NEVER attempt to help pull a kitten out of the birth canal. This can have life-threatening consequences for the queen as well as the kitten. Call your vet or emergency vet right away if a kitten becomes stuck in the birth canal for 30 minutes.

What is interrupted labor?

Interrupted labor occurs often in cats where the queen stops straining, appears to be resting comfortably, suckling the kittens already born, and may accept food even though she has more kittens to deliver. This stage can last 24-36 hours before active contractions/noticeable straining begins again, and the rest of the kittens are born. Owners should keep an eye on the birthing process but take care not to disturb or upset the queen by checking too often. This can cause anxiety and delay the birthing process. Once the queen has delivered her kittens, owners should gently remove/replace the bedding with clean bedding.

Most cats give birth to normal, healthy kittens without any assistance. Occasionally, a queen may need veterinary intervention. While our intentions to help our pet are well-meaning, we unintentionally can cause added stress and anxiety during the birthing process This can delay the process and/or harm the newborn kittens. The goal is to help the queen when necessary, especially first-time mothers, without causing additional stress, anxiety, adding discomfort, or harming the newborn kittens.

What do you need to prepare for newborn kittens?

While expecting and having newborn kittens is a happy and exciting time, it’s important to allow the queen to feel safe and secure while she’s giving birth and nursing her newborn kittens. Make sure she has food and water and a litter box nearby as she will not venture far from her newborn kittens for the first few days. As mentioned above, she will need even more nutritional support after going through labor, and as she begins nursing her newborns.

Assemble the following materials in case your cat and her newborns need help during the birthing process and for any aftercare:

  • Prepare a kittening bed using a cardboard box or cat bed lined with newspaper, old sheets, or towels. The bed needs to be warm, cozy, and private but accessible so that you can keep an eye on your cat.
  • Infant nostril cleaner
  • Clean string/thread
  • Clean scissors
  • Warm damp clean washcloth
  • Dry towels
  • Kitten nursing bottle
  • Kitten milk replacer
  • Medical exam gloves
  • Source of warmth for newborns

When to call the vet

Most cats normally give birth or deliver their kittens without any assistance needed. Owners should monitor their cat when she goes into labor, quietly without disturbing her. Dystocia or difficult birth can happen. You should be concerned and immediately seek veterinary care if your cat experiences the following:

  • 20 minutes of intense labor, straining, and active contractions that do not produce a kitten.
  • 10 minutes of intense labor that does not expel a kitten that can be seen at the queen’s vulva.
  • The queen is depressed, lethargic, or has a fever (rectal temperature greater than 103 F/39.4 C).
  • You note active bleeding, fresh blood from her vulva for more than 10 minutes.

Read more:

How to Feed and Care for Newborn Kittens

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