Cat Giving Birth: A Guide to Expecting Kittens

Image depicting a pregnant cat.

Whether you are intentionally breeding your cat, or, more commonly, are suddenly surprised that your cat is pregnant, you need to know what to expect when your cat is expecting.

In this article, we will cover the basics of how cats give birth, the birthing process and the stages of labor, what to do when your cat is birthing, and how to care for mother and newborn kittens after birth.

How Cats Give Birth?

When a cat gives birth, it is called queening. Most cats give birth to kittens in the same way that humans give birth: they deliver kittens including the placenta and the umbilical cord through the birth canal and out the vagina, and they nurse and care for their kittens after they are born.

Some cats, such as Persians or other flat-faced breeds, are unable to deliver kittens naturally and require a Cesarean section surgery to safely deliver kittens. This surgery is done under general anesthesia by a DVM.

Normal gestation (the length of a cat’s pregnancy) lasts 63-65 days. Mother cats typically know what to do when it is time to deliver, and if you find them building or sleeping in a cozy nest, then you are in the final week of pregnancy, and it is almost time for the birthing process to begin.

Stages of Labor in Cats

Just like humans, cats go through several stages of labor when they are about to give birth. The first stage of labor happens when the uterus, the hollow organ inside a cat’s belly where the kittens develop, starts contracting, the cervix starts to relax, and the cat’s water breaks.

Stage one lasts anywhere from 6-12 hours on average (up to 36 hours in first-time mothers).

During stage one, a mother cat may meow more, or purr and be very social; it really depends on the cat.

The mother cat will usually refuse food starting 24 hours before giving birth, and her body temperature may drop under 100 degrees F. Pregnant cats in stage one rarely have discharge from their vulva.

Stage two labor happens when the kittens are delivered. It can take up to 16 hours on average for a cat to deliver all her kittens, some cats can take 3 days to finish delivery.

The length of stage two depends on how many kittens are present, whether this is a first pregnancy or not (first pregnancy deliveries tend to take longer), and if there are any difficulties with the birth. It will take longer for the first kitten to be born in first-time mothers.

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During stage two is when abdominal wall contractions and straining are noticed. These contractions help move the newborn kitten through the birth canal.

Delivery of a kitten after the second stage of labor starts usually takes 5 to 30 minutes. Once the head has passed the vulva, it usually takes one or two abdominal contractions to deliver the rest of the kitten’s body. Once a kitten is delivered, the mother cat will remove the amniotic sac with her mouth, lick the kitten’s nose and mouth, and she will eat the umbilical cord and the placenta once it is delivered.

Stage three labor involves the delivery of the afterbirth, which consists of the placenta and other fetal membranes. Stage three labor usually occurs between the delivery of each kitten, but sometimes, a kitten is delivered so quickly after another that stage three labor may be temporarily delayed.

If a mother cat goes longer than one hour between giving birth to kittens, however, and you notice any of the following:

  • straining without delivering
  • she appears weak
  • she is ignoring her already born kittens,

then call your veterinarian for advice.

What To Do When Your Cat Is Giving Birth?

Most of the time, cat owners should not interfere with a mother cat that is delivering because, in most cases, mother cats instinctually know what to do. Provide a quiet, warm, safe place to deliver, and check on her at least once an hour.

If you have a first-time mother cat, however, then you should monitor her birthing process more closely and watch for signs of dystocia, which means ‘difficult birth’.

Signs of dystocia can include:

  • Intense abdominal straining to deliver for 20 minutes or longer without producing a kitten
  • Intense straining for 10 minutes and failing to deliver a kitten that has already crowned (head is noticed at the vulva)
  • Bleeding from the vulva for 10 minutes or longer
  • The mother cat is lethargic, feverish (rectal temperature higher than 103 degrees F), or more than one hour has passed between delivering kittens

Signs of dystocia indicate an emergency, and if any are noticed, call your local or emergency veterinarian immediately for advice. Otherwise, if everything proceeds normally, once all kittens have been born, you can remove dirty bedding and replace it with clean bedding.

Caring for Mother and Kittens After Birth

For most intents and purposes, healthy mother cats can take care of themselves. The only thing you need to do is check on her daily to make sure she is nursing her kittens, provide a safe, warm area for her to raise the kittens, watch for any signs of disease, and feed her an appropriate diet.

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Mother cats expend a lot of energy making milk and recovering from delivery, so free-feed pregnant and nursing cats either a kitten formula cat food or a cat food that is specifically formulated for pregnant or nursing cats.

Occasionally, mother cats can develop conditions related to pregnancy and nursing. Retained placenta, infection in the uterus, infected mammary gland, or eclampsia resulting from low calcium (milk fever) can all cause severe sickness in mother cats.

Signs that the mother cat needs veterinary attention include:

  • poor appetite
  • loss of energy
  • refusing to nurse kittens
  • feverish
  • bloody vaginal discharge that doesn’t stop
  • brown or foul-smelling vaginal discharge
  • sore abdomen
  • vomiting
  • panting
  • muscle tremors or spasms
  • inflamed nipple/mammary gland, may be hot, red, and have discharge (mastitis)

Newborn kittens need to stay warm and well-fed. They cannot regulate their body temperature very well for the first weeks of life, so it is very important to provide a warm, dry bed, nesting box, or cardboard box for kittens to live in.

Keep the temperature of the kitten’s area between 85 and 90 degrees F during the first couple of days and then reduce the temperature to 80 degrees F after the first week. To maintain the higher temperature, you can use a heating pad or a heat lamp, but hang the lamp high enough so it doesn’t get too hot, and provide space for the queen and kittens to move away from the heat source if they need to. When the kittens are one month old, start maintaining the temperature at 70 degrees F.

The nesting box should have sides that are tall enough to keep the kittens in for the first few weeks.

Provide the mother cat with a litter box and food and water bowls that are in the same area as the nesting box.

If the mother cat isn’t nursing or is sick, then you will need to bottle-feed the kittens. While there isn’t space in this article to go over all the logistics of bottle-feeding, you can find everything you need to know about bottle-feeding kittens here.

Otherwise, you can start the weaning process at 3-4 weeks of age. With a little knowledge, the birthing and kitten process can be a beautiful experience for everyone involved.

Remember, if you need further advice or assistance, don’t hesitate to reach out to Katten TrimSalon for guidance.