Reproduction Basics: Cat Pregnancy & Birth
Cats come into estrus (season or heat) somewhere between 4 and 12 months of age. They can become pregnant with their first mating, but can also have multiple sires to their litter.
How do you know if your cat is pregnant? The first thing you may notice is that she doesn't come back into season after two weeks. Otherwise she won't show any outward signs for the first two to three weeks. But around three weeks after mating her nipples will become bright pink and enlarged. She may become more affectionate. Later, she may look for nesting places. Around the fifth week of pregnancy, her abdomen will become enlarged, although this may occur later with smaller litters.
You can have your veterinarian look for more definitive signs of pregnancy if you want to know earlier. Ultrasound may detect developing fetuses as early as 15 days post-breeding, and can detect fetal heartbeats after day 24. By day 18, your veterinarian may be able to palpate the cat's abdomen, feeling for the tiny lumps that indicates fetuses. After day 45, radiographs (X-rays) can detect fetal skeletons. At this time an experienced veterinarian can count the number of kittens, see if any are abnormally large or positioned abnormally, and even detect any that may be dead. This knowledge helps plan the whelping, for example knowing whether a Caesarean section might be needed, or knowing when the queen has whelped the last kitten. Note, however, that in large litters the count may be off because the jumble of skeletal images can become confused.
During the first weeks of pregnancy, you don't have to do much differently than before. Avoid giving any drugs to her unless your veterinarian has recommended them. She should continue to exercise and to eat a balanced adult cat diet. Consult with your veterinarian about adding supplements; too many can sometimes be as bad as too few.
Starting the fourth week of pregnancy, begin adding kitten food to her diet, gradually adding more until she is eating only kitten food her last week of pregnancy.
Set up a nesting box for her by two weeks before her due date. A laundry basket lined with towels or other soft bedding that kittens cannot become lost in is an easy solution. Place the basket in a quite dark place, such as in a closet. As her due date approaches, make sure she doesn't get outside, as she may elect to have her kittens in nature.
The average pregnancy lasts 60 to 63 days, but can be as much as a week longer or shorter. Shortly before delivery, the queen may lose her appetite and become anxious. Her vulva will become enlarged and softened, her mammary glands will become full, and her nipples will be enlarged. If she has long hair, you may need to clip some from around her rear and nipples so the kittens don't get tangled in it.
As she begins labor, she may make frequent trips to the litter box, may rearrange the towels in the nesting box, may try to hide, may lick at her nipples and vulva, and may pant and meow. This first stage of labor may last 12 to 24 hours. Keep her area quiet and somewhat dim. If anything disruptive happens, it can delay her delivery.
As the first kitten enters the birth canal, she will begin to actively push while either standing or squatting. The first kitten is preceded by a bubble of amniotic fluid, which will break on its own. It takes about 15 to 30 minutes from the start of contractions for each kitten to be delivered. Kittens are typically born either head or rear paws first. Once delivered, the queen will remove the sac from the kitten's face and lick the kitten and herself. She will bite through the umbilical cord. You can do this for her by clamping the cord between two hemostats about half an inch from the body and cutting it between the hemostats. Tie the cord off with dental floss so it doesn't bleed.
After the kitten is delivered, the placenta follows. Each kitten has its own placenta. Allow the queen to eat one or two placentas as they contain important hormones, but too many will give her diarrhea.
If she has contractions for more than a half hour without delivering a kitten, contact your veterinarian as she may be having a problem. Allowing any kittens already born to nurse can stimulate the release of oxytoxin, which helps strengthen her contractions.
If she stops having contractions for more than a few hours, and kittens still remain within her, contact your veterinarian for advice. When in doubt, call your veterinarian.