Ron Hines DVM PhD
Less than one in ten of the cat pregnancies I see at my office are planned events. What generally happens is that a client become suspicious that a blessed event might be about to occur when their 7-9 month old cat is already 4-5 weeks pregnant and beginning to look a bit too chubby. Cats become fertile at a remarkably young age and it is quite common to put off having them spayed for too long.
There are so many unwanted and uncared for cats in this World, desperate for homes, that I try to talk all of my clients out of breeding their cats. But I understand that your situation and aspirations may be different from mine. When you have thought things out and are fortunate enough to be able to plan ahead, here are some guidelines that you can follow:
First, be sure the momma cat is over one year of age. Many cats are accidentally bred on their first heat when they are not much more than kittens themselves. I advise my clients to breed their cat on its second or third heat period. Cats generally have their first heat when they are five to six months old or when their weight reaches 4.5-5 pounds.
Take the potential mother in for a veterinary examination prior to having her bred. Besides a thorough veterinary examination, you should be certain the cat is free of intestinal and external parasites. I assume your cat received its important kittenhood vaccinations. If it didn’t, now is the time to get them. If it did, it needs no more. Shots need to be given in the safest locations (ref) before the cat becomes pregnant, not after. If your cat is overweight it will be susceptible to more complications than a trim mother. So place your fat cat on a diet six month prior to having it bred. (read more about that here)
Someone who has experience breeding cats should oversee the actual mating. This will usually but the owner of the male cat. You can locate these people in your area through cat fanciers, veterinarians and grooming salons. Visit the home of the male cat. If it smells, go elsewhere. If they order their vaccines through mail order, go elsewhere. If they have more than 3 male cats, go elsewhere. If they can’t show you current veterinary records, go elsewhere. Long and impressive pedigree certificates and show ribbons are no substitute for good health. Some veterinary hospitals also specialize in breeding cats but I do not recommend that cats be bred at hospitals because sick animals are often present there as well.
How Will I Know When My Cat is In Heat?
Most cats have a very distinctive behavior when they are ready to be bred. They typically roll around playfully on the floor and rub their posterior against you and the furniture. They often become vocal and try to escape outside. They stand arched with their tail strait up and their back and rear legs stiffen whenever they are touched. Heat periods will usually last 4 to 7 days. They become longer and more frequent if the cat is not bred. An unsupervised female cat will mate several times during her heat cycle so kittens in a litter may have different fathers.
How Long Does A Normal Pregnancy Last?
Gestation or the length of pregnancy in cats averages 64 days. It is generally between 62 and 67 days or about nine or ten weeks. When litters are large, length of pregnancy can be a day or two less. When litters are small, the length of the pregnancy may increase a bit.
Cats that are bred should be negative for intestinal parasites and fleas. Bring a sample of their stool by your local veterinarian’s office for a parasite check prior to breeding. I generally worm them with pyrantel pamoate, and add praziquantel if required for tapeworms, before they are bred. Many vets use products that combine those two mild or very similar drugs. Mother cats that have intestinal worms (nematodes) can pass these worms on to their kittens through the womb and through their milk. Some of the cats that do this are negative on fecal examinations because the parasite larva are encysted (walled off) in their muscles. These larva can circulate again under the hormone influence of pregnancy. This is particularly true of cats that live in kennels and catteries with many other cats. I generally worm kittens at six, nine and eleven weeks of age with pyrantel pamoate – regardless of their mother’s parasite status.
Flea control is especially important once the kittens are born. In restricted nursery quarters, warmth, humidity and bedding, fleas have the advantage and reproduce rapidly. In those situations, fleas can cause serious anemia in kittens. Fleas also spread bartonella. Since many topical flea control medications have warning about their use in pregnant animals, I would skip application of these products during pregnancy and resume them again once the kittens are born. Do not apply these products to the newborn kittens. I just pick off any fleas on kittens with tweezers one by one. Then I drop each flea into a small cup of alcohol and flush them down the commode. I then put them in a fresh, uncontaminated nursery container. A hot dryer cycle decontaminates reusable cloth items.
The Importance of Good Nutrition During Pregnancy And Lactation
The nutritional requirements of mother cats in late pregnancy and nursing vastly increases. Nursing mothers with large litters require even more nutrients than a growing cat. During the first six weeks of pregnancy, mother cats generally do not eat more than their usual pre-pregnancy amounts. But starting at about the sixth week, your cat’s weight and appetite should begin to increase. Start to put down twenty-five percent more food. I like to switch the mother over to a diet designed for kittens and growing cats at this time – but she should do well on a high-quality cat food that is marketed for all life stages. Home-cooked diets are also acceptable, but you must be absolutely certain that they contain adequate calcium to meet the needs of both the mother and the kittens. Because the kittens are pressing against her internal organs, the mother may not be able to eat as much at one sitting as she did before her pregnancy. Feed her several small meals instead of one or two large ones or better still, keep her food out at all times. Be sure plenty of clean water is available at all times. On a premium commercial diet, there is no need to give a vitamin or mineral supplement. That can actually do harm. If the cat begins to loose weight despite being offered the added food, supplement her diet with canned cat food. If that does not reverse the weight loss, consult with your veterinarian. As pregnancy progresses the expectant mother will eat more and more. Give her all that she desires unless she becomes noticeably fat – as a few cats do.
The time after the kittens are born begins the most nutritionally challenging time in a cat’s life: Her food consumption will steadily increase over 20 to 30 days following birth as the kittens grow and nurse more and more. By the time the first month is over, the mother should be eating two or four times the amount of food she ate before she became pregnant.
The Pregnancy Examination
For the first two or three weeks of pregnancy you probably will not notice any changes in your cat other than the lack of repeated heat cycles. Around the fifth week of pregnancy the mother’s abdomen will begin to swell. Queens with small litters take longer to “show” than mothers with a larger litter.
When the expectant mother is about thirty days pregnant schedule an appointment with your veterinarian if the cat was not examined prior to becoming pregnant. This will be a “wellness” examination at which time the veterinarian will either palpate and confirm that kittens are present manually or by use of an ultrasound apparatus. Ultrasound can detect kittens as early as the 14-15th day of pregnancy. Ultrasound will detect fetal heartbeats after day 24. By thirty days the cat’s nipples should begin to swell. Some veterinarians suggest an x-ray of the mother three weeks prior to delivery to count the number of kittens so you will know when labor is over and all the kittens are out. I do not feel that exposing a cat to radiation for this procedure is warranted. The only time it might be would be if pelvic structure abnormalities were detected on examination or the cat had a history of pelvic fractures. Then x-rays might confirm that the pelvic canal was still adequately wide for the babies to pass through on delivery.
Regular exercise and walks will help your pregnant cat keep her muscle tone and general health top notch. Obesity is a potential danger in pregnant cats when delivery time comes, so control any tendency to fatness with exercise and careful attention to her revised caloric needs. It is much safer to restrict diets before the cat becomes pregnant than after. During the final three weeks of pregnancy it is often best to separated the mother from other cats in the household as well as from cats from outside the family. Every group of cats has its own interpersonal dynamics.
How Should I Prepare For The Kittens?
Prepare a room for the birth to occur. This room should have an impervious floor that makes cleaning easy. It should not be drafty and should be in a quite area of the home. Prepare a bed for the cat, a laundry basket lined with towels or unused clothes works well. Get her used to using it. If the mother won’t stay in it, you can encourage her to by petting her and giving her small food snacks. You can lead her to the designated nursing area when labor begins but don’t expect her to stay there. She will almost certainly have her kittens outside of the preassigned area. Let her. When she has completed the delivery, move them all into the designated bed. Cats don’t like to be bothered when they are having their kittens. There is no need for you to spend time comforting her. After the birth of the first few kittens, the mother usually is preoccupied with her babies and not as upset at your presence. Give her the space she needs, but keep checking in on her regularly. It is quite possible that you will miss the birth process entirely. You could wake up one morning or return from work only to find you have a brand new litter of offspring contentedly nursing on their mom. If your nursery room is not warm enough, you can make it warmer by wrapping a heating pad in a towel, setting it on “low,” and placing it under one quarter of the nursery bed. This allows the mother to move the kittens away from the heat source if she chooses to do so. If you wish, you can read some of my other articles on birthing and caring for newborn kittens. Read them here and here.
When labor is eminent the mother’s usual appetite often decreases. By their third or fourth week after delivery, the kittens should be starting to eat a bit on their own. Encourage them to eat solids by themselves in order to remove the stress of milk production from the mother. By six to eight weeks the babies should be fully weaned so the mother’s food consumption can revert back to the amount she ate prior to pregnancy. When you wean the offspring you help the mother’s milk supply to dry up. You can assist the process by withholding the mother’s food and only offering her half the water she normally consumes when you attempt to wean the kittens. The following day, give her only a quarter of her pre-pregnancy food supply and one half the water. From the second day on give her all the water she wants. Slowly increase her food over five days until it is back to her pre-pregnancy level. Remember that most canned cat foods are about 78% water. If she has lost weight during the pregnancy adjust her food intake upward to make up the lost weight.
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