The Stages of Feline Labor – When Your Cat Gives Birth

Ron Hines DVM PhD

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Why is my kitten a runt?

Ordinary domestic short-hair and long-haired cats are very fertile. Litter size averages four or five kittens. For some reason, Siamese cats also have larger litters. Persians and other fancy breeds tend to be less fertile.

Is My Cat Likely To Run Into Problems During Her Pregnancy?

Problems during pregnancy and birth are extremely rare in all breeds except Persian cats. Over 99% of all cats deliver their kitten without assistance or complications. But when its your cat, it is comforting to know that things are proceeding without hitches and on schedule. Here are some of the things that should happen as your cat goes through a successful pregnancy:

Early In The Pregnancy:

Gestation or the length of pregnancy for a cat averages 64 days. It is generally between 62 and 67 days or about 9-10 weeks. You might notice subtle indications of pregnancy after the first 3 weeks. The cat’s nipples will begin to swell and their color will change from white to a rosy pink.

By the 4th or 5th week, your cat’s belly will begin to swell. During this early time, the pet only needs a low stress environment and high quality cat food. Keep her food available to her all day and let her eat as much as she wants. To learn how to care for expectant mothers and their kittens you can read my articles on orphan kitten and pregnant cat care.

Should My Pregnant Cat Be Examined By A Veterinarian?

A veterinary exam early in pregnancy is a good idea to check on your cat’s general health. By the 26th day of gestation, a veterinarian can usually feel the spherical lumps in the cat’s oviducts that are the developing fetuses. Veterinarians that use an ultrasound can detect the developing kittens much earlier and determine their number more accurately. By day 45, the kitten’s skeletons will have calcified enough to be seen on x-rays. But I do not suggest that cats be x-rayed to determine the size of the litter. The risks of radiation and stress involved in the procedure are undesirable unless there is some clear indication that the pregnancy has gone wrong.

What Should I Do Before Labor Begins?

If your intend to be present when the mother delivers, begin to take your cat’s temperature two weeks before it’s due date. Do it at the same time every day You can lubricate a digital thermometer with margarine or KY jelly and insert it about a half inch up the rectum. Leave it in place for three minutes if your cat will let you. Ear thermometers are not as accurate. (read here) Your cat’s temperature should be between 101 F (38.3 C) and 102 F (39 C). When the pet’s temperature drops below 100 F (37.8 C) she should deliver her kittens in less than twenty-four hours.

Expect your cat to gain 2 – 4 pounds, or about 20- 25% of her normal weight during pregnancy. Pregnant cats rarely ear more than they need to. But do not let her get so fat that labor becomes difficult.

What Should I Expect During Delivery?

Twenty-four to forty-eight hours before labor begins, your cat will seem more anxious and restless. She will often poke its head about looking for a place to nest and have the litter. But this behavior sometimes occurs early as three days before the actually delivery. At this point confine her to the room you want her to give birth in. It should be a darkened room with an impervious floor in a quiet area of the house that is not too cold or too hot. Place food and water in the room and let her get used to it. The most common place for a cat to choose to deliver is in the laundry room – often in the soiled cloth basket itself. If that is not an acceptable place to you, make it physically off limits or plan to use the laundromat for a while.

Cats that are about to go into labor will usually lick their abdomen and vagina persistently. There is often a discharge that precedes birthing, but the mother will lick it away as rapidly as it appears. Her cervix will be dilating but no outward signs accompany this. Do not attempt to poke your finger in her.

She will loose all interest in food and become serious and attentive to only her licking. If you are perceptive, you may notice an increase in her breathing rate. It is quite common for the mother to sit with her mouth open and yowl loudly or pace the room. As her labor progresses and uterine contractions begin, pregnant cats will lay on their sides and intermittently squat and press downward to expel the kittens. Do not interrupt or disturb the mother during these periods – just watch from a door left ajar. Many of my clients want their young children to observe the “miracle of birth”. Your cat will not appreciate excited, noisy children.

How Long Should I Wait?

The first kitten should arrive within an hour after the onset of labor. Sometimes labor lasts only a few minutes before the kitten arrives. Other kittens should arrive with an interval of ten minutes to an hour between them.

Each kitten arrives wrapped in a jelly-like membrane filled with clear fluid – the amniotic sac. Good mothers immediately begin licking the kitten forcefully, which shreds this sac allowing the kitten to breathe. This licking stimulates the kittens circulation and respiration.

In the exceptionally rare case where the mother does not free the kitten’s mouth from the obstructing membrane, you should do it for her and follow that with a vigorous rubbing of the kitten in a soft towel to dry it and stimulate it to breath. Kittens are delicate – so don’t over-do the rubbing.

The mother will also chew off the umbilical cord at this time. If she forgets to do this to one or more of the kittens, you can tie off the cord with a length of dental floss or string and snip the cord about an inch long. It is important to let the mother do these things herself if she is willing to because through licking and mothering the kitten she bonds with the kitten and recognizes it as her infant. It also helps her to let down her milk. (ref)

The mother cat will probably begin nursing the kitten before the next litter mate arrives. If she doesn’t, place the kitten on one of her nipples. The nursing will stimulate her uterus to contract further so you may seen a bloody or greenish discharge at her vagina. That is normal. She may eat a few of the afterbirths. There is no problem with that.

It usually takes two to six hours for the entire litter to be delivered. If labor persists beyond seven hours it is wise to take the mother and the kittens to a veterinarian. While she is delivering keep her area quiet, calm and dimly lit. Don’t become involved in the birthing unless you are certain that you are needed. Once the last kitten has been delivered you can quietly clean up the mess she has left behind. Place a fresh bowel of water and some cat food beside her because mother cats don’t like to leave their kittens for the first day or two.

What Will I See?

She should spend about 70% of her time nursing the kittens. Remember to keep a comfortable temperature in the room – kittens can not regulate their body temperatures sufficiently during their first six days.

In a normal delivery, strong uterine contractions are accompanied by abdominal contractions and expulsion of the kittens. The first thing you will see is a small, greenish sac visible in the vagina, which will be followed by the kitten. The placenta is still attached to the kitten at this time. It will slowly drag out following each birth.

Although delivery of each kitten can take up to two hours the average time is thirty to sixty minutes. A kitten should not spend more than fifteen minutes in the birth canal. While in the birth canal, pressure on the umbilical cord from the mother’s pelvic structures deprives the kitten of oxygen. If you should see a kitten in this predicament, grasp it gently through a soft clothe and pull it with a motion that is backwards and downwards. Grasp the kitten by its hips or shoulders and not by its legs or head. It is normal for kittens to arrive either head first or tail first.

After birth, The mother may discharge a bloody fluid for up to 10 days. Cats usually lick the discharge up as fast as it is produced. Only become concerned if the discharge becomes pus-like or has a strong odor.

Things To Keep On Hand When Your Cat Is Expecting:

Keep plenty of clean towels on hand when your cat is expecting. Go to Walmart and purchase a bottle of tame iodine solution (Betadine™) antiseptic, some Q-tips and a pair of blunt scissors. Buy a package of dental floss in case you need to tie off the kitten’s umbilical cords. A baby nose suction bulb works well to clean mucus from the mouth and nose of infant kittens. Mother cats generally do an excellent job of keeping their kittens warm. If it is very cold, you can buy a heavy duty-heating pad. One must be very careful using standard human heating pads with small animals. A safer option is a hot water bottle that you refill with bath-temperature water now and then. It is generally only a rejected or orphan kitten that requires artificial warmth. Read about raising them here.

What Are Some More Serious Problems That Might Happen?

You should contact your veterinarian if events do not unfold as I have generally listed them. Also contact your veterinarian if:

1) The pregnancy lasts more than 66 days
2) The mother’s temperature has been below 100 F (37.8 C) for more than one day or drops below 98 F (36.7 C)
3) The mother goes off her food (won’t eat) or becomes depressed, weak or lethargic
4) A kitten becomes lodged in the birth canal for more than ten minutes and you can not dislodge it
5) The mother continues to have contractions for more than four hours and no kitten appears
6) More than five hours elapse when you are certain another kitten is still present in the mother
7) The vaginal discharge has a strong odor or appears infected
8) You counted less placentas than you have kittens and you are sure she did not eat them.
9) Kittens will not nurse or appear weak
10) A mammary gland (breast) is hot, hard or painful
11) Kittens mew continuously, do not sleep and are agitated
12) Kittens are not receiving enough milk to keep their stomachs plump and distended
13) The Mother’s temperature is over 102.5 F (39.2 C) and two days have passed since birthing

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