“We didn’t know Missy could get pregnant so young, Doc!” the couple in front of me said, sadly.
This was their first cat, and they had been given poor advice to wait until after her first heat cycle to have her spayed. Unfortunately, she escaped — and now, here we stood.
“Although we really didn’t want to breed her, we feel responsible, and we will find homes for each and every one of the kittens,” they assured me.
This is a very common scenario we see as veterinarians, and one of the reasons we recommend spaying early in life. Once the deed is done, the only option is to find good homes for the kittens, take the best care possible of the mother and to have her spayed as soon as possible after the pregnancy.
Waiting For Kittens
So what do you do if you suddenly find yourself with a litter of kittens on the way and a pregnant cat to care for? First, relax and take a deep breath. Think about how many cats give birth all by themselves each year and do just fine. Chances are good, even if it is the cat’s first litter, that she can handle it, even without you. So, first and most importantly, stay calm!
How long do you have to wait? The average gestation in a cat is about 63 days, give or take a few. If you know when your cat likely bred, that can help narrow down the delivery date pretty closely.
Next, bring your cat to the veterinarian for a complete examination. This is not necessarily the time to get all of her vaccines and routine care done. Hopefully, you have already taken care of the basics, but your veterinarian may be able to determine for sure if she is pregnant and how far along she is.
Sometimes veterinarians can determine pregnancy by gentle palpation, and after day 17 we can use an ultrasound to count baby heartbeats. By day 40, an X-ray will also show the little ones. Even without technology, a cat who is getting wider around the middle, with more noticeable nipples that are appearing pinker than normal, is likely pregnant, especially if she is sleeping and eating more. Some cats vomit a little more during pregnancy as well.
Next up is nutritional support. Mama cat needs to eat a lot of calories to sustain those little ones inside her, and she needs good healthy food to do it. Allowing her “free access” (i.e., as much as she wants) of both canned and dry kitten food will help her to provide the nutrition for her growing little family.
By now, if your cat was spending any time out of doors, she should be kept strictly inside, both for her safety and for the well-being of the kittens. Pretty soon she will be looking for places to have those babies. Provide her with boxes with soft materials in them; access to favored areas like closets and drawers may help.
Some people advocate kenneling or caging a cat as she nears birthing, but this can add unnecessary stress on the mother. I prefer just to watch her favorite hangout spots. Remember, though, that most cats consider birthing a “private process.” A Mama cat is likely to haul away the kittens and move them if she believes you are too intrusive. Placing a webcam over her favorite places will let you watch her without disturbing her.
When Kittens Arrive
So how do you know when the day has come? Well, often, we don’t actually know. Some people advocate taking the cat’s temperature every day starting around day 60 and looking for a drop in body temperature, indicating that she is going to deliver within 12 hours. This sounds great — but not all cats follow this rule — and who wants to take a rectal temperature on their cat twice a day?!
The earliest sign of labor for most cats is restlessness. Sometimes they will have a mucoid discharge from their vagina and spend a lot of time cleaning that general area. As labor progresses, the cat will begin to strain to produce the kittens. Discharge that is very heavy or bloody at this stage is not normal. You should call your veterinarian right away.
Normal kittens can be delivered either head first or tail first (i.e., breech). Most cats do just fine with either direction, so there likely isn’t anything to worry about should the kitten come tail first. Also remember that many — if not most — cats want to be left alone during the delivery. Some actually have the ability to stop labor if they feel disturbed; so when in doubt, leave the cat alone and only check on her intermittently.
If you are lucky enough that Mama cat will let you watch, the first thing you will likely see is a brown/yellow “bubble” sac that contains the kitten that will be produced. Mom will usually tear this sac open, bite off the placenta that is still attaching the kitten to mom, and begin to lick and stimulate the kitten. A wiggling, noisy kitten is a healthy kitten, and you don’t need to intervene; mom will take care of it.
If Mama cat doesn’t remove the sac or the kitten does not appear to be breathing/moving, then you should remove the sac from the face of the kitten (usually these are very easy to tear), and rub the kitten with a clean face cloth to stimulate her to move and breathe. Sometimes clearing the nostrils and mouth using suction from a small turkey baster helps to get some of the fluids out, allowing the kitten to start to breathe on her own. As soon as possible, return the kitten to mom so that she can nurse and be cleaned.
Be sure to record which kittens arrive in which order, and have a small scale that measures in grams to weigh them daily. I generally weigh them at birth, and then every day thereafter. Look-alike kittens can be marked with non-toxic permanent marker to help tell them apart for accurate weigh-ins. Kittens should gain weight every day, with the possible exception being between birth and the 24-hour weigh-in, which sometimes does show a loss. A kitten that loses weight at any other time, or does not gain for 48 hours is possibly in trouble and should be seen by a veterinarian.
Preparing For Any Problems
Sounds easy enough, right? So what can go wrong?
Well, although it doesn’t often happen that a cat has trouble giving birth — when things do go south, they go south quickly. You must be prepared to deal with them immediately. Have the phone number to the local 24-hour veterinary clinic handy, know where they are located, and be prepared mentally and financially to go there for help if needed.
Most kittens are delivered consistently and rapidly. The mother cat can rest for periods of time, sometimes even hours, between the kittens. If she is quiet and comfortable, this is not likely a problem. However, if the cat has been laboring for more than an hour without a kitten being born, she needs help. Factor in the travel time to the emergency room and a wait to see the veterinarian, and several hours may have gone by. At the one-hour of labor mark, make that phone call and take her in to be looked at. While the problem may be as simple as the veterinarian helping to turn a poorly positioned kitten, it may also be that the kitten is too large to be delivered, or that the uterus has been torn and an emergency C-section is needed. No matter the problem, providing help sooner is always better than later.
Other areas of concern involve the afterbirth. Most cats will deliver, and then eat, the afterbirth. If possible, it is always best to confirm that there is an afterbirth delivered with each kitten. Sometimes, afterbirths can be retained, and serve as sources of infection for the mother after the delivery. If you are not sure if each afterbirth is accounted for, take her temperature daily for 10 to 14 days to help you determine if she is starting to run a fever, which is an early sign of infection. Also be sure to check her nipples and mammary glands daily. Sometimes, cats will develop mastitis — inflammation or infection in the mammary glands. When this happens, the nipple and gland often become firm, red, swollen and painful. This is another condition that requires immediate veterinary attention.
After the delivery, the kittens should all be quiet, content and nursing. Any kittens that seem restless or aren’t nursing are cause for concern, and should be watched closely. Mom, likewise, will normally sleep contentedly with the kittens. She may leave the nest box periodically to snack and eliminate. A healthy litter is a quiet and sleeping litter. Be sure to plan for the lives of the kittens and find them homes.
So what happened to Missy, the cat at the start of our story? She gave uneventful birth to five healthy kittens about a month after I saw her. Missy’s owners were very concerned with being responsible pet owners and had already lined up eight homes, so the last three owners went to the local shelter to adopt their kittens. Missy’s owners wanted the kids to understand pet overpopulation and had them volunteer at the local shelter for several weeks over summer vacation. They saw firsthand the seriousness of the homeless pet population. Missy was neutered shortly after birth — and all six cats are alive and healthy today!