Pregnancy and Giving Birth in Cats
Female cats can become pregnant anytime after about 6 months of age. However most females aren't psychologically mature enough to become a mother until they are at least 1 year of age.
A female, once sexually mature, will go into heat (also known as estrus). Cats are seasonally polyestrous which means they will go into heat multiple times a season until they mate. Season usually starts a few months after winter solstice and usually ends in September or October. Indoor cats who are only exposed to artificial lighting may stay in season year round! Estrus itself will last 4 - 10 days and will cycle (about every 2-3 weeks) until the female mates, is spayed, or goes out of season. During this time the female will become fairly agitated: thrashing about, rubbing on floors and furniture, spraying, rolling about restlessly, and crying or meowing loudly.
If the female does mate and become pregnant you can expect her to give birth in about 62-69 days. Three weeks into her pregnancy you will notice her nipples becoming pink, firm and erect. By the end of the fourth week you will notice her belly enlarging. And anytime after the seventh week you will be able to feel her kittens moving about inside her belly.
Pregnant cats do need a bit of special care, although not much. Make sure to keep her indoors and in a clean, safe environment at all times. If she is an outdoor cat and must be outdoors it is imparative that she at least remain indoors for the last 2 weeks of her pregnancy. This is for her protection as well as her kitten's protection. Also switch her food to a special diet for pregnant cats. Consult your vet for what brands and types of foods will be best for her. Make sure her litterbox is always clean to avoid the spread of infection; also you may want to switch to a 'shorter' litterbox as her belly starts to grow. This will help her get into and out of the box. And lastly you will want to prepare a 'maternity bed' for her.
The maternity bed is meant to be where she will give birth. If she doesn't have a maternity bed she will find another suitable place which could be your closet. So it is best to try to get her accustomed and comfortable with this special bed. You can create a maternity bed out of a cardboard box which is at least 2 X 3 feet wide and about 1 1/2 feet high. Also you will want the box to have a top to it (this will help keep warmth in for the kittens and keep it dark and quiet). Cut a hole in one side of it that is large enough for mom to crawl in and out of. Place a few inches of shredded newspaper in the bottom of the box and then cover that with a blanket or old shirt that your cat is comfortable with. Make sure to place the box in a warm and quiet place.
Once your cat is close to her due date make sure to watch her for blood spotting or any signs that could indicate a problem pregnancy or a premature birth. Also watch for if she is 2 or more days overdue for her delivery, this can indicate a problem pregnancy. If you at any point during the delivery think that something is wrong such as if she is straining too hard without delivering any kittens, bleeding, or producing a discharge that is foul-smelling or discolored don't hesitate to call your vet immediately. During her last week of pregnancy make sure she is kept away from other pets, children and stays fairly solitary. This is for her cleanliness and safety (females in late stages of pregnancy can get aggressive). Try to keep her calm and as inactive as possible during this time period and try to get her accustomed to her maternity bed.
Make sure to have the following on hand for the birth.
- a heating pad
- clean cloths and towels
- petroleum jelly
- a scale
- dental floss
- cleaning materials and disinfectant
When she is ready to give birth she will become very restless and pace as if she is looking for something, and she will become very vocal. She also might make many unproductive trips to the litterbox but eventually will settle into her maternity bed (Note: If she is not well accustomed to her bed she may choose another suitable spot. Do NOT move her or make her use the maternity bed if she doesn't want to. Let her give birth where she chooses.). Once she settles into her spot she will go into labor which can last up to 12 hours. During this time you should prepare for the birth by getting a bowl of disinfectant solution, clean towels and cloths, scissors, dental floss, and petroleum jelly together. In the meantime mom will prepare herself for birth by finding a comfortable position (some cats stand up while others lay down, never try to move the mother at this point).
The female may scream as the first kitten is born, don't be alarmed this is normal especially for a first time mom. Unlike humans, some kittens are born head first and some are born feet first. Each birth will take about 15 minutes. Once the kitten is born mom should break the amniotic fluid (if the mother doesn't do this you will need to break it with your scissors as the kitten will not be able to breathe until it is free of the fluid), clean the kitten thoroughly (if the mom doesn't clean the kitten you should clean it and even go so far as to hold the kitten upside down and use a small syringe to suck the fluid from the mouth and throat), eat the afterbirth, and sever the umbilical cord. If the mother doesn't cut the umbilical cord you will need to. Tie dental floss around the cord about 1 inch away from the kittens body and cut the umbilical cord on the mom's side of the tie. Don't cut it too close to the kitten as infection or death can occur. Also if you notice the mom trying to chew too close to the kitten stop her and cut it yourself. If you notice her having trouble giving birth at any time you can put some petroleum jelly on her to ease the kittens coming out.
The entire delivery generally takes between 2-5 hours but can last up to 12 hours. Litters are usually of between 4 and 6 kittens, although litters of just one or two kittens can be common. After all kittens are born mom will take care of her kittens and rest! If the mom does not seem to be taking care of her kittens you may need to take over. If this is the case consult your vet immediately for specifics.
Make sure to watch over the mom after birth for any bleeding or discharge. Also watch her to make sure she is nursing properly. As for the kittens you may want to keep a weight chart for them. When born they are deaf, blind and should weigh about 3-4 oz. They should then gain weight every day. It is extremely important that they begin suckling and start gaining weight. If they are having trouble finding the nipple on their own don't hesitate to help them out. Also keep the maternity bed warm (80 F) and draft free. If possible you may want to drape a heating pad over one side of the bed. Also contact your vet after the birth for a schedule of vaccinations and checkups for the little ones and the mom.