What To Expect If Your Cat Is Expecting
Seeing a litter of kittens arrive into the world is one of the miracles of life!
Before the kittens arrive, you are likely to have a whole lot of questions – especially if your cat is a first-time mum, or if you have never looked after a pregnant cat. In this article you will find expert advice and answers on the following questions, and much more!
- How long are cats pregnant for?
- How do you know if your female cat (queen) is pregnant?
- What happens during pregnancy?
- What special care does a pregnant cat need?
- How can I make sure mom and babies are healthy?
If you have a female kitten, consider whether she should be desexed before she gets pregnant.
We do advocate spaying her before her first heat (4-6 months of age) if you do not plan to breed from her – there are too many unwanted strays and shelter cats waiting for adoption already!
Whether or not your cat’s pregnancy is planned or accidental, discuss her pregnancy with your vet who can identify if there are problems with the pregnancy early, and ensure that your queen is cared for in the best possible way.
How To Tell If Your Cat Is Pregnant
Is my cat pregnant?! There are a few signs that can give you a clue if your cat is pregnant:
- There have been male cats hanging around
- She has been showing signs of heat or season (excessive meowing, smooching, holding her tail sideways and rolling around on the floor)
- Her nipples become pinker and more obvious
- Her belly gets bigger and rounder
- She has gained weight
- She has become super smoochy and affectionate
- Her appetite has increased
- The best time to check the shape of your cat’s belly is when she is lying down.
Look at this photo of a pregnant cat and see how round her belly is!
This is also a good time to look at her nipples.
Normally cat’s nipples are tiny, pale coloured and hard to see. If a cat is pregnant, her nipples become more prominent, and change to a deeper pink colour, like in the photo below.
Your vet can do several checks to find out if a cat is expecting.
This includes carefully feeling (palpating) for kittens – the foetal sacs can often be felt around 3-4 weeks after mating. At this stage, if this pregnancy is accidental and unwanted, your vet may discuss termination of the pregnancy with you at the same time as spaying your cat to prevent future pregnancies.
Ultrasound scans can be useful for confirming pregnancy from 2-3 weeks after mating, though if no kittens are seen on a scan, a repeat scan may be recommended a week or so later. The ultrasound can also show the kittens hearts beating, and you can see the kittens moving on a scan later in pregnancy.
An ultrasound does not give an accurate idea of how many kittens there are, but it can help identify if there are any problems with the queen’s uterus and abdominal organs.
A blood test can also be used to confirm pregnancy, this can be done at three weeks after mating. Your vet can take a small blood sample, and often will test it in clinic while you wait.
Your vet may recommend x-rays later in pregnancy when the kitten’s bones have developed enough to show.
X-rays early in pregnancy are often avoided unless there is concern with the queen’s health, however a single x-ray later in pregnancy is very safe.
X-rays confirm pregnancy, allow comparison of the size of the kittens to their mom, and can also give a rough idea how many kittens to expect.
If there is only one kitten present, it may mean the queen may not go in to labour naturally, or the kitten may be too big to pass through the birth canal. This might mean that a caesarean surgery might be needed to deliver the kitten safely.
It is good to know this information before a cat goes in to labour, as a planned caesarean is safer for mum and kittens.
How many kittens can you see on this x-ray image of a pregnant cat?!
In this image you can see tiny kittens that look a bit like fish skeletons inside the mother cat’s abdomen!
If you look closely you will be able to see four rounded kitten skulls. Each skull has a spine and body, but because they are overlapped it can make it tricky to count. This is why X-rays do not always give a 100% accurate litter size count.
How Long Are Cats Pregnant?
A cat is pregnant for around nine weeks. This is called the “Gestation Period”.
On average, the pregnancy lasts for 64 days, but this can range from between 58 and 70 days, depending on when the cat was mated, the litter size and their breed.
Oriental breeds like Siamese may not give birth until week 10 and have been known to delay delivery until a special person is by their side for the birth!
Cats have (on average) four to six kittens in each litter and can have two litters per year.
As you can imagine, there is a lot going on during the pregnancy period, so let’s look at a timeline that explains what is happening in each of the five stages of pregnancy.
Feline Pregnancy Timeline – The 5 Stages of Cat Pregnancy
A young female cat will come in to heat between four to six months of age – this may vary with breed and time of year.
A cat in heat will be attractive to Tom cats, and she will yowl, smooch, hold her tail to one side, and roll around on the floor! If you haven’t seen this behaviour before, it may make you think that she is unwell or in pain.
A queen in season will want to escape and roam in search of a male to flirt with. This usually occurs in Spring and Summer (the breeding season) and may happen without you noticing.
Cats are reflex ovulators, this means that they do not release eggs for fertilization unless they are mated. Because of this, a female cat will come in to heat every 10 to 14 days until she is mated. She might be mated by more than one Tom, resulting in a litter of kittens with more than one father!
Queens often yowl and scream when they are mated, this happens because the male’s penis is spikey (which is how mating stimulates ovulation in a cat).
In the first week, the fertilized egg forms a ball of cells. By week two after mating the embryos will have travelled down the oviduct (fallopian tube) and implanted along the lining inside the uterus, just like peas in a pod.
2. Early Stages (Week 3-4)
The kittens body organ development has already started by week three, and you can see where their eyes, limbs and tail are starting to form. The queen’s nipples will get pinker and more pronounced at this stage because of the changes in her hormones.
By week four, each kitten is floating in its own fluid filled sac and it receives its nutrition from the queen via the placenta and umbilical cord. Your vet may be able to carefully feel the kittens at this stage.
3. Mid stages (Week 5-7)
Organ development is mostly complete by week five – they already look like tiny kittens, and all they have to do now is grow! The queen’s belly will start to look rounder and her appetite will increase to meet the needs of those growing kittens.
From week six you might see the kitten’s movements inside the mum cat’s tummy when she is resting. Exercise is good for momma cat too – just don’t overdo it!
After week seven the kitten’s bones have got enough calcium for their skeletons to show up on an x-ray. They are starting to grow fur.
4. Pre-labour (Week 8-9)
Week eight is when the kittens do most of their growing, and they have toenails and whiskers too!
The queen may start poking around to find a place to have her kittens.
By week nine, she may have gained up to 25% of her pre-pregnancy weight, so she will have a very big tummy, meaning she must eat small meals often because there is so much pressure on her stomach. She may sleep a lot too. You might see little drops of milk on the ends of her nipples.
The kittens are nearly here! Your queen will be searching for a comfortable place to have her kittens.
She may become super affectionate and vocal before labour begins, although some queens become a bit withdrawn and grumpy because of the hormone changes. If she wants to be left alone then give her some space, as long as she is otherwise well.
She will groom herself a lot and will spend a lot of time licking her vulva.
Other signs the birth is imminent include the queen going off her food, and her body temperature may drop within 12 hours of birth. Your vet can demonstrate how to record her temperature in the days leading up to delivery.
Most queens deliver their kittens without any human assistance or intervention. Let her get on with the job without disturbing her too much! You will see tummy muscle contractions and straining start, and then she will deliver the kittens one by one, each contained in their own membrane or sac.
The queen should remove the membranes off the kittens, chew through the umbilical cord, and lick each kitten dry. She may eat the afterbirth or placenta.
The new-born kittens should start feeding very quickly after they are born – it is important that they do so to get much needed colostrum, and energy.
Caring For Your Pregnant Cat
It is important that your cat has a full health check with a vet before she is mated.
Your vet may recommend testing for FeLV (feline leukemia) and FIV (feline AIDs) to make sure she has not contracted these viral infections which can be passed on to the kittens.
Her vaccinations should be up to date before mating as most vaccines are not safe for pregnant cats. Your vet can advise on the best and safest de-flea and de-worm products for pregnant cats, and also on how often to treat her.
Early on in pregnancy, your queen may show signs of reduced appetite, lethargy and occasional vomiting (yes, morning sickness!). These signs should be mild, if you are worried your cat might be sick it is important that she gets checked over by a vet.
Feed a good quality balanced diet – let her eat freely (ad-lib) but do monitor that she is not becoming overweight. A good diet will have met the AAFCO minimum standards for your cat’s life stage – check the back of the packet or tin.
Your cat’s behaviour and activity should otherwise be normal, in fact you may not even know she is pregnant if you have missed the early tell-tale signs.
False pregnancy can sometimes occur in cats. A false pregnancy means the queen acts as if she is pregnant but there are no kittens inside her. She may look a little bigger, and she may start nesting and producing fluid from her nipples – these signs may occur anywhere from one to two months after her heat.
The cause of false pregnancies in cats is not clear, it may be due to hormonal imbalances or infection of the uterus. It is important to get your cat vet checked if you think she is having a false pregnancy.
Your queen is likely to be eating more now the kittens are growing, she will need to eat smaller meals more often because there is not much room left inside her!
Now is a good time to gradually change her food over to a premium kitten food, that will provide the nutrition the kittens need while growing. It is important to change her diet slowly by mixing the two foods together, starting with small amount of the new food, and then gradually increasing the proportion of the new food until she is only eating the new food after 7-10 days. You can continue feeding her kitten food until the kittens are weaned, because she will need the extra nutrition to produce enough milk for her babies.
Some companies make special diets designed to meet the needs of a queen while she is pregnant and feeding. These foods can also be used as a weaning diet for the kittens.
Her abdomen will feel tight, and she will be heavy; be gentle handling her and hold her securely and safely if you need to pick her up.
It is a good idea to get her vet checked in the last 2 weeks of pregnancy to make sure things are progressing well.
Your vet may recommend an x-ray to check the kitten’s size and development, and estimate the number of kittens. Measurements taken on an x-ray may help predict how far along the pregnancy is, if you don’t know when your cat was mated. You should also get your queen vet checked if there is any sign of poor appetite, lethargy, smelly discharge or bleeding from her vulva. These may be signs of spontaneous abortion (death and loss of kittens).
Queens need very regular deworming before and after giving birth to kittens, otherwise they can transfer worms to their kittens. Your vet can advise which deworming products are safe to use and recommend a flea treatment for her that will provide some protection to the new-born kittens.
Make sure the queen has had a de-flea treatment that is safe for use in pregnancy. Fleas can be fatal to kittens, so it is important that all other pets in the house have also been de-flead.
Now is also an ideal time to start finding good homes for the kittens!
Preparing for Delivery
Provide a low sided cardboard box lined with newspaper and old towels in a warm, quiet location. New-born kittens cannot maintain their own body temperature, so the room they are in should be draft free and may need heating to a comfortable warmth depending on the season and where you live.
Get your cat used to this area well before she gives birth. She may seek out alternative places to give birth such as a wardrobe, drawer or laundry hamper. If it is a safe location, leave her to it! Otherwise restrict access to this area.
Prevent her from going outdoors in the last week of pregnancy because we don’t want her giving birth outside!
If you have a medium to long haired cat you may wish to carefully clip the hair around her vulva and nipples. This will make it easier for her to clean herself, and it will make it easier for the kittens to find a nipple and start feeding.
Items to have prepared ready for the kitten birth include:
- Old towels
- Betadine disinfectant
- A new dental floss reel
- Sterilised scissors
- A pet-safe heating pad or hot water bottles
- Powdered or liquid glucose
Most queens give birth without requiring any human intervention-Do not disturb her unless absolutely necessary. Noisy children or constant poking and prodding can make a queen anxious and disrupt the birthing process.
Each kitten is delivered in its own sac of membranes with the mum will lick away. A breech birth (coming tail first) is normal for cats and dogs, this is not an emergency situation unless the kitten is stuck in the birth canal for more than 15 minutes.
The queen will eat the placentas – let her! It provides her with nutrition she needs to recover from this exhausting process.
Kittens should start mewling and feeding soon after birth, if they don’t it may mean they are cold or hungry. Warm them up gently (be careful that heat pads and hot water bottles do not burn!) and you may need to rub a little glucose on their gums.
If mom doesn’t clean away membranes from kittens face you may have to intervene and gently wipe the membranes away from mouth and nose. A baby’s suction bulb may be useful to remove fluid from the kitten’s mouth and nose.
If the queen does not chew off the umbilical cord you may need to tie this off with floss (1-2cm away from the kitten’s tummy) and then cut off the placenta side with scissors (leaving the tie with the kitten). Use betadine on a q-tip to disinfect the cut end.
There are some key signs when you should seek the advice of a veterinarian:
- If your cat appears unwell
- If there is a green or smelly discharge from her vulva
- If it has been more than nine weeks since mating
- If your cat has been actively straining for an hour with no kittens delivered
- If there has been fifteen minutes of active straining between kittens
- If the kittens are not feeding
Unless you plan to have another litter from your queen, it is a good idea to have her spayed once the kittens are eating solid food and can manage for a day without her, usually when the kittens are six to eight weeks old. Yes, she can come in to season again before the kittens are fully weaned!