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How to Help a Pregnant Cat Give Birth (Vet Answer)

calico cat gave birth to kitten

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Dr. Paola Cuevas Photo

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Dr. Paola Cuevas

Vet, MVZ

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Expecting kittens is an exciting time! Generally, queens can go through the delivery process without the need for human intervention, however, we must be prepared to assist if she needs us. In this article, we will share some knowledge about the stages of labor, the materials you should have on hand, what to look for to make sure everything is fine, the signs that something is not right, and what you can do to help. Let’s get started!

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The Right Diet

Once you have confirmed that your cat is pregnant, providing appropriate nutrition is very important. She will need the extra calories and energy to support the formation and nurturing of a whole litter of kittens inside her womb. Change her to a calorie-dense kitten formula during her pregnancy. During the last trimester of her pregnancy, when the abdominal cavity space is occupied by the growing kittens, feed multiple smaller portions several times a day to help her maintain her nutrition and calorie intake.

maine coon cat eating
Image Credit: Fayzulin Serg, Shutterstock

Signs of Imminent Labor

The feline gestation period can range between 58-70 days, with most lasting between 63-65 days. You will notice the abdomen is larger and the nipples are bigger and have changed to a darker or pink color during the last few weeks.

There are some telltale signs of a queen approaching the time of labor.
  • Nesting: The mother cat will search for a quiet, warm, and safe place for her kittens to be born. This behavior can happen a couple of weeks or days before labor, and in some cats, even just a few hours before. You can help your cat by providing a nesting box that is big enough for her and her litter to fit comfortably in. You do not need to spend a lot of money in a nesting box as cardboard is a great insulator, line the bottom with newspaper and put a clean towel or blanket as bedding over that. Make sure your cat has easy access to it. What is very important is that you choose a place that is quiet, away from traffic, and also free of wind drafts as newborn kittens are very susceptible to cold temperatures.
  • Restlessness: As labor time approaches, the mother cat will appear restless, pacing around and looking uncomfortable. She will lose her appetite, it’s normal for mom to stop eating. You will see her licking her genitals and grooming herself more, vocalizations are usually common,
  • Body temperature drop: A cat’s body temperature drops down below 99°F before they are about to give birth. It is measured rectally, but you do not need to do it unless specifically instructed by a vet, as it will just increase the stress levels on your cat.
  • Contractions: You may be able to see clearly visible involuntary movements of the uterus directing the kittens down towards the birth canal in preparation for labor. Some cats will yowl from the discomfort. This can start somewhere 36-12 hours before the kittens’ birth.
  • Vomit: Some cats will vomit as uterine contractions start.
  • Discharge: Blood or fluid vaginal discharge is seen as labor is imminent. Contractions will also increase in frequency.

Supplies Checklist

Some of the following you might not need but you will want to be prepared with them in case you do need to help:
  • Nesting box: Presented weeks before labor so the cat is familiar and feels safe in it.
  • Absorbent pads: When labor is imminent, line up the bottom of the nesting box with absorbent pads for easy clean-up after birth.
  • Towels: Different sizes of clean towels, some to use as bedding, some smaller ones to clean up the kittens and stimulate them to breathe in case the mother neglects them.
  • Paper towels: You will use them to clean the area after delivery.
  • Bin: To dispose of all paper towels and materials.
  • Laundry basket: To collect soiled towels.
  • Disposable gloves: In case you need to help.
  • Dental floss and clean scissors: To use only in case the mother does not cut the kitten’s umbilical cord.
  • Cleaning alcohol and cotton: Used to disinfect the clean scissors. (You must allow the alcohol to evaporate after disinfecting the scissors, so do it in advance and have them ready)
  • Kitten replacement formula and feeding bottles: Hopefully you will not need them, but you don’t want to be unprepared in case you do.
tabby cat nesting
Image Credit: Alexas_fotos, Pixabay

Temperature Control

If you live in a cold area, you might need additional heat sources to make sure the kittens do not get too cold. The box temperature should be kept between 85-97°F during the kittens’ first 2 weeks of life as they can not control their body temperature by themselves.

If you use a heating pad please note it has to be a special one for pets. Make sure to follow safety instructions and that the temperature is not too hot. You will need to place several layers between the pad and the kittens. Never place kittens (or any other animal that can not move away from the pad) in direct contact with a heating pad to protect them from getting burn injury. It is best to place a towel over the heating pad, then only half of the nesting box over it. Then, place several layers of towels inside the box. By placing only half of the nesting box over the heating pad there will always be a colder area inside the box where the kittens can move to if they get too hot.

A bottle with slightly warmed water covered with a towel can also aid in regulating the temperature but it should be kept at 97°F or cooler, so you will need to regularly check it.

The Birthing Process

Before we proceed to explain the birthing process, you must understand that the best way you can help is by not intervening unless it is absolutely necessary. By giving the queen and kittens space and observing from a distance you will avoid creating unnecessary stress for the queen. This will help the birthing process go smoothly.

Uterine contractions will increase in frequency, pushing the first kitten into the birthing canal and out. You will notice the queen is straining and yowling. If the cat is straining for more than one hour this could indicate a birth problem or dystocia and the cat needs to be attended by a veterinarian urgently.

Most kittens are born head first, but this is not always the case. The kittens are usually delivered still inside the amniotic sac, the queen will lick the kittens to remove this amniotic sac and will usually handle the umbilical cord. By licking, the queen clears up the newborn kittens’ respiratory passages and stimulates them to take their first breath. The mother will ingest the amniotic sac of each kitten. Allow this, it is normal behavior.

If the mother does not clear the amniotic sac and stimulates the kitten within a minute after its birth, you should intervene.

Quickly wash your hands and, wearing gloves, gently take the kitten from the sac, place the kitten head down, open its mouth, and remove any liquid. Using a clean towel clean any debris from the face first making sure the mouth and nasal passages are clear. You can then turn the kitten upright and stimulate by gently rubbing with the towel until you see the kitten is breathing. Give the kitten back to the queen to see if she tears the umbilical cord, if she ignores the kitten you will have to do it yourself.

To cut the umbilical cord of a kitten, use dental floss to make a tight knot about 1 inch (2 cm) away from the kitten’s body. Use clean scissors to cut out the sac on the other side of the dental floss knot (away from the kitten’s body). Proceed to clean the kitten’s entire body and return it to the queen.

The delivery time between each kitten can take anything between 5-60 minutes.  The same process of cleaning them up is normally repeated for each kitten by the queen. You will have to jump in each time if she does not do it, but always give her the chance first.

cat giving birth showing the kitten in the vagina
Image Credit: Nipol Plobmuang, Shutterstock

Lactation

The newborn kittens might start lactating while the queen delivers the rest of the kittens. It is very important that all kittens lactate during their first hour after birth. The queen is producing colostrum, the specialized first milk that is rich in antibodies. The queen’s antibodies will provide immunity protection to the kitten while their own immune system is developing. During the first hours of a kitten’s life, its intestinal cells are not tightly closed, allowing for the absorption of bigger-sized maternal antibodies such as IgG. Therefore, it is very important to make sure all kittens are nursing shortly after birth. If the kittens are not lactating you should contact a veterinarian for advice.

The number of kittens in a litter is variable so ideally, you should know in advance how many kittens to expect. An average litter is four to six kittens but there could be more or less than that. You should observe and make sure that there is a sac expelled with or after each kitten. If the number does not match, stay vigilant and if the queen does not expel every sac within 24 hours your queen will need to be checked by a veterinarian. A retained placenta will cause an infection.

Potential Issues

As mentioned, normally the interval between each kitten’s birth is less than 1 hour, but some queens might take longer. However, if the delay is taking more than 4 hours and you are sure there is still a kitten inside, your queen needs to be checked by the vet.

It is heartbreaking to see a still-born kitten. However, if a kitten is delivered dead, quickly remove it from the queen. This will allow her to focus on the rest of the kittens and prevent her from eating it.

If you can see a kitten in the birth canal, or a bubble of air and over 15 minutes have passed without delivery the kitten might be stuck. In this case, call the veterinarian for assistance.

It is normal for some bleeding during the birthing process but if the hemorrhage does not stop or is very profuse, your queen is at risk and needs veterinary assistance. A hemorrhage stopping and then restarting again is usually also a sign of a problem.

mother cat gave birth to kitten
Image Credit: Azami Adiputera, Shutterstock

Afterbirth Monitoring

After labor, clean up any mess trying not to disturb the group too much. Always make sure your queen has easy access to food and water as well as a clean litter box nearby. Make sure that the water bowl is elevated to avoid a kitten accidentally drowning.

Monitor the kittens’ lactation from a distance to make sure they are all being fed. If one or more kittens are not eating or the queen is not feeding them, call the veterinarian for assistance.

Avoid the temptation to involve yourself with the kittens unless absolutely necessary. They should stay with their mother during this important bonding time. You want to make sure they are eating and you can weigh them after birth and then once a day around the same time to make sure their weight is increasing. They normally put on about 10 grams a day during the first week. Quickly return each kitten to the queen. After the first week, you can weigh them every 3 days and then just weekly. This is to ensure that they are growing normally and gaining weight as failure to increase weight is an indication of illness and should be addressed by a veterinarian.

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Conclusion

Mother nature is wise and queens are usually able to give birth with no intervention. Be prepared with the material, the knowledge of what to expect, what to watch for, and how to proceed in case your queen or the kittens need your help. Closely monitoring the process while still respecting this important bonding time from a safe distance is the best way you can help your cat give birth at home.


Featured Image Credit: Goldziitfotografie, Shutterstock

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