Cat Pregnancy: The Complete Guide

Jamie Lovejoy, DVM
By Jamie Lovejoy, DVM on Aug. 17, 2023
tabby cat nursing four kittens while kneading the air

To ensure healthy kittens, it’s important to know what to expect when your cat is expecting. Pregnant cats are usually self-sufficient mothers and are known to have kittens through all types of adversity. But at home, there are many things a pet parent can do to make the process safer and easier for mother cats.

Key Takeaways

  • The gestation period for cats is about two months, or 63-65 days.
  • Pregnant cats should be vaccinated before pregnancy, checked for worms, and fed a special high-calorie diet.
  • Most cats will deliver their entire litter of kittens within six hours.
  • The only way to prevent pregnancy in cats is to have them spayed.

At What Age Can a Cat Get Pregnant?

Cats can become pregnant as soon as they reach sexual maturity and start having heat cycles. This usually begins at 5–6 months of age, though kittens as young as 3 or 4 months old have been known to start their heat cycles, depending on the time of year they’re born. Female cats who have reached sexual maturity are known as “queens.”

Heat cycles repeat every two weeks, so cats can have multiple litters per season if allowed. Fertility usually decreases when a cat is around 8 years of age, but the only way to be sure a cat won’t get pregnant is to have her spayed.

How Long Is a Cat Pregnancy?

The gestation period for cats is approximately two months (averaging 63–65 days). It can be divided into approximately three “trimesters” of 20 days each, although the first two trimesters can be difficult to differentiate at home.

graphic depicting the pregnancy timeline of a cat

How To Tell if a Cat Is Pregnant

Detecting pregnancy in cats can be very challenging in the first two trimesters. The first notable sign of a cat pregnancy may be nipple changes at about 16–20 days into the pregnancy, known as “pinking up.” This is where a queen’s nipples become pinker and more prominent. Cats in the first two trimesters are often very friendly and more docile than usual.

In the last 20 or so days of pregnancy, abdominal and mammary enlargement is more obvious. Queens may exhibit increased grooming of their belly and the area under their tail. They will also often search for suitable locations in which to “nest.”

How To Tell How Far Along Your Cat Is

Unless a cat has been intentionally bred, determining her due date can be very tricky. In general:

  • A veterinarian may be able to palpate (feel) fetuses about two and a half weeks into the pregnancy.

  • Kitten heartbeats can be seen by ultrasound at three to four weeks into the pregnancy.

  • Kittens can be seen on an X-ray once their skeletons have calcified, at about six weeks.

Combining these developmental milestones with observations of mammary development and behavior at home can help narrow down how far along a cat is in her pregnancy. Keep in mind that with such a short pregnancy, there is some degree of error.

A veterinary visit can also help rule out a rare condition known as pseudopregnancy, or false pregnancy. Pseudopregnant cats may exhibit mammary development and even lactation without actually carrying kittens.

Caring for a Pregnant Cat

Pregnant cats have a few special requirements when it comes to general health care.

What To Feed a Pregnant Cat

Pregnant cats need a high-calorie diet to support the growth of healthy kittens. To ensure adequate nutrition, feed a commercial cat diet labeled either specifically for pregnancy and lactation or labeled for kittens (growth). A good food for pregnant cats is Royal Canin’s Mother & Baby Cat dry food and wet food.

Mother cats should be transitioned to this high-calorie diet by at least the end of the first month of pregnancy and should be fed the same food until weaning, when kittens are no longer nursing.

Pregnant queens should receive frequent meals throughout the day. You may notice the amount they eat may decrease as the kittens develop and take up more space in the abdomen, making it important for them to have more opportunities to eat smaller meals.  

Vaccinations for Pregnant Cats

Ideally, cats should be vaccinated prior to pregnancy to prevent illnesses, birth defects, and the risk of pregnancy loss due to infectious diseases. Vaccinated queens can also pass on protection against these diseases to their kittens through nursing via antibodies.

If your cat was not vaccinated and becomes pregnant, it’s recommended to wait to vaccinate her until after she gives birth. Live vaccines should never be given to pregnant animals, as there is significant risk to developing fetuses. But killed vaccines, such as most rabies vaccines, can be given if your veterinarian feels it’s appropriate.

Parasite Prevention for Pregnant Cats

Parasite prevention does not need to be discontinued in pregnant cats, but it’s important to use products that are safe. For example, Frontline Gold is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to safeguard pregnant cats against fleas and ticks. Talk to your veterinarian about products safe for your pregnant cat.

Bring a fecal sample to your vet to have it checked for worms. Some intestinal worms are easily passed from mother to kittens during pregnancy and nursing, and worms can make growth very difficult for a kitten. A variety of dewormers can be used in pregnant cats, and your vet can help choose one that will be effective against any parasites found in the fecal sample.

Illness in Pregnant Cats

Cats are very good at hiding when they are not feeling well, so it is important to monitor your pregnant queen for any subtle signs of illness. If your cat isn’t eating, has diarrhea, or is vomiting, take her to the vet.

Vaginal discharge, especially blood, is not normal at any stage of gestation. Take your cat to an urgent veterinary visit if this is happening.

Preparing for Labor and Delivery

As your cat enters her last trimester, provide her with a designated area to nest. Cats prefer a quiet, private area to give birth. If they are not provided with one that you can observe easily, they may choose someplace less convenient for you!

The perfect birthing nest allows you to monitor the cat and kittens for issues, while still giving them plenty of space. A cardboard box lined with old pillowcases or towels is ideal. The location should also be free of drafts, as kittens are sensitive to temperature fluctuation and should not be at risk of getting cold.

Signs of a Cat in Labor

Labor often starts with subtle behavior changes. Most queens will stop eating the day before labor begins. They will often scratch at their chosen nesting spot and seem slightly agitated. If you are monitoring rectal temperatures, a drop below 100 F indicates that labor is set to start within the day. During this first stage of labor, contractions are beginning but are usually not visibly noticeable.

In the second stage of labor, a cat will show active signs of straining. This is the stage where the kitten passes through the pelvis. It usually takes 5–30 minutes for a single kitten to be delivered. Kittens are born inside a sac of fetal membranes and normally come head first.

The third stage of labor is more passive, as the rest of the fetal membranes and placenta for that particular kitten are passed. It’s normal for these membranes to appear greenish black. One placenta should be passed for every kitten. The second and third stages often alternate for each kitten, but it’s not unheard of for a second kitten to be born before this stage is completed for the previous kitten. It is normal for queens to eat these membranes.

As previously noted, it is important for you to monitor your cat during labor. But unless there are signs of a complicated birth, try not to interact with your cat or interfere. Cats have the ability to pause labor in between kittens, and this break can last 24–36 hours. It’s thought that they are more likely to do so if they do not feel safe in their environment.

How Long Are Cats in Labor?

Most cats will deliver all their kittens within six hours, unless there is an interrupted labor as described above. A longer period of time between kittens with no contractions may be normal; however, prolonged and intense contractions are not. If your cat is having visible contractions for more than 20 minutes without producing a kitten, or if it takes longer than 10 minutes to pass a kitten that is visible in the birth canal, call a veterinarian.

Postpartum Cat Care

Once all kittens have been born, ensure that they are dry and that their noses and mouths are clear. If it can be done without disturbing the new family, clean away any soiled linen in the nesting box to ensure the kittens stay dry and warm.

Ideally, the nesting box temperature should stay between 85–90 F for the first week. Typically, healthy kittens need minimal assistance finding their first meal. Monitor your cat to make sure she is allowing normal nursing behaviors. If you are concerned that your cat is rejecting her kittens, she should be evaluated by your vet.

Featured Image: Adobe/bozhdb

Jamie Lovejoy, DVM


Jamie Lovejoy, DVM


Dr. Jamie Lovejoy graduated from Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2012 after an undergraduate degree in Marine Biology. ...

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