Cat Pregnancy and Kittens: The Complete Guide

Katy Nelson, DVM
Jun 30, 2020
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For many people, finding out that their cat is pregnant comes as a surprise.

They may have even thought that their cat was just getting a little round from extra snacks. Sometimes it’s so hard to tell that a cat is pregnant that you don’t know until you’ve got a litter of kittens.

For these reasons, caring for your pregnant cat can sometimes be difficult in terms of pre-partum care. While cats tend to be pretty self-sufficient, there are still some important things to consider during your cat’s pregnancy and birth. 

This guide has everything you need to know about cat pregnancy and birth, including how to tell if a cat is pregnant, how long cats are pregnant for, nutritional needs, stages of cat labor, and how to care for the newborn kittens.

Click below to jump to a specific section:

How to Tell If a Cat Is Pregnant

How Long Are Cats Pregnant For?

What to Feed a Pregnant Cat

Safety Considerations for Pregnant Cats

How to Make Your Cat Comfortable for Giving Birth

Stages of Cat Labor

Postpartum Care

Kitten Care and Nutrition

How to Tell If a Cat Is Pregnant

It can be very difficult to see the signs that a cat is pregnant. The most definitive ways to confirm pregnancy include a blood test, ultrasound, x-rays or abdominal palpation.  

When a cat is pregnant, they are typically referred to as a “queen.” Usually a queen’s behavior will not greatly change during pregnancy, but some cats may become either more affectionate or aggressive.

Eventually, the cat’s abdomen may look rounder or her nipples may become more prominent. However, these signs will sometimes not occur until later in the pregnancy.

Cats can also suffer from false pregnancy, or pseudopregnancy. It’s believed to be caused by hormonal imbalances that allow non-pregnant queens to show symptoms such as lactation and behavioral changes. These changes usually occur one to two months after her heat is over and can last for up to a month. 

How Long Are Cats Pregnant For?

The cat gestation period (cat pregnancy length) is about 63-65 days on average, or about two months. 

What to Feed a Pregnant Cat

Pregnant cats have different nutritional needs. Here’s what you need to know about providing the right food for a pregnant cat.

Feed a High-Calorie Cat Food

Pregnant cats should be transitioned to a higher-calorie diet at four weeks of gestation. Queens should be kept on this higher-calorie diet through weaning.  

The best cat foods are:

  • Commercial diets labeled for pregnancy and lactation

  • Commercial diets labeled for kittens

Provide Frequent Meals

Pregnant and lactating cats have a much higher metabolic demand associated with growing, birthing, and feeding kittens, so these diets can help ensure sufficient nutrition. 

Keep in mind that because of the growing fetuses, there will also be less room in your cat’s stomach. This means that she will need to eat smaller, more frequent meals. 

Health and Safety Considerations for Pregnant Cats

Once a cat is confirmed to be pregnant, there are a few things that a pet parent needs to be aware of and consider.

Watch for Vaginal Bleeding

Vaginal bleeding is abnormal during any feline pregnancy and should be a cause for concern.

If the bleeding is noted during the early or middle stages of gestation, it’s likely that the queen has had a miscarriage or aborted the babies.

If the bleeding is noted at the end of the pregnancy, the mother may be going into labor early, and immediate veterinary intervention is necessary.  

Take Your Cat for a Fecal Test

It’s recommended that you have a fresh stool sample checked by your veterinarian, as intestinal parasites can be spread to the kittens both in utero  (in the womb), and during nursing.

Do NOT use over-the-counter dewormers on your pregnant or nursing cat, as some of these could be dangerous. Your veterinarian can prescribe the appropriate medication if her stool sample shows evidence of parasitic infection.  

Keep Pregnant Cats on Safe Flea Preventatives

During pregnancy, it’s even more important to keep your cat on a safe, vet-approved flea preventative. Always check with your veterinarian to ensure that a specific flea preventative is safe for use in pregnant cats.

Keeping your cat flea-free isn’t just for their safety, but for the safety of their kittens. Flea anemia is one of the most common causes of death in young kittens. 

No Vaccines for Pregnant Cats

In addition, cats should never be vaccinated during pregnancy. Vaccines can put a cat at significant risk of birth defects for the developing babies. 

Any queen that is being used for breeding should be current on her vaccinations and preventatives prior to pregnancy.  

How to Make Your Cat Comfortable for Giving Birth

Pregnant cats are very independent and will usually find their own quiet area to nest before giving birth. And while your cat might decide for herself where she wants to give birth, it’s a good idea to set up a nesting box or area in a quiet part of the house.

You can use a large cardboard box with low sides, making it easy for your cat to step in and out, or simply put down soft, clean bedding. You can use newspaper or towels as bedding.

Place her litter box, food, and water nearby so that she can easily access them while nursing her kittens. 

Keep the nesting area private enough for the pregnant queen to feel comfortable, yet still accessible so you can monitor any possible complications.  

Stages of Cat Labor

There are three stages of labor in cats.

First Stage of Labor: Contractions and Restlessness

The first stage is defined as cervix relaxation and the start of intermittent contractions. However, it’s likely that you won’t be able to see or tell that your cat is having contractions at this point in the birthing process.

During this stage, you can expect your cat to:

  • Act restless

  • Travel in and out of the nesting box

  • Pant

  • Vocalize

  • Sometimes even vomit

Her body temperature will also decrease to 99°F or less when she is 12-36 hours from the start of full contractions.  

Second Stage of Labor: Birth

The second stage of labor in cats begins with stronger, more frequent uterine contractions that eventually lead to the birth of a kitten. Do NOT move or distract your cat during the birthing process because she may stop labor and begin again the next day if she feels stressed. 

Depending on the individual queen, kittens are usually born every 30-60 minutes, with the entire litter being delivered in less than six hours. Pregnant cats can have four to six kittens in a litter. You can use a timer to keep track of the time between kittens to make sure there isn’t a problem.

Watch for Complications

Dystocia means difficult birth and can occur for a variety of reasons.

If the mother is having strong contractions and has been straining for more than 60 minutes without birthing a kitten, she should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. 

What Should You Do After a Kitten Is Born?

Kittens are born with a protective fetal membrane that is usually removed by the mother cat shortly after birth. Fetal membranes are usually reddish-yellow in color and surround the fetus that’s floating in amniotic fluid.

If the mother cat fails to remove the fetal membrane within the first minute after birth, you will need to break the sac and wipe away any fluid from the kitten’s nose. Then open the mouth with the head facing down and clear any remaining membranes or fluid. You can then stimulate the kitten to breathe by firmly stroking their body with a towel.

If the umbilical cord has not broken during delivery or the mother cat has not torn it, you will need to sever the connection. Aim to break the cord about an inch away from the kitten’s body. Tear it with your first two fingers and thumb, but be careful not to pull on the cord, as this may cause damage to the kitten’s organs.  

Third Stage of Labor: Afterbirth

The third—and final—stage of labor is the passage of the placenta.

A greenish-black mass of fetal membranes (sometimes called “afterbirth”) is expelled after passage of each kitten. 

Call the Vet If You Don’t See the Placenta

Retained placenta is a condition that can occur if the mother cat fails to expel the placenta during birth. This can lead to fever, infection, lack of appetite, and failure to care for the kittens.

If the queen has a retained placenta, you will need to seek veterinary care for her as soon as possible.  

How Long Should Vaginal Discharge Last After a Cat Gives Birth?

Vaginal discharge may last for up to three weeks after the kittens are born. The discharge will normally appear reddish-black since it consists mostly of old blood. If the discharge is overly bloody or looks like pus, the queen should be examined by her veterinarian as soon as possible.   

Postpartum Care

Once your cat has given birth, the real work begins. Here’s what you need to know about postpartum care, nutrition, and lactation.

Continue Feeding a High-Calorie Diet

Your cat should be kept on a higher calorie (pregnancy or kitten) diet for as long as she is lactating (nursing her kittens). You should have food and fresh water available to her at all times.

Keep the Area Private and Quiet

The mother and her kittens should be kept in a quiet, low-traffic area of the house. If there is too much commotion around her, she may become stressed and neglect her kittens.

As the kittens get older and more rambunctious, your cat will want more and more time to get away and sleep, groom, or socialize with members of the household. Give your cat space to get away from the kittens, but make sure that she is returning often to check on them. 

Monitor Nursing and Lactation

Colostrum is the first milk that the mother cat produces for her kittens. It is imperative that the kittens receive an adequate amount of colostrum because it contains vital nutrients and immunoglobulins that are necessary for proper immune system maturation.

Newborn kittens should be nursing every one to two hours, so your cat will likely be with them constantly for the first week or two. If you think that your cat may not be producing milk, or isn’t letting the kittens nurse, contact your veterinarian right away. 

Use caution when approaching the kittens, as some mothers may show aggression to humans or other household pets if they perceive a threat. 

Avoid giving medications and vaccines while your cat is nursing.

If your cat becomes ill, call your veterinarian immediately and make sure to let them know that she is nursing so that they can prescribe safe medications if needed. Contact your vet if you your cat does any of the following:

  • Stops eating

  • Vomits

  • Becomes very lethargic (weak and tired)

  • Has redness and swelling in any of her mammary glands

Keep Male Cats Separate From Your Female Cat After She Gives Birth

If your female cat is around a male cat that is not neutered, she could become pregnant again before she is even done weaning her current litter.

Most veterinarians prefer to wait until about a month after she is done weaning to spay her, as this allows time for the uterus to shrink down and makes the surgery safer.

If you are in this situation, have your male cat neutered as soon as you know your female is pregnant, or keep your female cat confined so that another pregnancy is not possible before she can be spayed. 

Consider Spaying and Neutering

According to the ASPCA, a cat can have an average of four to six kittens per litter, and can have one to two litters per year. That adds up to a lot of kittens!

Shelters are full of cats and kittens across the United States. To help with the serious problem of overpopulation, talk to your veterinarian about spaying or neutering your cat.  

It is also important to consider the risk of pyometra (infection in the uterus), which is a life-threatening condition that can happen in intact (not spayed) cats.

The best way to prevent this serious and expensive medical condition is to spay your cat. Spaying before the first heat cycle (which can occur as early as 4 months of age), can also reduce the risk of mammary cancer in your feline friend.  

Kitten Care and Nutrition

Here are some tips for caring for your cat’s kittens safely.

Limit Handling Them During the First Weeks

Although you may want to pet and hold the kittens constantly, do not intervene too much in the first week or two of their lives. During this time, kittens are very susceptible to disease, and it can be stressful to the mom and babies.  

During the first few weeks after birth, the mother cat will stimulate her kittens to eliminate by cleaning their genital areas. She will also clean up after them, so there is no need to add a litter box specifically for the kittens during their early days.

Keep The Nest Area Warm

Kittens are unable to regulate their own body temperature until they are 3 to 4 weeks old. So for the first four weeks of their lives, you should provide a warm, clean box or bedding for the mother and kittens to share. 

Use a heating pad below the nesting box or a heating lamp above it to keep the kittens warm. But make sure there are accessible unheated areas, as kittens will need to be able to move away from the heat source if they become too warm. 

The warm area should be about 97°F.  

Discuss Medical Care With Your Veterinarian

You should also contact your veterinarian to ask when the kittens should first be examined. 

They may want to see them right away to evaluate for cleft palates, umbilical hernias, and other health concerns, or they may advise you to wait until they are a bit older. 

Many veterinarians recommend deworming at regular intervals, starting at 2 to 4 weeks of age, and vaccinating at 6 weeks of age.  

Watch For Struggling Kittens

Watch for “poor doers” or the “runts of the litter” (kittens who are much smaller and not growing as quickly as their littermates), as they could have underlying health conditions affecting their ability to grow.

If you notice that one of your kittens is smaller or has less energy than the others, consult your veterinarian. 

Start Socialization When the Kittens’ Eyes Begin to Open

Kittens’ eyes generally open around 7 to 10 days of age. At this point, if the queen will allow it, it’s a good idea to get the kittens used to your presence. Socializing them at an early age can help ensure that they fit well into a household. 

Kittens should NOT be taken away from their mother and go to their new homes too quickly, as they learn very important social rules and behavior from their mother and siblings. They should never be separated from their mother if they are younger than 8 weeks old.

Waiting until they are closer to 10 weeks old to adopt out or place the kittens in homes will have an even greater behavioral benefit.

Start the Weaning Process at 3 to 4 Weeks

Once the kittens are 3 to 4 weeks old, you can begin the weaning process by giving them access to kitten food. 

You can mix dry kibble with water (and let it soak to make the kibbles softer) or canned kitten food to make it easier for them to eat. They should still have constant access to the queen, who will continue to nurse them.

Over the next few weeks, they will rely more and more on kitten food rather than nursing. Most queens will wean their kittens by 5 to 6 weeks of age. 

At this age, you also can put out a small litter pan with a thin layer of litter. Most kittens will naturally scratch in the litter and learn to relieve themselves in the litter box. 

Sources: 

1.     Pet statistics. Animal homelessness, shelter intake and surrender. ASPCA. https://www.aspca.org/animal-homelessness/shelter-intake-and-surrender/pet-statistics. 

2.     Nelson RW, Couto CG. Small Animal Internal Medicine. 5th edition. St. Louis, Mo. Elsevier. 2014. 

3.     Reducing the risk of cancer. Special pet topics. Cancer and tumors. Merck Veterinary Manual.  https://www.merckvetmanual.com/special-pet-topics/cancer-and-tumors/reducing-the-risk-of-cancer. 

4.     Brooks Wendy. Giving birth to kittens. Veterinary Information Network. https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=19239&id=4952101 

5.     Williams Krista. Pregnancy and parturition in cats. VCA Hospitals. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/pregnancy-and-parturition-in-cats 

Featured Image: iStock.com/Prostock-Studio

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