Part I: The Mysteries of Pregnancy and Birth
So your cat is expecting and you need to know all about what’s going to happen.
In the first few weeks, kittens go through amazing changes and some even more amazing things happen in the 9 weeks before they arrive – and I am going to tell you all about them with some Q/A’s!
So let’s fire away:
Q. How long are cats pregnant for before giving birth?
A. Cat gestation (the period of time between conception and birth, the length of pregnancy) is generally 63 to 65 days. That comes to about 2 months.
Here’s an interesting fact that not a lot of people know:
Female cats go into heat and breed, then their bodies release eggs between 20 and 50 hours after breeding. Once their body releases the eggs, they begin to go out of heat.
During that time, though, they can breed repeatedly and get pregnant multiple times – so that litter of kittens can not only have different dads, they can be days apart in age!
(Yes, it is possible that every kitten in the litter has a different dad and is a different age. Isn’t that amazing?)
The kittens are born when the oldest kitten is ready to come out.
Three days apart in age may not seem like much, but with a gestation of 9 weeks, some of the kittens can be equivalent to a human baby being a few weeks premature.
If there’re smaller ones in the litter, they aren’t “runts” or any less healthy – they’re just younger!
These preemies may need a little extra care and monitoring, so keep an eye out for them.
They aren’t sick and their mama won’t reject them, but it’s possible their older, stronger brothers and sisters push them away in their rush to nurse, or they get turned in the wrong direction and get lost.
Just make sure they get to the right place and nurse well, and they will catch up with their older siblings in no time.
A couple of weeks before the kittens are due, the queen (that is the official name for an unsprayed adult female cat) will start to look for a place to give birth.
You can help her by finding a calm and quiet place for her, and provide a birthing spot.
Try and provide a medium sized box, big enough for her to stretch out in and have space for the kittens to snuggle at her side.
If you want to know how to make a birthing box for cats, watch the video below:
Make sure it is warm and snuggly for her, and the opening is low enough for her to get in and out of easily.
If she likes the spot, she will start snuggling in it but if she picks another spot, try moving the box there.
She will have the kittens wherever she wants to have them, though. Just do your best to provide a safe spot for her and she will do the rest.
During her pregnancy, your cat will need about 1.5 times her normal amount of food but 24 hours before the kittens are born, she will usually stop eating.
When that happens, you know the kittens are on the way!
Birthing Of Kittens
Q. What do I need to do during the birthing of the kittens?
A. In a word, nothing.
Mama cats have been doing this for years and, even if it is a first litter, their instincts will guide them through it. Very, very rarely do they need help so stay in earshot and let her handle it. If she seems distressed, check on her but otherwise stay out of her way.
Keep children and other pets away and try to keep her stress level as low as possible.
If you have a very close relationship with her and she trusts you, you might offer her some water between kittens and pet and reassure her, but if she is at all skittish, growls, or seems stressed by your presence, leave her alone.
Let her guide you in how much interaction she wants during birth.
Q. What about the kittens – do I need to clean them or anything?
A. Each kitten is born in a separate amniotic sack and they come out fully enclosed in it.
The queen will clean off the sack, and bite off the umbilical cord.
It may sound gross, but she will eat all that remains of the sack and cord – it is both good protein and instinctual.
In the wild, it not only saves her from having to leave the kittens in the first day or two to go find food, it also cleans up the birth area so that there is no smell of blood which could draw predators.
Even during the birthing process, mama is already guarding and protecting her kittens!
Rarely, the next kitten will start being birthed before she is finished cleaning the previous one. If that happens, just make sure the kitten’s nose and mouth are clear and if not wipe them with a warm damp cloth.
Make sure the kitten is breathing and put him back to snuggle with mama, and she will finish the cleaning when she has time. The myth that a mama cat will reject the kittens if you handle them/get your scent on them is just that – a myth – but if you stress her with too much interaction she may try to move in the middle of the birthing process and that isn’t good for anyone.
So monitor and assist if needed, but if she seems stressed by your presence, back off.
Below is a new momma cat giving birth for the first time: GRAPHIC but beautiful.
In the wild, queens form cooperative groups to take care of the kittens.
One nurses while one hunts and another stands guard.
They will nurse and care for each other’s kittens communally. Once the kittens are all together, they don’t separate out their own, they jointly care for them.
The kittens bond with multiple mama cats and with their birth and adopted litter-mates equally.
Very few animals form social, cooperative groups and this structure closely resembles a pride of lions.
Yes, that queen is a little lion, fiercely protecting her cubs!
If you have another female cat in the household who is well bonded with your queen, she may end up helping care for the kittens as well, and if the queen is particularly close to you, she might let you help as well, deciding you are a co-mama.
(Yes, cats think humans are cats. Weird, funny smelling cats missing a lot of fur, but cats. I will tell you all about that in another blog entry.)
Q. So they’re tiny… and kind of naked looking… and their umbilical cords are still there. Is this normal?
A. Yes, newborn kittens do look kind of like mice. Naked mice. Little round ears and all.
They fit on the palm of your hand, and their eyes are closed and their ears are folded close to their heads. They have little umbilical cords still attached.
They are pretty much blind and deaf and completely helpless. As mentioned before, some may be smaller preemies.
This is where the mama instincts really kick in.
She’s got to keep up with these little blind helpless things, keep them safe and feed them as they grow (and grow and grow!)
You can help make this easier, if she is comfortable and will let you.
Here’s what you can do:
Offer her water and food between kittens and once she is finished giving birth. (It can take up to 24 hours before she has all the kittens, but they are usually born within a few hours.)
While she did eat some during the cleanup process, she did fast for 24 hours and kitten-birth takes a lot of energy, so she may be hungry.
Offer her a little bit of high quality food and some fresh water.
Leave it for a short time and back off.
Once she has eaten, or after about 15 minutes, take these away.
Leaving them by the kittens will stress her – her instincts tell her that food left lying out in the wild could attract predators, and a blind helpless kitten can drown in even the shallowest water.
Make sure food and water are available in the place she is used to, and she will leave the kittens for brief periods to stretch her legs, eat and drink, and use the litter box.
The kittens can be left for short periods assuming there are no hazards nearby.
If you have other pets, it is best to keep an eye on the kittens while she is away but only interact with them if you know she is accepting of this.
Make sure she is warm and in a draft free place, and if the bedding got wet or gross during the birth process (she can clean up a lot but she can’t wash fabric), then switch out the bedding for clean stuff.
Wash anything that was stained with cold water and detergent without perfumes or fabric softener if possible.
Kittens navigate their way to mama by smell, and strong detergent or fabric softener can be overwhelming and confusing.
If there are any kittens who are smaller or weaker, they might need a little help.
Make sure they are in the middle of the kitten pile and their siblings are keeping them warm.
Kittens need to be warm to digest food. Also, they find the milk by smell since they can’t see or hear yet.
Because of this, you may have three kittens going for one nipple while there are others free.
Moving them around so everyone finds a milk dispenser can help end early sibling quarrels.
They may look comical shoving each other out of the way and bopping each other on the head, but once they latch on there will be many happy purrs.
Mama cat will purr at them as well, to help guide them to her, and give them baths while they nurse (a mother’s work really is never done).
Kitten Not Nursing?
If any of the kittens don’t eat, it is time for vet intervention. Kittens who don’t eat will fade away.
Eating is an instinctive drive and if it doesn’t happen, there is a problem.
The little umbilical cord stubs are normal, and will dry and fall off in time.
That may seem gross, but grosser stuff has come before and even more gross stuff is coming. Babies, human and cat, are inherently gross.
That’s why they’re so adorable – so we love them despite the gross.
Q. Is mamma’s milk best? What is cat milk made of?
A. Mama’s milk is a 100% complete food and is nutritionally all they need.
The queen’s milk actually changes repeatedly during the kitten’s growth cycle to be exactly what the kittens need at that age.
The milk she produced in the first 24 hours after birth is hugely important, because it contains colostrum. This is an incredibly concentrated mixture of protein, antibodies, water, vitamins, nutrients and electrolytes.
It is like Gatorade and Miracle-Gro for kittens.
The queen actually passes on antibodies to protect the kittens from any illnesses she has antibodies for- so if mama is vaccinated, she passes this protection onto the newborns to keep them as healthy and strong as possible.
Make sure mama gets the best food possible, and the will make superfood for her kittens.
As for the litter box, they don’t need one, nor do you have to clean up super tiny kitten poops.
First, their body needs nutrition and will use up most of the milk they drink. There isn’t much elimination early on – their body uses that milk.
The ever dutiful mama will lick them to stimulate urinating and defecating and clean up any little bit there is (see, I did say there was more gross stuff coming).
She does this to keep the kitten area clean and also to keep predators away. Okay, that gets us through pregnancy and kitten-birth.
Next up: a guide to the amazing changes that those kittens will go through in the first three months of their lives!
Also in a future entry: more about why cats think we are cats as well, just really weird cats.