What You Should Know About Feline Pregnancy

By: Michele Wright, DVM

TVMA Member
San Antonio, TX.

Published July 2014

The following are terms often used by veterinary professionals when discussing feline pregnancy and birth:

  • Queen: a sexually mature female cat/feline
  • Tom: a sexually mature male cat/feline
  • Copulation: The act of sexual intercourse when a male inserts and thrust his erect penis into the female’s vagina for reproductive purposes
  • Lordosis: When a female cat places her front legs on the ground and elevates her hind end while lifting her tail to one side. The cat appears as if she is in a bowing position.
  • Queening: the birthing process
  • Estrus: When a female is sexually receptive to mate with the male. Also known as “in heat.” During this time, the ovary is ready to release an egg/ovum to be fertilizedTo be caused (an egg, female animal, or plant) to develop a new individual by introducing male reproductive material..

Most felines reach sexual maturity at the age of nine to 10 months, but puberty can occur as young as four months of age or as late as two years of age. Because felines can become fertile at such a young age, most veterinarians recommend your cat be spayedSterilize (a female animal) by removing the ovaries. or neuteredTo render an animal incapable of reproducing. by six months of age to prevent unwanted pregnancies. If you plan on breeding your female cat, it is recommended to wait until two years of age in order to let her body mature. However, it is not recommended that you breed a queen that is older than eight years of age to decrease the likelihood of complications during pregnancy.

A female cat is hormonally ready to breed when she is in estrus or “in heat.” At this time, she will exhibit outward signs of increased vocalization, rubbing objects and lordosis (curving of the spine). A female cat will only allow copulation with a male while she is in estrus.

Females cycle typically during long daylight days, meaning days in which there are 12 or more hours of sunlight during the day. A female is typically in heat for seven days and then goes out of heat for seven to 14 days. If the cat is not bred, this cycle will continue as long as the daylight hours remain long; on average, this occurs from January to late fall in the northern hemisphere.

Prior to breeding your female, have your veterinarian perform a physical exam to ensure she is healthy and of an appropriate sexual maturity to go through pregnancy and breed. Make sure her vaccinations are up-to-date as you cannot vaccinate a pregnant cat with live virus vaccines and the immunity is needed to help protect the kittens. Treat the environment for fleas and maintain your cat and all other animals in the home on appropriate flea prevention. Have your cat checked for intestinal parasites. Certain worms can pass through the placenta and milk and infect the kittens.

The gestationThe process of carrying or being carried in the womb between conception and birth. length of a queen is 64 to 69 days from mating. The average litter size is four to seven kittens.

First trimester in Feline Pregnancy

  • You can add a feline multivitamin but no calcium (unless instructed by your veterinarian).
  • Feed a high-quality diet but the same amount your queen normally eats. You may feed her a growth diet or a kitten diet.
  • On day 18 to 19, a veterinarian can detect pregnancy with an ultrasound but not heartbeats, so waiting until day 25 for an ultrasound is ideal.

 Second trimester in Feline Pregnancy

  • On day 25 of pregnancy, a veterinarian can detect fetal heartbeats with an ultrasound.
  • At week four, or 30 days, start increasing your pregnant queen’s food by 50 percent more than she normally eats.
  • E.g., If your cat eats a 1/2 cup of food a day, at four weeks increase this to 5/8 of a cup for four days and then 3/4 cup for four days until the kittens are four weeks old. Then you may slowly decrease her food consumption back to her normal daily amount of a 1/2 cup.

Third trimester in Feline Pregnancy

  • On day 50 of your cat’s pregnancy, have your cat radiographed (X-rayed) so you know the exact number of fetuses. This is important as you need to know when she is done queening or if a kitten is still retained in the uterus. It also allows the veterinarian to help determine the risk for birthing complications.
  • Prepare a queening area
  • Find an area your pregnant cat is comfortable sleeping in and that is out of the high-traffic areas of the house.
  • Place a queening box in this area.
  • Make sure the box has soft bedding that is washable and that is attractive to your cat.
  • Prepare your cat for queening and nursing.
  • If you have a long-haired cat, clip the hair around the mammary glands and vulva one week prior to queening. This is to help keep the cat clean and prevent milk or birthing fluids from becoming matted in the hair and causing sores.
  • If you are unsure how to do this, take her to your veterinarian for a sanitary trim.
  • Prepare your queening supplies:
    • Sterile lubricating jelly: used to help kittens pass easier
    • Disposable plastic gloves
    • A few hemostatsAn instrument for preventing the flow of blood from an open blood vessel by compression of the vessel.: to clamp umbilical cords
    • Dental floss or suture: to tie off the umbilical cords
    • Scissors: to cut umbilical cords
    • Iodine: to dip the umbilical cord stumps in
    • Towels: to wipe off the kittens and stimulate them
    • Newspaper or crib pads: to absorb birthing fluids
    • A small postal or baby scale: to take the weight of each kitten after it is born
    • Many colors of nail polish or a marking pen: to help identify kittens with similar colors and markings
    • Garbage bags
    • A second box that is lined with towels set on a heating pad set on the lowest setting and a towel to cover the top. This will be used to set kittens in after they have been born, marked and weighed and while the mother is still queening.

The Stages of Feline Birth

Stage 1:

12 to 30 Hours Prior to Labor—Averages Six to 12 Hours

Stage 2:

True Labor

  • Active abdominal muscle contractions will occur for 10 to 30 minutes prior to the first kitten appearing.
  • You will see a fluid-filled sac at the vulvar opening, and a kitten should be present in the vulvar opening shortly. It should only take one to three very forceful contractions for the kitten to be delivered.
  • If you see a moderate amount of fluid come from the vulva, this means the sac was broken and a kitten should be in the vulva shortly. It also means that the birth canal will be dry and the delivery may be more difficult. Lubrication jelly may be needed.
  • When a kitten is in the vulvar opening, the cat should break off the membranes surrounding the kitten. If she does not, you should assist and break the fetal membranes.
  • As the kitten is born, the cat should chew and break the umbilical cord. If she does not, apply a hemostat one inch away from the body of the kitten and then cut the cord on the placental side. Next, tie the cord close to the hemostat and then remove the hemostat and dip the stump into iodine.
  • If the cord is already broken, then dip the end of the cord in iodine.
  • The placenta will be passed 15 minutes to hours later.

Stage 3:

Expulsion of a Detached Placenta and Uterine Rest

  • Typically the placenta is passed in five to 15 minutes. If not, do not worry. Retained placentas typically do not cause a problem and are passed later in the lochia (post-birthing discharge).
  • Uterine rest typically lasts 10 minutes to one hour.
  • Several kittens may be born right in a row and then a longer period of uterine rest may occur.
  • Total queening time is typically six to 12 hours.

How to Know If You Need to Seek Veterinary Assistance for Birthing:

  1. Gestation extends past 69 days.
  2. Stage 1 is longer than 48 hours.
  3. Mild or intermittent labor contractions have been occurring for more than three hours without progression into hard labor.
  4. Stage 2 of hard labor has been occurring for more than two hours without the birth of the first kitten.
  5. The hard labor contractions accompanying Stage 2 have been occurring for greater than one hour without the birth of a subsequent kitten.
  6. The queen has a large volume of clear fluid without a kitten being delivered in two hours.
  7. A kitten or its sac is present in the vulva for more than 15 minutes without being delivered.
  8. Stage 3 of uterine rest is longer than four to five hours between kittens, when known unborn kittens are still remaining to be delivered. This is why it’s recommended that you have a radiograph taken at 50 days so you know exactly how many kittens are waiting to be born.
  9. The uterine fluid discharge is greenish-black with a foul odor. This means one kitten may have died but others may still be alive.
  10. Uterine blood loss appears to be extreme. This means a major uterine vessel may have ruptured.
  11. The fetal heart rate is less than 180 beats per minute, suggesting fetal stress.

Michele Wright, DVM, is a graduate of Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and lives in San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Wright practices at Lincoln Heights Animal Hospital.