Cat Care

Cat Labor and Birth

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Cat Labor and Birth

During the hours leading up to the onset of labor, the cat is often quite restless, going into and out of the kittening box, rearranging and kneading the bedding and sometimes purring. She may go off her food and visit the litter tray several times although little is passed. As she enters the first stage of labor, the body temperature drops slightly by 1C to 37.5C and there may be a slight, clear discharge from the vulva.

As the second stage of labor approaches, the cat may begin panting and purring and occasionally miaowing. During the true second stage of labor, there are strong abdominal contractions with straining, as the first kitten moves down through the birth canal. The cat licks the entrance to the vagina (vulva) repeatedly and may cry out and appear distressed. The queen is often comforted if the owner is stroking and talking to her at this time. Most cats lie on one side while giving birth but may stand and squat if straining particularly hard.

Generally the first kitten arrives within 30 minutes of the onset of the second stage of labor. The kitten is surrounded by the fluid-filled membranes of the amniotic sac and often these rupture during the passage down the birth canal so that its birth is preceded by a gush of transparent fluid. Sometimes the sac is still intact when the presenting part of the kitten appears at the vulva. The mother cat is vigorously licking herself at this time and usually severs the membrane in the process. Occasionally the kitten is born still within the sac and its fluid, appearing to be encased, in a dull grey balloon. Once again, firm licking by the mother's rough tongue severs the membrane and releases the fluid. The mother cat continues to lick the kitten, and this stimulates it to breathe on its own, which is indicated by mewing sounds. She also bites through the umbilical cord, which at this stage is still attached to the placenta, or afterbirth, inside her body. While licking the kitten, the mother cat also eats the surrounding membranes.

Most kittens are born head first (about 66 per cent), with the remainder in the breech position, i.e. the tail and hind end with the back legs tucked forwards beneath the body. The birth of a kitten in the breech position may take longer than normal, and there is a greater risk of stillbirth. Once the kitten has been born, contractions begin again after about five minutes or longer, marking the third stage of labor in which the placenta, or afterbirth, is expelled. This usually occurs quite easily and quickly, and the afterbirth is a dark brown color, looking rather like a piece of liver.

Some brownish discolored liquid may also be discharged at the same time, and it is normal for the mother to eat the placenta, which is believed to contain hormones that may promote milk production. In the wild the placenta is probably eaten along with the membranes, to conceal the evidence of a birth from potential predators. It may also provide the mother with much needed nourishment in the immediate aftermath of birth, when the cat is not able to leave the kittens to go and hunt. In the domestic situation it is probably better if the owner can remove the afterbirth and dispose of it by burning. If the cat eats too many of them, it may make her sick.

The time taken for all the kittens to be born varies considerably but usually it is between one and three hours. A longer time is not abnormal, however, and in some cats there is a natural delay after the birth of the first one or two kittens. The rest of the litter may not follow for a further twelve hours or even longer in some cases. Usually there is a brief respite between each kitten when contractions cease, giving the mother time to lick the new arrival and nudge it towards her nipples. It is also not uncommon for the kittens to be born in quick succession and the afterbirths to be expelled at a later stage. It is essential that all the placentas are passed because if one is left behind it is likely to cause infection and illness, which can be life-threatening. Obviously, it is only possible to be sure about this if the births are observed from the beginning. However, a mother cat should be closely monitored in the succeeding hours to make sure that she appears to be well.

Once all the kittens have been born and are washed to then-mother's satisfaction, they crawl towards her teats and start to suckle. Some mother cats suckle the first arrivals before the rest of the litter is born but others wait until birth is completed before settling down with the whole family. Most kittens are feeding within one or two hours of birth, and it is essential that suckling begins within twelve hours if each is to survive. The cat should be offered a drink of milk or water in her bed, once she has settled down with her new family. Food can also be offered although it may be refused, especially if the placentas have been eaten. It may be possible to remove newspaper that is soiled, but only if this can be accomplished without causing undue disturbance.