Despite being a mother of five children myself, all whom were born naturally, and two of them at home, I had no idea when it came to cats, what to expect. I had seen two litters of puppies being born as a child. With the second litter, the mother, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, had yelped and almost screamed her way through the entire process in a fashion akin to what you see on human birth programs. Whenever anyone left the room, she howled like a wolf until someone returned to her side. It took twelve excruciating hours for her to have a litter of five puppies and judging by the way she acted, I now think she was in a whole lot more pain than I'd ever been in having any of my children. The labor was extremely obvious and very loud.
When it came to cats, however, I had no experience whatsoever. I had never seen a cat give birth and had never seen a kitten under the age of eight weeks. I just assumed that like dog labor, cat labor could take several hours.
My Cat's Pregnancy - A Step into the Unknown
When I realised my cat was pregnant (after my children had asked repeatedly whether she could have kittens and I had an internal ping pong game over whether to spay her immediately or give them their wish), it was with some trepidation that I approached the pregnancy and birth.
I was a natural childbirth guru. I had given birth unassisted, I had also given birth to a 9lbs, 1oz boy without any pain medications or the need for any help. There was gas and air available should I have wanted it, but I never felt the need to ask. I had even written articles about natural childbirth to help other women but this was different, this was feline pregnancy and that left me feeling rather daunted.
I bought a book on feline pregnancy so that I would recognise the signs of labor but the day my cat went into labor - on my birthday - I still wasn't completely sure if she was in labor or not, so I ended up missing the actual moment when the kitten came out!
I have written this informal guide to cat labor so you don't do the same thing!
Signs of Feline Labor Some books say your cat will start 'nesting' up to two weeks prior to delivery - that is searching for a place to give birth, scratching around and acting restlessly. My cat, however, didn't begin this behavior until two days before the birth so if your cat starts to do this, birth may be imminent! You should have a nesting box prepared as soon as you know she's pregnant as cat pregnancy often doesn't 'show' until the final stages. Don't leave it too late like I did. Your cat needs to get used to the box and be placed into it repeatedly so she gets the idea that it is the place to birth. If you wait until the cat is in labor she may reject it. She may ignore it anyway and give birth where she likes, but the longer you have to get her used to the idea of the nesting box, the more likely she will be to give birth there. Remember to shut any doors if there's anywhere you DON'T want her to give birth. My cat has tried to take her kitten into my children's beds! Some books will say that the 'term' pregnant queen will have a huge belly, like a human would do, and this is what I was expecting to see, but it does depend on the number of kittens in the uterus. Litter sizes are usually anything from three to eight kittens, with five being the average, although some mother cats have only one or two kittens. The younger the mother at time of delivery, the less kittens there will tend to be because younger cats don't ovulate as much so the less eggs, the less kittens there will be. It is also possible for a cat to lose several embryos whilst retaining one, resulting in a singleton delivery. My cat, aged just two years old, gave birth to one healthy full term kitten, and because there was only one kitten she hardly 'showed' at all and I thought there was another two weeks to go until delivery. Either take your cat to the vet to correctly date the pregnancy or consider singleton delivery a possibility if your cat shows signs of labor and you don't think she's big enough. It is often thought that animals want to give birth alone and don't like human interference. This may be true for wild animals, but my experience of domestic pets has been different. My mother's dogs and my cat wanted my company in labor. My cat woke me up at 5am miaowing loudly. I initially thought she was hungry but she turned her nose up at the food bowl and began pacing, scratching at the floor so much that the carpet came up and following me constantly. It was then that I considered she may be in labor so I showed her her nesting box for the first time and spent an hour trying to persuade her to get into it, unsuccessfully. I had left it too late. A nesting box can be a dog pen, a drawer lined with newspaper and blanket or just a good old fashioned cardboard box and blanket. Another sign of labor is when the cat licks her bottom almost constantly. I did have a look and saw a brownish red substance that I thought was blood. Given her tiny size I wasn't sure if this was miscarriage or a 'show'. If your cat is term it will be a 'show' - the mucus plug holding the cervix closed has come away. This allows the cervix to dilate so the kittens can be born. My cat was very clingy and wanted to sit on me and be with me all the time. Some cats want the opposite and want to go into a quiet, dark corner, or under the bed. You know your cat's behavior and personality best so you will know whether she wants you there, or just to be unobtrusively in the background. First time mum cats can be particularly nervous and in need of reassurance and kind words just like human women. Some cats vomit in labor. Once is normal - if she keeps vomiting, contact a vet as this can be a sign of a problem. Some cats also stop eating one or two days before delivery. She will probably be more vocal than usual and miaow a lot, this will be due to contractions. Sometimes kittens can be born within minutes of these symptoms starting and sometimes it can take hours. However, if it take hours, the cat will be resting in between contractions. There should be no more than two hours of active contractions before delivery. My cat took six hours from onset of symptoms to give birth to one kitten, but she was asleep for some of that time. In total it took her half an hour longer than I took to give birth to my second daughter! If you know you're cat is having contractions and there has been no break for two hours, call a vet. If you are there at the delivery, the kitten should be born within minutes of being seen at the vulva. If not, it may be stuck and you should take your cat to the vet. The reason I missed the actual delivery is because just minutes before, my cat fell asleep, so I thought 'Surely she can't be about to deliver if she has gone to sleep?' I thought perhaps the agitated behavior was just nesting or false labor that sometimes occurs in humans. They get pains, they might even get bleeding, and then nothing happens, so I went to do my hair and while I was doing my hair, my cat gave birth on my office floor! Hearing this strange strangled cry, I rushed into the office to find my cat cleaning a perfectly full term (even quite large looking) gray kitten. She had already cut the cord and eaten the placenta before I had even entered the room, and there was no blood or mess anywhere. She was certainly much more efficient than human mothers!
So if your cat displays any of these behaviors or even falls asleep, stay close by as the birth may be within minutes. If in doubt, phone your vet.
My cat will be neutered after she has finished nursing so I won't experience this again, but I would have liked to have been more knowledgeable and prepared so I hope after reading this that you are!
How to Take Care of Your Pregnant Cat, by Marc de Jong. www.pregnant-cat-care.com
Cat Litter Size, Royal Canin. Web. 20th May 2012. http://www.royalcanin.us/library/catlittersize.aspx