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So your cat is pregnant, congratulations! Breeding cats is extremely exciting (and maybe somewhat daunting), especially if you’re doing so for the first time. But first-time breeders need a proper understanding of the cat pregnancy timeline and what to expect. This can ensure they give their kittens the best start to life possible.
In this article, we look at pregnancy with a particular focus on pre-labor signs in cats. By pre-labor, I mean an indication that your cat is about to burst and deliver her litter any day now. Notice any of these signs and you will have a handful of newborn kittens very soon! You need to make sure you have everything prepared for the new arrivals ASAP.
I also touch on what complications can arise after birth that you need to look out for, and how you can even be sure your cat is pregnant in the first place. Remember, there are millions of unwanted cats worldwide, so if you are breeding cats make sure you’re prepared to find them all a loving home. Or be happy to keep them yourself.
How to Know if Your Cat is Pregnant?
This might sound obvious, but a cat can only go into labor if she is pregnant in the first place. This requires successful cat mating. However, this isn’t usually a problem. Most females in heat will get pregnant every time they mate with an active male cat. So if you know your cat has mated, it is highly likely she is pregnant.
This high conception rate is because females in heat ovulate at the same time the penis is withdrawn from the vagina. And do male cats go into heat? No, they’re fertile all year round! This means the egg and sperm nearly always meet following sexual intercourse so cats fall pregnant very easily. This is partly to blame for the millions of unwanted cats looking for homes.
There are also other signs of early pregnancy you can look out for. These will help you determine whether your cat is carrying a litter of kittens before she surprises you by going into labor. These early signs will usually start to show around week 2+ of the pregnancy and include:
- Morning sickness and vomiting during pregnancy
- Noticeable weight gain and an increase in appetite
- A pregnant cat belly dropped around five weeks into the pregnancy
- More loving or more aggressive behavior
- Swollen and pink nipples, known as “pinking up”
- Cat shedding so much more than usual
If you do notice any of these symptoms or know that your cat has mated with a male, take them to the vet. Your vet will be able to confirm the pregnancy and whether or not you have a litter of kittens on the way!
What Are The Pre-Labor Signs in Cats?
Once it has been confirmed that your cat is pregnant, it is important to watch for pre-labor signs in cats. Most cats will go into labor between days 58 to 67 of pregnancy. However, just as with humans, some litters can be born prematurely or past their expected due date. Knowing the signs can ensure you’re prepared whenever labor happens.
With that being said, impending labor can be difficult to spot. Below are six common signs to look out for. When your cat enters the final stages of pregnancy, keep your eyes peeled for these so you can help your cat birth her kittens without complications.
1. Enlarged Mammary Glands
One of the first pregnant cat signs of impending labor is enlarged mammary glands. These are glands that run down the outside of your cat’s body in pairs, with every cat having four pairs in total. These are called their thoracic, cranial, caudal abdominal, and inguinal mammary glands.
The main function of mammary glands is to produce milk so that the mother cat to nurse her litter of kittens. Kittens rely on their moms’ milk during the first 8 weeks of life, though some kittens can nurse for up to 12 weeks. Interestingly, cats can get pregnant while nursing, so watch that your female kitty doesn’t mate again or you could end up with another litter on your hands!
As the mother cat approaches labor, its mammary glands will start preparing to produce milk ahead of the birth. This typically happens around 1 week before the kittens are born. As these glands prepare to produce more and more milk, they will start to become larger and more pronounced.
Within the 2 days before birth, the mammary glands then start to produce milk. You might notice white creamy secretions starting to leak from the mammary glands. Some cats will lick the milk from their nipples themselves, whereas others will leave the milk to crust up and scab over. Neither is right or wrong, but both are a sure sign that you can expect a litter of kittens soon!
2. Nesting Behavior
The second pre-labor sign in cats that you will notice as the birth becomes closer and closer is nesting behavior. All mother cats will search for somewhere to nest. In other words, they hunt down a quiet and private spot to birth their kittens safely.
This all stems back to when wild cats gave birth to kittens. In the wild, there are all kinds of predators and dangers lurking that could easily wipe out a litter of kittens. Moreover, newborn kittens cannot regulate their body temperature so the mother needs to have them someplace warm. Finding the safest place possible was the mother’s way of ensuring the highest chances of survival.
Although no dangers are lurking in your home, this nesting instinct persists. Therefore, it is a good idea to purchase a nesting box for your cat and set it up around 2 weeks before the birth. You should place it in a warm and private room that is free from drafts and completely off-limits for any other pets and young children.
Try your best to encourage your cat to sleep in this box in the weeks leading up to the point of labor. It is best to do this before nesting behavior kicks in, or your cat might choose its own spot to have its kittens. If this does happen, don’t worry. Just keep an eye on your cat’s nesting behavior so you have a good indication of where they will have their litter.
You might be wondering where should kittens sleep at night, but this is where the nesting box also comes in handy. After they’ve been born, your kittens will pretty much live in the nesting box for the first 3 weeks of their life. Once they’ve reached this age, they’ll start to climb out of the box and explore your home.
3. Drop in Temperature
Another less noticeable pre-labor sign in cats is a drop in body temperature. Usually, cats have a core body temperature of between 100 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit, slightly higher than humans. However, in the 1-2 days before your cat goes into labor, this will drop to around 99 degrees.
This change in body temperature is caused by labor hormones. Yet you’re probably not going to be chasing after your cat with a thermometer and checking her temperature each day. As such, you’re better off looking for the other pre-labor signs on this list for an indication that your kittens will be born shortly.
With that being said, you could notice your cat sleeping in warmer areas in the days leading up to the birth. Likewise, your cat might curl up tightly rather than sleep in a stretched-out position. This is yet another way for them to conserve their heat and help themselves warm up.
4. Affectionate & Restless
Many owners also note a change in pregnant cat behavior before birth. Cats that are about to go into labor are much more affectionate than usual. This affection will usually be channeled towards their primary caregiver who is likely you, rather than more widespread affection towards everyone.
Cats will get clingy and affectionate as they love and trust you. Their behavior is their way of asking for your help and saying that they want you to be there for them during the birth. They want to give their kittens the best chance of survival and know they can count on their favorite human to help them with just that.
Alongside being clingy, cats that are about to go into labor are typically more restless. You might notice disturbed sleep cycles and that they pace around more than usual. This is down to hormonal changes happening in the body that prepare your cat for going into labor.
5. Reduced Appetite
The next pre-labor sign in cats to watch for is a reduction in appetite. Now, throughout the rest of the pregnancy, you will likely have seen your cat’s appetite increase. This is because she needs more energy to facilitate the growth of her kittens, besides keeping herself properly nourished so that she is strong at the time of birth.
However, in the final weeks of pregnancy, this increased appetite will suddenly subside. This seems counterintuitive; doesn’t your cat need all the strength she can get leading up to labor? Yet there are two main theories for why this happens which makes sense:
- The kittens have grown substantially and are pushing on your cat’s stomach too much. This causes feelings of fullness and a loss of appetite.
- Hormonal changes happening to prepare the body for labor are causing your cat to feel restless and anxious. Loss of appetite is a common sign of anxiety.
It could be that either or both of these theories are correct. Keep an eye on your cat’s appetite and make sure she is eating at least something. When it comes to giving birth to the litter of kittens, she is going to need all the energy and strength she can get!
6. Panting & Over-Grooming
A cat that is extremely close to labor is often seen over-grooming (especially the genital area and stomach) and panting with an open mouth. These are signs of impending labor, and your cat could have its litter of kittens very soon indeed!
The over-grooming is to clean away the discharge that the vagina produces before birth. This discharge is produced to help the kittens slide out of the uterus. However, we all know cats love to be clean. The mother will lick this discharge away as rapidly as it appears in an obsessive way.
Grooming of the stomach and genital area is also linked with pain. As your cat goes into labor, she will start to experience painful contractions. One way that cats deal with pain is by grooming. This helps calm their anxiety, so your cat could be using this as a coping mechanism to prepare her for the birth. Similarly, panting is a sign of stress and anxiety.
What Are The Stages of Labor?
Once you notice the above pre-labor signs, you need to prepare yourself for the kittens to be born very soon. Your cat will enter labor shortly and start pushing out her kittens. Therefore, it is important to understand what to expect from the labor process, which can be broken down into three stages:
1. Stage One
During the first stage of labor, your cat’s cervix will start to relax. There won’t be any visible contractions yet and you won’t see your cat squatting and pushing. Still, behavior changes will signal that your cat has entered the first stage of labor, including:
- Frequently visiting the nesting box
- Requiring a lot of reassurance from you
- Panting and open mouth breathing
- Over-grooming of the stomach and genitals
- Discharge from the vagina
If this is your cat’s first-ever pregnancy, you can expect this first stage of labor to last for up to 36 hours. This is where you will notice all of the pre-labor signs, including a drop in appetite and a decrease in temperature. Keep an eye on your cat so you’re ready for when she enters stage two.
2. Stage Two
Stage two of labor begins when your cat starts to experience contractions in her uterus. These gradually get stronger and become more and more frequent as your cat approaches delivery. With every contraction, the kittens are pushed into the pelvis ready to be delivered.
The water bag holding the kittens is also pushed down and will show briefly at the vulva. The bag will then burst, similar to how humans’ waters break when going into labor. The kittens remain inside an internal membrane which helps lubricate them as they work their way down. The first kitten’s head will emerge from the vulva and the contractions will eventually push them out of her vagina body.
This continues as all the other kittens in the litter are delivered. During this stage, the mother will usually squat down and push to facilitate the passage of kittens down the pelvis. In total, the stage usually lasts up to 30 minutes, yet it can last as little as 5 minutes.
3. Stage Three
The last and final stage of labor in cats is where the mother passes the fetal membranes and placenta. The fetal membranes are usually birthed after each individual kitten, but sometimes the next kitten can be pushed out before the first kitten’s membrane is passed.
Once all the kittens, fetal membranes, and placenta have been delivered the mother will clean the nose and mouth of each kitten and bite through the umbilical cords. They will also eat the placenta which is full of nutrients that helps the mother recover from the birth.
What Problems Can Arise During Birth?
Most deliveries will go smoothly and your cat won’t require your help to birth the kittens. However, complications can arise and there are certain situations in which you need to seek professional help.
Call your vet immediately if any of the following things happen:
- Your cat is in intense labor for at least 20 minutes and has not birthed her first kitten
- Your cat is weak and lethargic or has a fever when giving birth
- You notice a lot of blood coming from your cat’s vulva for 10+ minutes
There is also a slim chance that your cat can birth a non-responsive kitten. If this happens, you need to tear the membrane and wipe the kitten’s nose and eyes just as the mother would. You’ll then have to cut the umbilical cord (tearing it with your finger and thumb works perfectly fine) if it has not broken already during delivery.
If the kitten is not breathing, you should speak to your vet immediately. There is a chance that it has inhaled fluid during delivery. This fluid needs to be suctioned away using a bulb syringe. You can then help to stimulate natural breathing by stroking the newborn kitten with a towel. Mouth-to-mouth can also be useful, but remember to only blow tiny puffs of air as the lung capacity of a kitten is far smaller than that of a human.
How Do I Care for Newborn Kittens?
Many first-time breeders wonder whether they need to help their cat raise its kittens or not. However, healthy kittens and mother cats shouldn’t need much help from you. The kittens will nurse on the mother of their own accord, and the mother will keep them clean and safe within their first few weeks of life.
With that being said, you do need to consider warmth. Newborn kittens cannot regulate their body temperature and will die if they get too cold. Keep the kittens in their nesting box and ensure it’s in a warm location. The mother should snuggle up with her litter to help them retain body heat. If she doesn’t do this, you can lay the kittens on a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel for the same effect.
The kittens will then continue to grow and develop, usually happily and healthily. But if you find yourself thinking “my kitten is weak and sleepy” there could be something wrong. Speak to your vet if this happens and take your kittens in for a checkup. Otherwise, leave your mother cat to look after her new litter of kittens and welcome them into the world all by herself.
If kittens rely so heavily on their mother, when can kittens leave their mom? As it turns out, you won’t keep your kittens for all that long. After around 8 weeks of being kept with their mom and other littermates, kittens can be passed to new families.
When looking for new owners of your little kittens, ask if they have any cats already. There is nothing wrong with a multi-cat household, but I found my cat hissing at new kittens when I got my second furry friend. It’s a good idea to check they understand why tension can arise and the signs of cat depression after a new kitten to look out for. This can make all cats involved happier!
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
The average cat pregnancy timeline lasts between 63 and 67 days, which means you should start spotting the first pre-labor signs in cats between days 57 and 63. This article should give you a good idea of what they could be.
To summarize, you should watch for:
- Enlarged nipples
- Decreased appetite
- Nesting behavior
- A drop in body temperature
- Increased affection
- Over-grooming and panting
As soon as you spot these signs, make sure you have a nesting box and everything else prepared ready for when your cat gives birth. Your cat is in the first stage of labor and your kittens are on the way! And once your cat enters stage 2, the newborn kittens should arrive within the next 30 minutes.
Make sure you’re with your cat when she gives birth to watch for any complications. Assuming all goes well, you’ll have little furballs running around your home and making the perfect addition to new families within as little as 8 weeks.