Cat Pregnancy Facts

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No matter how isolated your female cat is, if she has not been spayed, there is always a chance she could get pregnant. Whether she is around an unneutered male in your home or briefly encounters one outside (cats can easily slip outdoors by accident), even a single encounter can result in pregnancy. So how can you tell if your cat is pregnant? And if she is, what are the next steps to take?

Is My Cat Pregnant?

A cat’s pregnancy is much shorter than a human’s, lasting approximately nine weeks. But knowing right away whether your cat is pregnant may be difficult, since the early signs are subtle. Usually around the three-week mark, you’ll notice changes in your cat’s behavior as well as in her physical appearance. (Also, here’s a fun fact for you: a pregnant cat is referred to as a “queen.”)

It’s also important to consider – if you don’t have a plan in place for the kittens, termination of your cat’s pregnancy is possible by scheduling a spay. It may be worth considering in situations of unintentional pregnancies, as all pregnancies carry a health risk to the mother (and since shelters are full of unwanted cats and kittens).

Physical changes you may see:

  • Your cat’s heat cycles suddenly stop
  • Swelling of the nipples, also referred to as “pinking,” at around three weeks
  • An increase in appetite
  • Weight gain: a queen usually gains around two to four pounds during the course of her pregnancy, depending on the number of kittens she’s carrying
  • Bouts of “morning sickness” due to hormonal changes, loss of appetite, and lethargy, at three to four weeks
  • A rounded, swollen belly at around five weeks (if your cat is overweight, this sign may be hard to detect)
  • Accidents outside of the litter box as a result of pressure on the bladder

Personality / behavioral changes you may see:

  • Increased affection
  • Intolerance of other pets, regardless of whether she normally gets along with them
  • Sleeping for more of the day
  • Closer to the due date, “nesting” (seeking out a quiet, private place to give birth)
  • Increased restlessness and discomfort as the due date nears

What Should I Do if I Suspect My Cat is Pregnant?

If you think your cat may be pregnant, make an appointment with your veterinarian for an official diagnosis. During the initial examination, your vet will first check to make sure your cat is in good health. Then your vet will try to confirm the pregnancy in the following ways—and if your cat is pregnant, try to assess how many kittens will be in the litter:

  • Feeling the abdomen: The vet can try to feel your cat’s fetuses by gently pressing on the belly.
  • Ultrasound: After the 16th day, an ultrasound can detect fetal heartbeats, although it cannot determine how big the litter is.
  • X-rays: Approximately 42 days into the pregnancy, the fetal spines and skulls begin to become visible on the x-rays, so the vet can determine how big the litter is. (This information is helpful for assessing complications. For instance, if four kittens are expected but only three are delivered, your cat may need a C-section.)

Preparing for the Big Day

Once you know for sure that your cat is pregnant, you can begin not only to care for her needs, but also prepare for the big day.

Make your home as comfortable as possible by preparing a birthing spot, sometimes referred to as a “nesting box.” For a standard-sized cat, a good nesting box should be around 16” x 24”. Take a sturdy cardboard box, enclosed on all sides, and line it with items like newspaper, old towels, and a soft blanket. Cut a hole in the front for your cat to use as an entrance/exit, set approximately 6” to 9” from the bottom (you don’t want the kittens to fall out!).

Place the box in a quiet area and let your cat get used to it. The goal is to create a relaxing, calm, private environment where she can give birth. However, keep in mind that even if you’ve prepared a nesting box, your queen may choose to give birth elsewhere in the home.

When you notice she’s in “nesting mode,” take her to the vet for her final prenatal visit. Your vet will give you additional information about how to prepare for the upcoming birth.

Cats are typically good at taking care of themselves and their kittens, so there’s not much for you to worry about. Be sure to provide easy access to plenty of food and water, and give your cat space and privacy.

What to Expect During Labor

Once your cat is ready to give birth, she’ll display the following signs, which take place in stages.

Stage 1

Your cat will settle into a quiet place, like the nesting box. Typically, this happens two days before birth but can also occur just a few hours before labor. Keep the area quiet and secluded from other pets and children.

Your cat may also become restless or anxious and begin pacing in and out of her nesting area. Along with this behavior, she may become vocal, crying and meowing more than usual.

As labor approaches, you will see your cat’s appetite decline; her body temperature will drop to around 100F. You may also see her licking around her genital area to clean a mild discharge, which is an indicator that labor is imminent.

Stage 2

During this stage, your queen will begin to actively give birth. She’ll start having contractions which may start off every 30 minutes, possibly longer, but will gradually become more frequent as she gets closer to delivery. She’ll most likely be breathing heavily, and you may even hear her growling and purring.

As she begins to push the first kitten down the birth canal, it may look like she’s trying to go to the bathroom—this is normal. The kittens may be born one right after the other, or a couple of hours apart. Some cats will change location during or after delivery: for example, they may give birth in the nesting box, then move the newborn kittens to a closet.

During active delivery, minimize contact with your cat. You should discreetly check to make sure everything is going well, but having an audience during the birthing process is very stressful for a queen. So give her space.

Once the queen has removed the protective sac that’s around the kittens, she will likely lick and clean them and begin nursing.

Stage 3

In this next and final stage, your cat will expel the placenta, or afterbirth.

It’s a good idea to count the number of placentas your cat expels to make sure they match the number of kittens born. Don’t be surprised if you notice your cat eating the placentas; the afterbirth is filled with lots of nutrients, providing nourishment that may have been lost.

The entire birthing process can take up to 24 hours. Once your cat is in active labor, give her space to go through the entire process undisturbed, but remain at a safe distance in the event she needs medical attention. Certain warning signs can be indicators of a larger problem. They include the following:

  • After three to four hours of labor, the first kitten has still not been delivered
  • Not enough placentas have been delivered for the number of kittens born
  • Abnormal or excessive bleeding, which can indicate complications such as postpartum hemorrhage, a uterine tear or rupture, or some form of infection
  • A kitten is at the birth canal, but despite straining, your cat fails to give birth

After the Birth of the Kittens

Cats are typically good at taking care of themselves and their kittens, so there’s not much for you to worry about. Be sure to provide easy access to plenty of food and water, and give your cat space and privacy.

Discreetly monitor your cat for any signs of illness, such as vomiting, lethargy, or lack of appetite. You may also want to verify that the kittens are nursing well and not being neglected. If your cat tolerates handling of her kittens, you can try using a baby scale (or even a kitchen scale) to weigh each one every 1 to 2 days for the first several weeks. Kittens should gain weight every day; if they’re not, supplemental bottle-feeding or veterinary care may be needed.

If you have any questions or cause for concern, call your vet.

Summary

While having kittens can be a joyful addition to a family, the pregnancy and birthing process can be stressful for an owner. Be aware of what you can do to meet your pregnant cat’s needs. And remember, if you don’t want your cat to become pregnant, it’s best to have her spayed by the time she is six months old.

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