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A pregnant dilute calico cat lies on a concrete walkway. This image is attached to an article on how to care for a pregnant cat.

If the cat who found you is in the later stages of pregnancy, she’ll have a round belly and may look like she swallowed a football from above. Photo by Judgefloro, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

It happens more often than you think: You’re out in the yard, perhaps tending to some potted flowers–deadheading some pansies and doing a little weeding, maybe–when you feel the brush of a tail against your legs. Your cat is inside, so you know it’s not them. You stop what you’re doing and turn around to see … a very pregnant cat! “I don’t know how to care for a pregnant cat!” you tell yourself. But what are you going to do, turn her away?

It’s okay. Don’t panic, I’ve got you! I’ve put together some tips for you on how to care for a pregnant cat, as well as how to prepare for labor and delivery.

General information about cat pregnancy

First, let me give you a brief roundup of the basics of cat pregnancy. A cat’s pregnancy typically lasts between 63 and 65 days, or just over two months.

A cat’s uterus is shaped like a Y. The cervix, where the uterus connects to the vagina, is at the bottom of the Y, and the two “horns” are where the kittens grow.

Cats can have anywhere from one to nine kittens, but the average is between four and six.

Mama cat’s teats will “pink up” and get bigger around 3 to 4 weeks into the pregnancy.

Most cats have no problems with labor and delivery; however, cats built to extreme proportions, like Persians or Siamese, tend to have more issues than your standard domestic kitty.

Step 1: Examine the cat

Does the cat look healthy? Does her fur coat look healthy and shiny? When you pet her, can you easily feel her ribs or her hip bones? Does she have any discharge from her eyes or her nose? Is she injured? If you give her food, is she eating it easily, without dropping it or showing signs of mouth pain? Observing mama cat’s general health and condition can give you a good idea what step is next.

If the mama cat is injured, underweight, or just doesn’t look good, you’ll need to take her to a vet to get her checked out. The vet can give you guidance on how much to feed mama cat, what to look for as the kittens develop, and how to help wean the kittens. They may also be able to tell you how many kittens your mama has, if you’re able to pay for an X-ray or ultrasound.

Step 2: See if the cat has a home

Do Step 2 at the same time you’re doing Step 3. And of course, the way you do this step varies based on whether you live in a rural or urban area. I’ve spent most of my life in rural areas and I know things are different in the country. People in rural areas don’t have access to the same resources people in more urban areas do, and for them it can be a long drive just to a primary care veterinarian, much less an emergency or specialty clinic.

If you live in a rural area: Contact the animal shelters and veterinarians in your area to see if a cat matching the description of your wayward waif has been reported missing. Take a photo of the cat and post it on social media pages for lost and found pets in your area. Also, email the photos to the rescue groups so they can share on their social media.

If you are willing to let mama cat have her babies at your place but you can’t keep her or any of the kittens, ask one of your local shelters if they’d be willing to work with you and let you be a foster home for the little family. Then, after everybody is weaned, the shelter can either take the cats to its facility or they can work with you to find a good adopter. This can be a helpful option if you don’t have much money and you’re concerned you might not be able to take good care of mama and kittens.

If you live in a city or other highly populated area: Contact a cat rescue or a municipal shelter and get some advice from them about how to put the word out about your foundling. If you can afford it, take the cat to a veterinarian or shelter to check if they cat has a microchip. Post the cat’s photo on Nextdoor or other social media groups for your neighborhood—but check the group’s rules first to see if they allow lost and found pet posts!

A brown tabby and white cat lying down, with their tummy and paws making "air biscuits." This image is attached to an article on how to care for a pregnant cat.

As your mama cat gets closer to giving birth, she may act more anxious, pace around, or do self-comforting behavior. Photo by by Nadia from Pixabay

Step 3: Create a safe room

If the cat appears generally healthy, provide her with a safe space, whether that’s in your garage or inside your home, where she can have her kittens without worrying about interference from other pets or humans. You’ll also want to keep mama cat separate from any other cats until you know she doesn’t have anything contagious, including parasites. When I was a teenager, our mama cat, Iris, usually chose my room for having her kittens, mostly because I was quiet and I’d saved the life of one of her kittens. Thus, I clearly knew how to take care of a pregnant cat, at least as far as Iris was concerned. Mama cats appreciate peace and quiet, too.

The room should quiet, not in a high-traffic area, and be at least 70 degrees F/22 degrees C. Newborn kittens can’t control their body temperature and they’re soaking wet when they’re born, so this room cannot be cold if you want the kittens to be healthy. The room should not be drafty. You will, of course, make sure she has her own litter box and food and water dishes.

This space should include comfortable beds and a kittening box — a place where mama cat can make a nest in which to have her kittens. The ideal nest is low enough that the pregnant mama cat can get in and out of it easily, but not so low that the newborn kittens can escape. A cardboard box with the top flaps cut off makes for a great nest box. Line it with newspapers and towels. Oh, and these towels should not be precious to you because they’re going to get blood all over them when mama gives birth.

It’s a good idea for a healthy mama cat to get a vet checkup, too, but it’s much more important if the cat isn’t looking okay.

Step 4: Make sure mama cat gets the nutrition she needs

Caring for a pregnant cat means going the extra mile when it comes to nutrition. Pregnant and nursing cats should be eating kitten food. It has more protein, fat, and calories, and can better sustain a cat carrying babies and then nursing them after they’re born. If you feed raw, feed more than usual so mama gets enough calories to grow and nurse her kittens. Just as in a healthy human pregnancy, a pregnant cat should continue to gain weight until labor.

UK-based cat charity Cats Protection says a pregnant cat needs to consume 25 to 50 percent more calories than her typical daily energy requirements as she during the last half of her pregnancy. She will continue to require more calories as long as she’s nursing her babies. Kittens are fully weaned by 12 weeks.

During the last week of pregnancy, mama cat may have trouble eating large amounts of food because of the space the kittens are taking up inside her. This is one of the few times I recommend leaving food out for “grazing” as mama cat’s appetite waxes and wanes.

A white cat and her four kittens (two white, two black) are curled up in a towel-lined cardboard box. This image is attached to an article on how to care for a pregnant cat.

This mama and her babies are in a perfect kittening box–just a simple towel-lined cardboard box. Photo by Rune, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Step 5: Prepare for the blessed event

The way I’ve seen it portrayed on some of those veterinarian shows makes it look like a normal kitten delivery is a hair-on-fire emergency and you can’t possibly have the kittens delivered without a veterinarian present. But remember, like I said at the beginning of this post, the vast majority of kitten deliveries go just fine, with zero problems and zero need for veterinary intervention.

You’re going to need some supplies before your mama cat goes into labor. I’m going to use links to these products on Amazon, but if at all possible, please buy them from your local indie pet store. The absolute most important thing you should have on hand is kitten milk replacer. This is a powder that contains all the nutrients pre-weaned kittens need. To go along with the KMR, you will need kitten nursing bottles. Alternatively, you can get the Miracle Nipple Mini, a syringe with a tiny, neonate kitten-sized nipple at the end.

This isn’t as important as the KMR and bottles, but it’s not a bad idea to have some kitten-safe heating pads available. At the cat rescue where I volunteer, we use the Snuggle Safe; it’s a plastic disk that you heat in the microwave and then put under some blankets. In case you want to really nerd out about kitten supplies, I got these links from Hannah Shaw, also known as Kitten Lady, and you can find her suggestions for all kinds of kitten supplies on her website.

Put together an emergency plan. Even though most births go well, it’s always good to have a plan of what to do if things start going wrong. This is especially true if you live in a rural area and don’t have easy access to an emergency vet. First, know what the signs of trouble are (I’ll tell you that in a bit). Contact your vet and ask them what they suggest if your cat starts having trouble.

If you’re in a fostering arrangement with a shelter, contact the shelter beforehand to see what they recommend and what vet they use.

Add the number of the nearest emergency vet clinic to your phone’s contact list. If your vet has instructed you to go to the nearest emergency clinic if mama cat has problems delivering the kittens, have the directions from your location open on your phone’s map app so all you have to do is press “start.”

Step 6: She’s almost ready to pop! What now?

You’ll know your mama cat is about a week from delivering her kittens because her behavior will change. She may start acting restless and licking her belly and genitals a lot. She will also start seriously looking for a nesting location. This may take the form of scratching in piles of clothes or fabric on the floor or ducking into closets and other hidden places in search of a safe location.

If she starts developing a location preference, move the nesting box to that area. Do not let her outside or she will have her babies under a building, in a shed, under a bush, or some other place where she feels safe.

A newborn kitten in the palm of a person's hand. This image is attached to a post on how to care for a pregnant cat.

I think it’s a wise idea to minimize handling of the kittens for at least the first few days, unless you need to bottle-feed them., Photo by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Step 7: Labor and delivery

As I said earlier, the vast majority of kitten births proceed with no trouble at all. Most of the time, I’d go to sleep with Iris in her nest box, just barely starting her labor, and I’d wake up the next morning to see a bunch of healthy kittens. This is probably what will happen for you, too, but just in case she has her kittens while you’re awake, this is what you can expect.

Early labor

In early labor, the cat will pant and start straining. This can go on for several hours. She may cry out and even act like she’s biting her backside. The best thing you can do in this stage is to let her be; the presence of an anxious or anticipating family is going to interfere with mama cat’s labor and stress her out.

Active labor

As mama cat enters active labor, you may see discharge from her vagina. This discharge will typically be light-colored at first, and then get darker. Once she begins having contractions, she should deliver the first kitten within half an hour. The kitten is surrounded by a fluid-containing sac called the amniotic sac. When the kitten comes out, mama cat bites open the sac and starts licking the kitten’s face, nose, and mouth to stimulate breathing. She then uses her teeth to cut the umbilical cord and starts licking the kitten roughly, all over, to stimulate circulation.

Shortly after mama cat delivers a kitten, she should deliver the placenta, which is going to look like a red, bloody, gross thing. She will most likely eat the placenta in order to give herself the nutrition and hormones she needs to keep her labor going.

After labor has started, the kittens should start coming about every half hour to an hour. The kittens should start nursing shortly after they’ve been delivered. It is absolutely crucial that the kittens nurse as soon as they come out; that first milk is called colostrum, and it contains lots of nutrition, fat, and antibodies to support their still-weak immune systems.

Do not interfere with delivery unless there’s a problem! Just let mama cat do her thing.

Handling of the kittens should be minimal for at least the first week. The only time you should be touching and moving them is when you have to put clean bedding in the nest box or if you need to bottle feed them. I recommend keeping small children and other cats and dogs out of mama cat’s room–but if your preschooler already knows how to “be gentle with the kitty” and “look but don’t touch,” it may be okay to let your children into the kitten room. You know your kids, or your friends’ kids, better than I do

Signs of trouble

While most cats do a fine job delivering their kittens on their own, there are some signs of trouble you need to look out for:

  • Strong contractions and straining for an hour or more, without delivery of a kitten. This could mean a kitten is stuck or turned in the wrong position for delivery. You must go to the vet if this happens! If you don’t, both mama cat and any kittens remaining inside her could die.
  • Mama cat seems weak or in pain.
  • Discharge of fresh blood. This could indicate a hemorrhage, and mama cat could bleed to death.
  • Mama cat continues to be restless.
  • The kittens continually cry. Crying kittens are uncomfortable kittens. They may be hungry because they’re not getting enough milk from mama cat. If that is the case, make up some of that KMR you bought and begin feeding them. If you’re bottle-feeding the kittens, they will need to be fed every two hours, around the clock.

If you see any of these signs, please at least call your vet, or at least a friend who’s a vet tech/vet nurse, to advise you on how to proceed.

Conclusion

Rescuing a pregnant cat and allowing her to have kittens in your home is one of the kindest things you can do. Once the kittens are weaned, around 12 weeks of age, get mama cat spayed so she never has to have a litter again.

While pregnancy is treated like a disease in human medicine, it’s really not. Not for people, and not for cats. The vast majority of the time, labor and delivery go without a hitch, especially if mama cat is well nourished and generally healthy. The odds are very good that veterinary intervention will not be needed. But it’s important to plan for potential problems, which is why I gave you information on putting together an emergency plan.

If you’ve been working with a shelter, they may be able to pay for mama cat’s spay, as well as the medical care for the kittens.

If you’re interested in learning more about kitten development or life stages, or anything else about kittens, let me know in the comments!


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