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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

A couple of days ago, this VERY pregnant cat showed up on my doorstep. I couldn’t let her stay out on the streets in her “delicate condition,” so I let her inside and got her some food and a litter box and all that stuff. Now she’s running around and digging in my closet and scratching all over my bed, and I think she’s just about to have her kittens. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a cat in my life, and I’ve never had a cat that had kittens. I don’t know what to do! Help!

~Lisa

Siouxsie: Sounds like you’re right, Lisa: your little mama is going to have her kittens pretty soon. Take a deep breath and try to relax. The vast majority of kitten births go very smoothly with no complications at all. And the more relaxed you are, the more relaxed Mama Cat will be.  We’ll help you help your guest get ready for her big day.

Thomas: Pregnant cats start looking for a nest about a week before they’re about to deliver their kittens. You’ll want to prepare a kittening box for her, so she has a calm, safe place to give birth to and nurse her litter.

Dahlia: The best choice is a rectangular box about 24 inches (60cm) long, 20 inches (50cm) wide, and 20 inches high. Supermarkets and bookstores are a good source for free boxes. At one end of the box, cut a doorway about chest high for mama cat so she can step in and out without jumping.

Siouxsie: Line the bottom of the box with newsprint paper, preferably without ink. This will absorb moisture and it will give Mama Cat something to dig or scratch. If you must use printed newspaper, add another layer of fabric so that mama and kittens don’t get covered with printing ink.

Thomas: Artificial fleece blankets make excellent kittening box liners. Birthing is a somewhat bloody process, so don’t use any fabric that’s precious to you or that isn’t easily cleaned.

Dahlia: Put the box in a warm, draft-free, out of the way location, and introduce Mama Cat to it. She’ll probably understand what it’s for right away and make herself comfortable in it. If not, be sure to move her to the kittening box once she begins labor.

Siouxsie: Labor has three stages. The first stage, which lasts 12 hours or more, begins with panting and rhythmic purring, which will increase as the moment of birth approaches. Your mama cat might pace and perhaps even vomit. She’ll get more active, dig at the floor, strain like she’s trying to poop, and may cry out.

Thomas: If this is your little mama’s first litter, she may get pretty anxious, seek you out, and cry pitifully. Bring her back to the kittening box. Speak calmly and keep comforting and petting her.

Dahlia: Some cats don’t want people around while they’re giving birth, so be sure to read your cat’s body language carefully. If you disturb her when she doesn’t want to be bothered, she may decide to have her kittens somewhere else.

Cat giving birth (image from "The Cat Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook")

A visual depiction of the second stage of labor, from "Cat Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook" by Debra M. Eldredge, Delbert G. Carlson, Liisa D. Carlson, and James M. Giffin. Click for a larger image.

Siouxsie: The second stage of labor begins with the onset of true labor, where one horn of the uterus contracts and pushes the kitten down toward the central cavity. Pressure against the cervix causes it to dilate, and then the kitten is pushed into the vagina. The water bag around the kitten may rupture before the kitten is born, and the kitten should be delivered within half an hour after mama’s water breaks.

Thomas: After the head is delivered, the rest of the kitten slides out easily. Then Mama will lick and remove the fetal membranes and chew the umbilical cord to sever it. After that, she’ll vigorously lick the kitten’s face to clear the nose and mouth. Don’t interfere with this process even if it looks like she’s being rough, because her ministrations stimulate breathing and blood circulation.

Dahlia: Shortly after the birth of each kitten, Mama Cat will expel the placenta. This is the third stage of labor. She might eat some or all of the placenta. This is normal instinctive behavior.

Siouxsie: The second and third stages of labor will repeat for each kitten being born. Kittens are usually born 15 to 30 minutes apart, and most deliveries are complete in two to six hours.

Thomas: As we said earlier, the vast majority of kitten deliveries go off without a hitch. However, if you see any of the following signs, call the vet right away:

  • 60 minutes of intense straining without the birth of a kitten
  • 10 minutes of intense labor with a kitten visible in the birth canal
  • 10 minutes of fresh bleeding during or after kittening
  • Sudden apathy and weakness, with fever–this may indicate an infection
  • Labor stops and there are signs of anxiety, weakness, or fatigue. Kittens come between 15 minutes and 2 hours apart; more than three hours between kittens can be a sign of trouble.

Dahlia: If you can’t keep the cat or kittens, contact your local no-kill animal shelter and see if they can help you find homes for them. They’ll probably be happy to help you if you’re willing to foster mama and her kittens until they’re fully weaned (8 to 10 weeks), and even happier if you’re willing to keep one or more members of the little family.

Siouxsie: Here’s a video clip of a cat giving birth to a litter of kittens. It’s graphic, mind you, because it’s the real thing. If you want to have a better idea what to expect, you might check it out. The audio has been disabled, but the video will show you everything you need to know.

Thomas: We should point out that this video has been edited. This cat didn’t really have five kittens in six minutes.

Dahlia: Good luck, Lisa, and thank you for being such a good friend to a cat in need. And a happy Mother’s Day to all the mama cats — and cat mamas — out there!

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