Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
My cat died in labor. what could have caused this? She was about 1 year old and was ready to give birth. She was already bleeding and we put her in a nice little bed. She was an outside cat, though, and as soon as we left her alone she jumped over the fence. She was gone for two days and we figured she had her kitties and she was just taking care of them. But when we went to look for her, we found her dead. We aren’t sure what killed her, whether it was the fence jumping or the birth pains. We are very sad over all of this. Do you have an idea of what might have happened?
Siouxsie: Unfortunately, Liz, there are a few things that can go wrong when a cat has kittens, and it looks like one or more of these happened to your kitty. We are quite sure, however, that your cat’s death had nothing to do with jumping the fence.
Thomas: In general, labor and delivery problems are quite rare in cats. But occasionally they do happen.
Dahlia: Before we get into potential problems, we’d like to describe the normal process of feline labor and delivery of kittens.
Siouxsie: Cats have a Y-shaped uterus and vagina, where the vagina is the bottom leg of the Y and the two “horns” of the uterus are the top part. Developing kittens are present in both of those “horns.” Cats’ pregnancy lasts an average of 65 days. About a week before the kittens are due, the mother will start spending a lot more time grooming, paying the most attention to her abdomen and genital areas. She’ll also start looking for a warm, safe place to give birth to the kittens, possibly scouting out closets, drawers, and other such locations. If you’ve made a kittening box, it’s a good idea to place it in a quiet place and show it to the mother when you begin seeing these signs.
Thomas: About a day before the kittens are due, the cat’s temperature will drop a couple of degrees, and she may lose her “mucus plug” just before delivery. The mucus plug may have a very small amount of blood in it.
Dahlia: The first stage of labor, which may last around 12 hours, begins with panting and rhythmic purring, which increases as the delivery approaches. Some cats pace, dig at the floor, and strain as if to poop. Some cats may even cry out. As the uterus contracts, she tightens her abdominal muscles and bears down. A first-time mother may become very anxious and seek out her person, crying pitifully.
Siouxsie: Then the true labor begins. One horn of the uterus contracts, the cervix dilates, and a kitten is pushed into the vagina. The water-filled sac around the kitten may rupture during this time, and a gush of clear or straw-colored fluid will precede the kitten down the birth canal. Usually the delivery of a kitten takes about half an hour.
Thomas: Once a kitten is born, the mother vigorously licks it to remove the water sac, stimulate breathing, and get the goop off it.
Dahlia: Shortly after the kitten’s birth, the placenta will be delivered. The mother will bite the umbilical cord off and eat the placenta to provide the extra nourishment and hormones she needs to continue with her kittening. This process will continue until all the kittens are born.
Siouxsie: So, that’s a normal labor and delivery process. Now, let’s get into some of the possible complications. Remember, these are very rare.
Thomas: Dystocia, or difficult labor, can be caused by a couple of things. First, cats can deliberately delay delivery of their kittens if they don’t feel they’re in a safe place. But the second, and more troublesome, reason for difficult delivery is an oversized or malpositioned kitten.
Dahlia: If the kitten is too big to fit through the birth canal, the mother won’t be able to deliver it. If the kitten is breech (rump first) or its head is bent to the side, this can cause delivery problems as well. If the mother is straining intensely for more than 60 minutes, or for 10 minutes with a kitten visible in the birth canal, call the veterinarian.
Siouxsie: Heavy or consistent bleeding is not normal in the birthing process, either. If a cat in labor bleeds for more than 10 minutes during or after kittening, call the vet right away. It’s possible for a cat to bleed to death from an internal hemorrhage. The passage of yellow fluids or dark-green fluids, however, is normal. Amniotic fluid is yellowish, and the dark-green fluid means that the placenta is separating from the uterus.
Thomas: If labor stops and the mother shows signs of restlessness, anxiety, weakness or fatigue, call the vet. This could be due to hormone insufficiency, a twisted uterus, or an excess of amniotic fluid around a kitten. Kittens are normally delivered 15 minutes to two hours apart.
Dahlia: It’s hard to tell exactly what might have gone wrong during your cat’s delivery, since she apparently spent most of it outside. But if she was bleeding fresh blood before or during labor–as opposed to the tiny bit of blood that may be present in the mucus plug–that was a sign that something was wrong.
Siouxsie: If this is your first time dealing with a cat having kittens, you probably couldn’t have known this, so please don’t beat yourself up over this.
Thomas: If there were no kittens present when you found your cat dead, it’s quite possible that a kitten got stuck in her birth canal and she couldn’t deliver it or any of the others. A potentially fatal infection called metritis can develop if kittens or placentas get stuck in the uterus. Metritis is similar to toxic shock syndrome in people, and the cause is pretty much the same: an object is stuck in the uterus or vagina, bacteria begin to reproduce, and soon the infection overwhelms the body.
Dahlia: The main sign of metritis are a heavy, dark, bloody, greenish or tomato soup-like discharge that appears two to seven days after delivery, and obvious signs that the cat is sick (lethargy, fever, refusal to eat and excessive drinking, refusal to groom or care for the kittens).
Siouxsie: So, Liz, it’s hard to tell exactly what happened to your cat. But we suspect that she had a major labor and delivery problem and, since she was an outdoor cat, she sought refuge in a place she felt would be safer for the delivery of her kittens. Unfortunately, because she was outdoors rather than under your scrutiny, you couldn’t tell when your cat really got in trouble and get her to a veterinarian.
Thomas: We’re sorry for your loss, Liz, and our condolences and purrs are with you.