You have a pregnant queen and it is getting close to the time when the kittens will arrive.  What do you do?  It is best if you can arrange a quiet, comfortable spot for her to deliver and then start acclimating her to this site a week or so before the kittens are due.  Cats prefer to give birth in an area away from noise and human activity.  A large box in an accessible closet or in the corner of a room works well.  Start feeding her in that area and make a bed for her to use.  Have a litter box close by.

The length of a queen’s labor depends on whether she has had kittens before and how many kittens she is having.  The period from the start of contractions to the end of labor can be minutes, hours, or even a day (if several breedings were responsible for the litter).

You may observe a mucus plug pass when labor begins.  Contractions will follow and kittens will be born.  The queen will lick and remove the sac from around the kitten; if she does not, the kitten can suffocate and you need to intervene.  The queen will then bite off the umbilical cord that connects the kitten to the placenta.  When kittens are born, they weigh only a few ounces and are extremely fragile.  They are dependent upon their mother for survival because their eyes are closed, their ears are not completely developed, and they can only crawl.

The queen may continue her labor and produce more kittens.  She will continue to lick and clean the kittens that have been born and then gently nudge them towards her nipples so that they begin to nurse.  Kittens are able to nurse within an hour of being born.  Kittens receive their initial immunity to disease by absorbing antibodies present in their mother’s colostrum.  Kittens are only able to absorb these important antibodies during their first 24 hours of life.  This is why it is crucial for kittens to nurse from their mothers as soon as possible after birth.

The queen may eat the placentas, and as unappetizing as this looks, it is very normal.  She may have a vaginal discharge for up to two weeks after giving birth.  The discharge might look like blood or might even be green tinged and mucoid, but it should not look or smell like pus.  If you worried about infection, consult your veterinarian.

If you have a queen who likes to roam, try to confine her in a room with her kittens so that they are not neglected.  Be sure to keep fleas controlled on the queen, because fleas can jump on kittens and cause life threatening anemia.  Let the queen eat everything she wants.  Nursing kittens is a big energy drain on her system.

Just like humans, cats can experience problems with delivery.  Dystocia is the term used to describe difficulty during the birthing process.  A cat who has a prolonged, non-productive labor, has gone 67 days without going into labor, or has a kitten stuck and protruding from the vulva would be considered in dystocia.  A weak or sick queen, a kitten turned backwards in the birth canal, and a dead kitten in the uterus holding other kittens back are all possible causes of dystocia.

If a queen is having contractions for an hour without producing a kitten, seek veterinary help.  A veterinarian will likely take an x-ray to see where the kittens are and then see if there are other abnormalities.  She will also check the queen’s blood to look for low calcium or low blood sugar which can affect her ability to pass kittens. If an ultrasound or Doppler is available, fetal heart beats can be checked for signs of distress.

Labor can be induced with drugs but some cats require caesarian sections if drug therapy is not successful.  It is best when a queen is able to pass the kittens vaginally, because there is more risk of complications with kitten survival with surgery.

Unfortunately, kittens can be stillborn.  If a kitten is not crying and wiggling after the placenta has been removed, pick her up and try to see if she is alive.  You can gently shake her upside down to try to clear any mucus from her mouth and throat.  Touch the chest to check for a heartbeat.  Check for jaw and muscle tone by opening the mouth and moving the limbs, and if all feels limp, the kitten is probably not alive.

Within a few hours of delivery, you should check the kittens for any apparent birth defects.  Open the mouth and look for a hole in the roof of the mouth.  This is called a cleft palate.  Check to see that there are four legs and a tail.  Check the umbilical area and make sure a hole is not present in the abdominal wall.  Check under the tail to see if there is an anus and some genitalia.  If you are unsure you can always consult with your veterinarian.  Kittens do not usually open their eyes until 10-14 days of age.  They get their first set of teeth and their eye color changes around 4 weeks of age.

Kittens typically nurse from their mothers for 4-6 weeks.  The weaning process can begin at four weeks of age.  Kittens will be stronger and healthier if they can stay with their mother and litter mates until they are at least 8 weeks old.  This is when most kittens start their vaccinations and dewormings.  The critical socialization period for kittens is 2-7 weeks of age.  Kittens that are handled by multiple people and exposed to other animals during this time tend to be easier to handle and enjoy human attention more.

Most of the time, the queen does her job and the birthing and the raising of the kittens goes smoothly.  If you don’t think things are going well, please consult with your veterinarian.

Written by Dr. Wexler-Mitchell of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
Copyright © 2011 The Cat Care Clinic