The birth of kittens can be an exciting experience for the queen herself and for the cat guardians. But as is the case with any other type of pregnancy in animals and humans alike, sometimes things can go wrong.
In this article, we will look at the stages of birth, labour, and any complications that might show up for various reasons.
Before the birth
Cats that have around 14 days left before giving birth should be treated with care. Instruct the people in your home to be calm and quiet around your feline friend and handle her appropriately.
Some cats can look for the perfect spot to give birth in even if you supply them with the most comfortable cat bed. It’s not uncommon for them to prefer a dresser instead of the place you’ve prepared for them.
In around 70% of the cases, the birth goes as expected, so there are no complications involved. However, since these cannot be overruled, it’s a good idea to be prepared. Get in touch with your vet and make sure that you have their telephone number on hand in case something happens.
Some cats might give birth during the night, which means that it can be a challenge to tell whether the placenta has been removed or if all of the kittens were born.
Some of the things that you will need to help your cat are going to be several clean towels, a warm water bottle (or even better, a microwavable bean bag) and a milk replacement if you notice any problems with lactation.
How to tell that your cat is ready to give birth
In cats, labour is composed of several stages, and we will discuss all of them below. But in the first stage, the cat will become very vocal and restless and start pacing around the room as if she were looking for something.
Many cats begin producing milk around two days before going into labour, so you might notice it coming out of your cat’s mammary glands. During this time, she’ll also have less of an interest in food, and she will begin to look for a safe hiding place.
Furthermore, one or two days before she gives birth, your cat’s body temperature will become lower. Normally, a cat’s body temperature is anything between 100 and 102.5 degrees F (37.7 to 39.1 degrees C), but it’s typical for a cat that’s about to give birth to have a body temperature of 99F (or 37.2 degrees C). If you know how to measure your cat’s temperature, this sign can tell you that the kitten birth is coming.
Some cats can become extremely affectionate while also restless, at the same time. A few hours before birth, you might see a discharge coming out of the cat’s vulva, and then the water will break.
Stages of parturition
There are three main stages of parturition (also known as kittening). The first is general, meaning it happens once for all of the kittens, but the second and third are repeated for every cat baby. After the first stage, the birth per se can last for 6 hours, but in some cases, it can be as long as 12 hours.
- First stage
The first stage is the longest and it can take up to 36 hours. During this time, the cat is not going to give birth, but she will experience a number of other symptoms, such as intermittent contractions, restlessness, and repeated visits to the place that she has chosen as her birth spot.
Vaginal discharge is uncommon in this stage. The cat can begin to pant and scratch the bedding right before she goes into the second stage of birth.
- Second stage
The second stage is repeated per every kitten that is born. It can last anything from 5 to 30 minutes per baby cat. During this time, the cat experiences strong contractions, the water breaks, and when straining begins to occur, a kitten’s head can be seen in the birth canal.
Once the head of the first kitten comes out of the canal, it takes two to three strains for her whole body to be pushed out. Kittens are covered in a birth bag and they have an umbilical cord connecting them to the mother.
The cat typically breaks the birth bag and cuts the cord by chewing. Then, she begins to lick the kitten so as to stimulate blood flow and encourage it to breathe.
- Third stage
After giving birth to a kitten, the cat will push out several membranes, along with a dark mass called the placenta. It’s not uncommon for two kittens to be born and then two sets of different membranes to be released from the birth canal.
Even though most cats will at least try to eat the placenta in order to get rid of the evidence that they gave birth to kittens, you should try to keep an eye and count the number of placentas so that none are left inside the cat’s body. If this happens, the cat could suffer from a severe infection.
Physiologically, you might notice a red or brown-coloured discharge coming out of the cat’s vulva for as many as two to three weeks after she gave birth. This can be perfectly normal unless it develops a weird (foul) smell or changes its colour to green.
Some cats can interrupt labour for a number of reasons, including their owners leaving for a short amount of time. This break can last for up to 24 hours, during which the cat will behave perfectly normally, nurse and clean her kittens and show interest in food and water.
After this resting stage ends, straining begins once again and the cat usually completes the birth process as expected.
Signs of cat labour complications
- Straining for 20 minutes without any sign of producing a kitten
- Intense labour for 2-2.5 hours between kittens
- A high body temperature (above 39.5 degrees C or 103 degrees F)
- Intense bleeding during and after kittening
- Lethargy, fatigue, anxiety
Possible cat labour problems
The most common complications of labour and pregnancy are the following:
- Vaginal bleeding
- Retained placenta (metritis)
Vaginal bleeding (to some amount) is normal during birth, but not during pregnancy. If the cat has reached the late stage of pregnancy and you start seeing vaginal bleeding, it’s time to call the vet right away as she can either give birth to the kittens prematurely or she might abort the litter.
A retained placenta can be at the root of a severe infection. If this happens, the cat will have a poor general health status and develop lethargy, appetite loss, as well as fever. Needless to say, she can begin to neglect her kittens if this occurs, and since they are so young and vulnerable, their life is at risk.
Dystocia is what happens when the cat has been experiencing intense contractions for more than 60 minutes, without any success of giving birth. It can be caused by a mechanical blockage, which occurs when the kitten is incorrectly oriented in the birth canal (it exits backwards – legs first – or with its neck forwards and head turned sideways or towards its belly).
In some cases, the uterine muscles can become too weak during labour. While the contractions are present, they aren’t strong enough for the cat to be able to give birth. This is more frequent in cats that have a very large litter or one abnormally large kitten in a too-small uterus.
Diagnosing and treating birth difficulties
If you notice any of the previously mentioned symptoms, you should go to the vet clinic as soon as possible.
Diagnosing birth difficulties can be done using a number of tests, but you should know that the veterinarian is going to ask you a number of questions, most of which will be related to the cat’s previous pregnancies and anything else you might have noticed during labour.
As for treating complications, this can be done using medication or by performing a C-section.
In cases where the cat doesn’t seem to be able to expel the placenta or the kittens on her own, the vet will administer a shot of oxytocin, which is a hormone that can stimulate the birth. Although usually safe, the dose of oxytocin needs to be correct as otherwise, it could cause a uterine rupture.
A cesarean section is necessary if there are a number of birthing problems present and the administration of medication is incapable of solving them. C-sections are performed after assessing the labour and the queen’s condition, as well as any results from an X-ray, for example. More often than not, they are safe, and they can save a cat’s life, especially if this is her first pregnancy.
Surgery is almost always to be preferred if the cat is experiencing severe complications. It can be risky, however, if the cat’s health status is poor, especially if the labour has taken a long time.
In most cases, however, cats can recover in just 3-4 hours following the operation. If you are worried that your feline companion is not going to be able to have any litters following the C-section, you shouldn’t. Even with first-time queens, the operation can be straightforward and safe, and it will not affect your pet’s fertility as time goes by.
However, if you want to get litters from your cat in the future, and you want to keep the ones that she’s given birth to, we would recommend against spaying your cat right now. Unfortunately, once this happens, there will be a considerable decrease in hormones in the animal’s blood flow, so she’ll experience lactation-related problems and even be less nursing with the kittens.
Are some cats more prone to developing complications?
Yes. Cats that have never been pregnant before have a much higher likelihood of experiencing complications. There are also some breeds that can develop complications more frequently compared to others:
- Any other brachycephalic cat breeds
The two most common issues that can show up after your feline friend has given birth are eclampsia and umbilical hernia in kittens.
Fortunately, umbilical hernia usually resolves on its own in a matter of several months. However, if this doesn’t happen, the kitten can be performed surgery on.
Eclampsia, on the other hand, can be a more serious complication. It’s also called milk fever, and it effectively consists of a low calcium blood level in the queen. While almost all mothers experience some form of this issue one way or the other, severe hypocalcemia can be extremely dangerous to the point that it leads to the animal’s death.
A cat that has given birth can develop eclampsia during the late stages of its pregnancy, but also in the first several days after giving birth. Some of the symptoms that you can notice if your cat is unfortunate enough to develop it are increased salivation, restlessness, stiffness, muscle twitching, fever and lethargy.
Time is of the essence when it comes to treating eclampsia, so if you notice any of these clinical signs after your cat has given birth to kittens, go to the vet clinic as soon as possible.
Keeping the kittens safe
If this is not your cat’s first pregnancy, it’s quite likely that she will give birth and take care of her kittens appropriately. However, some kittens can be born unresponsive, and the cat’s behaviour can sometimes not be correct, meaning that she might not tear the sack or umbilical cord with her teeth so that the kitten can begin breathing.
In this case, you have to do this on your own. Tear the membranes and then wipe the kitten’s nose and mouth, and remove all of the fluids. Tear the umbilical cord but hold it between your fingers for several minutes so as to prevent bleeding. Rub the kitten clean by gently stroking it with a clean towel.
Keep kittens in a warm place as they don’t yet have the ability to regulate their body temperature properly. During the first four days of their lives, they should live in an environment that reaches 85 to 90 degrees F (29.5-32 degrees C). By the time they reach one month, they can live in spaces with a temperature of about 72 degrees F (22.5 degrees C).
The best way to keep the litter warm enough is to use covered hot water bottles and microwavable bean bags. Heat lamps are too dangerous. All the hot water bottles have to be covered with several layers of towels as kittens can inadvertently pierce them with their tiny claws.