Female cats reach their maturity between 5-10 months of age and they are polyestrous which means they will go through heat multiple times a year during mating season (early spring to late autumn). An unaltered female cat is also referred to as “queen”. Multiple male cats will normally be attracted by a female in heat which means there may be fighting involved before mating actually occurs, however there could also be more than one “winner” allowed to mate with the same female kitty which could result in a litter of kittens having different fathers.
The gestation period for domestic cats goes between 63 and 67 days with a litter size that ranges between 3-5 kittens. Usually, the first litter will be smaller than subsequent ones. Once we appreciate these numbers and remember that our cat could go through numerous heats in one year, it is fairly easy to understand how our pet could go through 2-3 pregnancy every year producing up to 150 kittens over 10 years.
This is one of the main reasons behind majority of adopted or purchased cats being neutered during puberty. Obviously, registered cat breeders will be well aware of these statistics and fully capable of dealing with such prolific pets.
If you’re the owner of an unaltered female cat that regularly wanders outside of the house you should closely monitor your pet to avoid being surprised by an unexpected pregnancy.
There are a number of signs you can look for to confirm your cat’s pregnancy: increase in appetite and weight, larger and redder nipples and a swollen belly (this only shows around 30 days after conception).
As soon as you begin to have doubts you should probably contact your vet who can perform an ultrasound or X-rays to confirm your suspicions. Ultrasound can detect a pregnancy from 16 days after conception however only an X-ray will confirm the number of kittens to expect.
Remember: don't wait too long as a pregnant queen will deliver the litter in only two months after conception, so best to reach out to a professional rather than finding out when your cat begins to nest on delivery day.
Once pregnancy is confirmed, you should start preparing for the big day. Although your cat will naturally know what to do during delivery there may be a complication, and you as the owner should be ready to handle an emergency.
Firstly, monitor your pet’s behaviour and health: pregnant kitties will normally eat 1.5 times more than usually. It is uncommon but some pregnant queens may suffer from morning sickness at the beginning of gestation. If this is the case, contact the vet and ask about any special dietary requirement for your pregnant kitty. Being in touch with the vet throughout the pregnancy will also help monitor the unborn kittens’ wellbeing and ensuring the mother is up-to-date with all vaccinations to prevent any infections from spreading to the babies before they are born.
If your pet is used to going outside for a few hours every day, best to stop that habit while it is expecting as it may decide to deliver the litter somewhere unsafe. Instead, start to set up a quiet, clean, warm and dry nesting space so that your kitty can get used to it. You may use a cardboard box and cover it with old newspapers and soft blankets to make as inviting as possible. Remember that you may direct your cat to the whelping spot as much as you like, however on delivery day your kitty will eventually choose the place it considers the safest such as a laundry basket or the back of your closet. Pregnant queens will usually go into “nesting mode” about two weeks before delivery and this is when owners should visit the vet one last time to get any advice on how to handle emergency situations and help their pet go through the process in the smoothest way possible.
Twenty-four hours before delivery cats will usually stop eating and their body temperature drops. Once you notice these signs, it is time to get ready to meet the kittens!
If the big day has finally arrived and your cat has settled into the whelping area it is essential that you are there to monitor the entire event. Be ready to step in and help your kitty if you notice any sign of distress such as excessive trembling or shivering, vocalisations of extreme pain or collapse. Have the phone ready to contact the vet who will hopefully be able to guide you through the right steps to assist your queen. Your cat could take several hours delivering all of the kittens so be patient and calm without putting extra pressure on your already stressed pet.
Once all of the kittens are born, you may want to remove the dirty newspaper and blankets and replace them with clean ones. The kitties will be extremely vulnerable in the first moments after delivery so it’s essential that the area is as hygienic as possible. In fact, the mother should start licking its babies to clean them and increase their body temperature which is normally very low at birth. It is important that the mother and kittens are kept in the same warm and quiet place as long as required. Keep a close eye on all the newborns and ensure they are actually breathing and sucking for breastmilk.
Both the queen and kittens should be closely monitored for the first 24-28 hours after birth. If your cat shows any sign of illness or inability to recover from delivery contact the vet immediately who may ask you to bring the queen in for a checkup. Should this be the case be sure to question whether the kittens should be left at home or come along.
As mentioned, newborn cats lose heat very quickly so it’s essential that they are kept warm either through their mother’s body, with blankets or even covered warm water bottles.
A kitten will normally start sucking for milk immediately after birth however, if you notice one of the kittens is not getting any there may be complications behind it. Contact your vet as soon as possible as newborn cats should not go without feeding for more than 2-3 hours. Kittens not receiving sufficient nourishment from the mother will be restless and cry constantly without being able to take the typical sleep break in between feeds. If your cat is calm, you may want to weigh each kitten and ensure it is gaining the recommended weight each day.
Finally, the transition to solid food (weaning) can begin around 3-4 weeks. Consult with the vet if you are in doubt on how to proceed and check out this article on our website.