If you don't own a purebred cat that will be used for breeding, it's best to have your pet spayed as early as possible to avoid unwanted feline pregnancy. A kitten as young as four months can reach sexual maturity and come into heat, and unlike humans, cats do not experience menopause with a loss of fertility, and so can continue to come into heat, become pregnant, and give birth to kittens through their entire lives.
If your cat was recently in heat and had access to an intact (unneutered) male cat, there's a good chance that she is pregnant. A pregnant queen (the term used for an unspayed female cat, especially while pregnant) will display both physical and personality changes that will become more evident around three weeks after breeding, including swollen nipples, enlarging abdomen, and nesting behaviors.
The gestation period for cats runs 64 to 66 days. You could consider 63 days, or nine weeks, as an average feline gestation period.
Physical Changes in a Pregnant Cat
Looks for these signs in your cat's body indicating pregnancy:
- Heat cycles cease: This may be the first sign you notice of a cat's pregnancy. If a cat has been going through heat cycles every 10 days to two weeks, and suddenly stops, it is likely she is pregnant.
- Nipples swell and become rosier in color: Breeders call this "pinking-up," and it may be the first visual sign you will see in a pregnant cat. This usually occurs at around three weeks into the pregnancy. There may be a slight discharge from the nipples, as well.
- Change in appetite: A pregnant cat may have a decrease in appetite early in her pregnancy. In the second half of pregnancy, she will show an increased interest in food. After all, a pregnant cat is not only eating for herself, but for several fetuses.
- Weight gain: Most pregnant queens will gain about 2 to 4 pounds of body weight over the course of pregnancy.
- Vomiting: Pregnant queens may be subject to a few bouts of "morning sickness," much as human mothers-to-be. This in itself is not necessarily a reason to worry, but if the vomiting continues or is frequent, contact your veterinarian for help.
- Enlarged abdomen: Sometime around the fifth week of pregnancy, a pregnant cat's abdomen will start to swell noticeably. It will continue to enlarge until time for birthing. It can be a little harder to spot an enlarging belly if your cat was overweight to begin with, however.
Personality Changes in a Pregnant Cat
These character and mood changes are also indicative of pregnancy:
- Affection increases: Your cat may become more affectionate than normal and frequently seek out your attention. By all means, give it to her! However, you might notice that your pregnant cat is less tolerant of other household pets during this time.
- Increase in sleeping: Many pregnant queens will sleep for more hours in a day than before pregnancy.
- Nesting behaviors: Typically, your cat will begin "nesting" a couple of weeks before she gives birth. Common behaviors during this time include finding a secluded spot and spending a lot of time there, and even attempting to drag blankets or other soft items into the nest. To prevent your cat from choosing an undesirable spot to give birth, such as in a drawer or in a difficult-to-access area, provide her with a birthing box that's easy for her to get in and out of. Line the box with a few soft blankets that can be disposed of or washed as they become soiled.
Clinical Diagnosis of Pregnancy in Cats
If your queen has had regular veterinary care and the previous signs of pregnancy are evident, it may not be necessary to get an official diagnosis from a veterinarian. However, it's a good idea for your vet to examine your cat and make sure she is in good condition.
- Palpation of the Cat's Abdomen: Your veterinarian may be able to feel your pregnant cat's fetuses by palpating and gently pressing on her abdomen. This typically happens around the 17th to 25th day of pregnancy.
- Ultrasound of Your Cat's Abdomen: An ultrasound may detect fetuses as early as the second week of pregnancy, and heartbeats may be detected sometime after the third week.
- Radiographs (X-rays): Your vet can take a radiograph of your cat's abdomen when she is further along in her pregnancy to determine the number of kittens she is carrying. This is a minor amount of radiation that will not be harmful to the kittens or the mother. Kitten spines and skulls begin to be visible on x-rays after about 42 days into the pregnancy.
- Pregnancy test: Just as with humans, there are pregnancy tests for cats that can detect certain hormones released during pregnancy. While usually you won't need such a test, as your veterinarian can determine the pregnancy with the above methods, if there is uncertainty and the vet is unable to do an ultrasound or an x-ray, a pregnancy test is another option. In cats, the test requires a blood sample, unlike human pregnancy tests that can be done on a urine sample.
If your resident or rescued cat is indeed confirmed pregnant, some serious decision-making time is at hand. If you decide to spay her and prevent the pregnancy from coming to term, it should be done as early as possible. If not, be prepared to help care for the kittens and find them all good homes.
Signs Your Cat Will Give Birth Soon
Once your cat begins active labor, try to leave her undisturbed. Watch from a safe distance to make sure she does not go into distress. Generally, the first stage of a cat's labor lasts an average of six to 12 hours, and is the period in which contractions begin and the cervix opens. The second stage of labor is the actual delivery of the kittens. There can be anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour between each kitten's birth. After the delivery of each kitten, the queen will experience the third stage of labor, which includes the delivery of the placenta. It can take anywhere from two hours to more than a day for a cat to finish giving birth once stage two begins, but two to six hours is common.
These signs indicates kittens are on the way:
- Nesting Activities: As the birth gets closer, your pregnant cat may seek out quiet, private places for the birth to take place. This typically begins up to two days prior to labor, but it may only begin a few hours prior.
- Restlessness: About 24 to 48 hours before labor, the pregnant queen may seem restless or anxious. She may go in and out of her nesting area, almost as if pacing.
- Panting: Often, a female cat will pant as labor begins.
- Vocalization: In addition to the pacing and restless behavior, the pregnant queen may meow and cry out more than usual.
- Lowered Body Temperature: Within 12 to 36 hours of labor, your cat's body temperature will drop below 100 degrees Fahrenheit (normal temperature is usually between 100.5 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit).
- Loss of Appetite: Your pregnant queen will likely have had an active appetite during her pregnancy. As she comes close to labor, she will have a drastic decrease in appetite.
- Vulva Licking: As labor fast approaches, your cat will begin licking her vulva to clean a mild discharge. You will likely not see this discharge, as she will want to keep the area clean.
After the Kittens Are Born
Most cat mothers do just fine on their own, and it's best to remain a respectful, but watchful distance from the nest while your cat tends to her brand-new kittens. The average feline litter is four to six kittens, and the mother will clean each newborn thoroughly as it emerges. The kittens should begin to nurse within an hour of birth. If your cat appears to be very distressed, straining, or unable to care for her kittens, contact your veterinarian for advice.
Lamm, Catherine G., and Chelsea L. Makloski. Current Advances In Gestation And Parturition In Cats And Dogs. Veterinary Clinics Of North America: Small Animal Practice, vol 42, no. 3, 2012, pp. 445-456. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.cvsm.2012.01.010
Normal Labor and Delivery In the Cat. Auburn Animal Hospital.
Little, Susan E. Female Reproduction. The Cat, 2012, pp. 1195-1227. Elsevier, doi:10.1016/b978-1-4377-0660-4.00040-5