Cats are notoriously proficient breeders. So it can be all too easy for your queen (the official name for an un-spayed cat) to conceive and give birth to a litter of kittens, before you’re even aware that she may be pregnant!
Historically cats come into season based on the climactic seasons and the length of day. In the Northern Hemisphere queens cycle between January and September and then have a period of sexual inactivity for between three and four months. However, with the rise of indoor cats and modern housing conditions, queens now frequently cycle throughout the year regardless of climate conditions.
How do I tell if my cat is in season?
The period during which your queen will be attractive to tom cats is officially termed pro-oestrus and oestrus. It lasts anywhere from 6 to 12 days and during this time she may exhibit quite marked behavioural changes. This period is often referred to as ‘calling’. Classic behavioural changes include one or more of the following:
- • Increased vocalisation (often a low moaning sound)
- • Rubbing the head and neck against all sorts of conveniently positioned objects including legs and furniture
- • Crouching, rolling on the ground and treading/paddling more frequently
- • Increased urination
- • Increased restlessness
- • Increased levels of affection or aggression, depending on the individual
The stages of pregnancy
Pregnancy typically lasts between 63 and 65 days, but it can vary from 58 to 70 days in length. For all but the most experienced cat breeders, pregnancy is often very discrete in queens particularly during the early stages. It is generally only in the late stages of gestation that pregnancy is identified and the only indicator may be as generic as inexplicable weight gain, particularly around the abdomen.
For experienced vets, developing kittens can be seen on ultrasound from as early as day 14 or 15 and foetal heartbeats can be identified from day 22. Skeletons can be identified by x-ray from day 43 onwards, but this is not recommended diagnostic practice as it exposes the developing kittens as well as the queen to unnecessary radiation.
In the final few days of gestation, you may observe ‘nesting’ behaviour in your queen as she prepares for the kittens. This generally means finding a quiet, secluded location in which she feels safe and secure. She may also lose her appetite, appear more restless and vocal and may exhibit altered temperament, becoming either more independent of you or conversely more dependent.
Once labour begins, kittens are usually born quite quickly with little abdominal straining, although it is not unusual for queens to vocalise loudly as each kitten enters the world! Most will also clean the kitten, sever the umbilical cord and eat the placenta without requiring any human intervention. They will often then suckle the first and subsequent born kittens, as the birthing process proceeds.
Unless there are obvious signs of abdominal straining without the appearance of any kittens and/or any black or foul smelling vaginal discharge, there should be no reason for veterinary intervention. However, if you have any concerns whatsoever at any stage during the birthing process do not hesitate to call your vet.
Nutrition during Pregnancy & Lactation
One of the most important things you can do for your pregnant queen and both the growing and newborn kittens is to provide them with appropriate nutrition. Diets specifically formulated for pregnancy and lactation are available, alternatively feeding a good quality kitten food to the queen in the latter stages of pregnancy and until weaning is a good substitute.