What to Expect When Your Cat's Expecting Kittens
If you're a pet parent to an unspayed cat, it's important to know they can get pregnant very easily. "Cats can become pregnant as early as six months of age," says Dr. Jamie Richardson, DVM at Small Door Veterinary. "You may notice certain physical or behavioral changes in your cat that can indicate pregnancy such as: her heat cycle suddenly stops, weight gain or a rounded belly, swelling of the nipples, increased affection, and intolerance of other pets (regardless of whether she normally gets along with them)."
If you suspect your cat might be pregnant, Dr. Catherine Lenox, DVM, DACVN, and Regulatory Veterinary Manager at Royal Canin, says your veterinarian can do an ultrasound to look for kittens and fetal heartbeats in as early as 22 days. "A vet can also determine if a cat is pregnant with an X-ray, but the fetal skeletons will not be visible until about day 45 after conception," she explains. "It's important, despite this, to take your cat to your veterinarian as soon as you suspect she might be pregnant to get proper care for her."
Once you've determined your cat is pregnant, there are several steps you can take to ensure that she has a comfortable and healthy pregnancy. From dietary changes to nesting behaviors and more, here's what veterinarians say to expect when your cat's expecting—and how you can help them at home.
What to expect in the early stages of feline pregnancy.
In the early stages of pregnancy, Dr. Richardson says a pregnant cat, also known as a "queen", may experience periods of transient vomiting similar to humans. "Equally, as the pregnancy progresses and their abdomen becomes heavier, they will slow down and need to sleep longer," she explains. "As 'morning sickness' is usually transient, no treatment is required, however, it is important to note that anything that the queen eats or is medicated with can be passed to her developing kittens so we try to avoid medications unless absolutely necessary for the health of the queen."
Know that litter sizes vary.
The gestation length for cats is about 63 days, and Dr. Jessica Herman, DVM of Fuzzy The Pet Parent Company, says that the litter size can vary greatly, from one kitten to nine kittens. "The number of kittens per litter depends on the genetics of the queen and tom cat, how many times a queen is bred during a cycle, and how many litters a queen has had prior," she explains. "Some cats may not show outward signs of pregnancy at all, while others will develop a more rounded belly and enlarged mammary gland and nipples during pregnancy—how much a cat appears pregnant is highly individual."
Be aware of dietary changes.
Make no mistake about it: Dr. Lenox says that queens need more calories during gestation and lactation to help the kittens grow and then to nurse the kittens. "The more kittens they have, the higher their calorie requirements," she explains. "They should gain weight during pregnancy to allow the kittens to grow and to have energy reserves to nurse the kittens." To ensure your queen stays healthy and nourished, Dr. Herman recommends increasing their high quality food intake by 25 percent. "This feeding regimen should continue until the kittens are weaned," she explains.
Look for signs that a cat is ready to give birth.
Cats typically give birth around 63 days after mating, and Dr. Lenox says there are certain physical and behavioral changes that will alert you that the time is near. "Before giving birth, the cat may look restless, may stop eating, and will look for a private area for giving birth," she explains. "Before giving birth, the queen's temperature will decrease, and she could have some discharge, but if taking her temperature stresses her out, then avoid doing so unless absolutely necessary."
Forge a nesting box in a secluded area for a comfortable delivery.
When the time comes, Dr. Richardson says that creating a warm, private space for your cat, known as a nesting box, will give them a place they will hopefully feel safe to have their litter. "Ideally, this space should be away from children and other pets," she explains. "You can line cardboard boxes with a favorite blanket, or one that smells of their favorite person, to help bring them comfort."
While it's important to keep an eye on a queen that's giving birth, Dr. Lenox says being overly involved in the process can put unnecessary stress on your cat. "She will want to have some peace to give birth, so make sure there's not a lot of commotion going on around her and give her space to avoid her getting stressed—because a stressed queen can have complications," she warns. "It's ideal to check on the queen frequently to look for signs of distress, straining, or heavy or abnormally colored discharge, i.e. one that's red, black, or green." After birth, it's recommended that newborn kittens have their first veterinarian appointment as soon as possible, preferably in the first week or two after birth, so that you can conduct an overall wellness check.