Breeding and Queening Cats

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

Breeding cats and raising kittens can be an extremely rewarding experience or it may result in frustration and failure. The following information is provided in order to increase your chances of success and make the experience more enjoyable and safer.

How often does a female cat come into heat?

The female cat or queen comes into 'heat' or estrus many times each year. Each heat generally lasts several days. If she is not bred, she will return to heat in one to three weeks. Cats are seasonally polyestrus, which means that they have multiple estrus or heat cycles during the breeding season.

The breeding season for cats varies according to geographic and environmental factors such as the number of daylight hours and temperature. In the Northern Hemisphere, female cats usually cycle from January or February until the late fall. Cats living in more tropical regions closer to the equator or that live mainly indoors may cycle all year round.

What are the signs of estrus?

It is not common to observe vaginal bleeding from a cat in heat. The most notable signs of estrus in cats are behavioral. Most cats become very affectionate, even demanding; they persistently rub against people or objects such as furniture, rubbing against their owners and furniture and constantly demanding attention. They roll on the floor. When stroked along the back or spine, they raise their rear quarters into the air and tread with the back legs. They also become very vocal.

"Queens in heat attract intact male cats."

These behavior changes often become annoying to owners, and sometimes owners think their cat has some unusual illness. Queens in heat attract intact male cats. Tomcats that have never been seen before in the yard or neighborhood will appear and may attempt to enter the house to mate with the female.

What should I do to be sure that breeding is successful?

Breeding cats is different from breeding dogs. The female can be bred at any time during her active phase of her heat cycle because cats are induced ovulators. This means that the act of breeding stimulates the ovaries to release eggs. Therefore, eggs are only released from the ovaries when the sperm are deposited in the reproductive tract. To ensure that ovulation occurs, most female cats require three to four matings within a 24-hour period. All that said, it has been shown that 35-60% of cats in a colony may spontaneously ovulate. Once ovulation has occurred, the female cat will go out of heat within a day or two.

What should I expect during pregnancy?

Pregnancy or gestation ranges from 64 to 71 days; most cats deliver kittens or queen between days 63 and 65. The breeding date(s) should be recorded so that the delivery date can be predicted. A veterinary examination three to four weeks after breeding will usually confirm her pregnancy.

For the duration of the pregnancy and for one month after the kittens are weaned a pregnant cat should be fed a premium brand growth and development diet (kitten food) or a premium brand all life stages diet. Ideally one that has been trialled in pregnant cats. These diets are generally available through veterinary hospitals or pet stores. Kitten diets provide the extra nutrition needed for the mother and her litter. If the mother is eating one of these diets, no calcium, vitamin, or mineral supplements are needed.

During pregnancy, the mother's food consumption will often reach 50% more than her level before pregnancy. By the end of the nursing period, it may be more than double the pre-pregnancy amount. You may need to increase the number of feedings per day to help allow her to eat enough to meet her needs and those of the kittens.

What should I do to prepare for the kittens' birth?

After a successful breeding, many queens show behavioral changes. Most develop an unusually sweet and loving disposition and demand more affection and attention during pregnancy.

During the latter stages of pregnancy, the expectant mother usually begins to look for a safe place for delivery.

Prior to this time, a queening or birthing box should be selected and placed in a quiet place, such as a closet or a dark corner. The box should be large enough for the cat to move around freely but have low enough sides so that she can see out and you can reach inside to give any needed assistance. The bottom of the box should be lined with several layers of newspapers or other disposable absorbent material, which will provide a private hiding place for the expectant mother and can be easily removed and disposed of after they absorb the birthing fluids.

What happens during a normal labor and delivery?

The signs of impending labor generally include nervousness, overgrooming, and panting; sometimes the queen will stop eating during the final day of pregnancy. In most cases, a drop in rectal temperature, to less than 100°F (37.5°C), occurs in the last 24 hours and signals impending labor. Milk will often appear in the mammary glands 24-48 hours before labor begins. Many cats will prefer to be secluded during the birthing process.

Once labor starts, most cats experience delivery without complications; however, if this is your cat's first litter, you should closely monitor her until at least one or two kittens are born. If these first kittens are born quickly and without complication, further attendance may not be necessary, although it is ideal to be available if an emergency should arise. However, if you leave the room, it is possible that she will try to follow you, leaving her kittens and potentially interrupting the labor.

"The amount of time for delivery of the kittens will vary."

The amount of time for delivery of the kittens will vary. Breeds such as Persians and Himalayans, whose kittens have large, round heads, often have a longer and more difficult delivery of each kitten. It is not unusual for Persians to rest an hour or more between each kitten. Rarely, a cat may deliver one or two kittens then interrupt labor for as long as twenty-four hours before the remainder of the litter is born. As a rule, if labor does not resume within a few hours after the delivery of the first kittens, examination by a veterinarian is advised. If labor is interrupted for twenty-four hours or more, veterinary assistance should definitely be obtained.

Kittens may be born either as an anterior presentation, headfirst with the forelegs extended, or as a posterior presentation, with tail and hind legs emerging first. A breech presentation is one in which the hind legs are extended forward (towards the kitten's head) and the tail and bottom are presented first. With a breech presentation, the kitten may become stuck in the birth canal; this situation may require an emergency C-section. If the delivery proceeds normally, the kitten will emerge after a few contractions.

Each kitten is enclosed in a sac that is part of the placenta. Following delivery, the mother should use her tongue to tear open the sac and expose the kitten's mouth and nose, which she will lick clean of fluids and placental tissues. She will sever the umbilical cord by chewing it then proceed to wash its body vigorously, stimulating circulation and causing the kitten to begin breathing; grooming also dries the newborn's coat. After each birth, the remainder of the placenta is usually expelled from the uterus. In some cases, the queen may deliver several kittens before expelling the afterbirths. She will usually eat these tissues.

How can I tell if something is wrong?

If a kitten or a fluid-filled bubble is protruding from the vagina, but is not delivered within a few minutes, you should assist the delivery. Dampened gauze or a thin washcloth can be used to break the bubble and grasp the head or feet. When the next contraction occurs, pull gently but firmly in a downward direction (i.e., out and down toward her rear feet). If you are not able to pull the kitten out easily, or if the queen cries intensely during this process, the kitten is probably lodged. Immediate veterinary intervention is needed.

"If the sac is not removed within a few minutes after delivery, the kitten will suffocate..."

It is normal for the female to remove the placental sac and clean the kittens; however, first-time mothers may be bewildered by the experience and hesitate to do so. If the sac is not removed within a few minutes after delivery, the kitten will suffocate, so you should be prepared to intervene. The kitten's face should be wiped with a damp washcloth or gauze to remove the sac from the nose and mouth and allow breathing. Vigorous rubbing with a soft, warm towel will stimulate circulation and breathing and dry the hair. The umbilical cord should be tied with cord (i.e., sewing thread, or dental floss) and cut with clean scissors. The cord should be tied snugly and cut about 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) from the body, so it is less likely to be injured as the kitten moves around the queening box

Newborn kittens may aspirate fluid into the lungs, which you will notice by a raspy noise during breathing.  You must remove this fluid as soon as possible. Try to clear as much fluid as possible from their mouth with a soft bulb syringe. Hold the kitten in the palm of your hand wrapped in a small towel, cradling the head between your first and second fingers with his head slightly lower than his hind quarters, and rub him over his back and chest vigorously. Gravity will help the fluid and mucus flow out of the lungs and mouth. Repeat this several times, using the bulb syringe to remove any more fluid from the mouth or nostrils, being sure to check the color of the tongue, and listening to the breathing. the tongue should change from a grayish-blue color to pink if you are successful. If it remains bluish, repeat this process. Do not give up for at least ten to fifteen minutes. Once the kitten is breathing, place it in the warm box.

Swinging kittens is no longer recommended as it can cause potentially fatal brain damage and aspiration of stomach contents into the lungs.

Should I leave the newborn kittens with the queen while she continues to give birth?

It may be helpful to have a smaller box lined with a warm towel for the newborn kittens. A slightly damp towel can be warmed in a microwave oven. After each kitten is stable and dry, it should be placed in the incubator box while the mother is completing delivery of the other kittens. Warmth is essential, so a heating pad or towel-wrapped hot water bottle may be placed in the box, or a heat lamp may be placed nearby. If a heating pad is used, it should be placed on the lowest setting and covered with a towel to prevent overheating. Likewise, caution should be exercised when using a heat lamp, since newborn kittens may be unable to move away from the heat source.

What should I do when she finishes delivering her kittens?

Once delivery is completed, the soiled newspapers should be removed from the queening box. The cleaned box should be lined with soft bedding prior to the kittens' return. The mother should accept the kittens readily and roll over on her side for nursing.

Your veterinarian should examine the mother and her litter within twenty-four hours after the delivery. This visit is to ensure that there are no undelivered kittens, and to determine if milk production is adequate. The mother may receive an injection of the hormone oxytocin to contract the uterus and stimulate milk production.

The mother will have a bloody vaginal discharge for several days following delivery. If it continues for longer than one week, your veterinarian should examine her, since she might be experiencing postpartum complications such as a retained placenta.

What happens if my cat has trouble delivering her kittens?

Although most cats deliver without need for human assistance, problems may arise which require professional veterinary assistance. Seek immediate assistance if any of the following occur:

  • Forty five to sixty minutes of intense labor occur without delivery of a kitten.
  • A fluid-filled bubble becomes visible at the vaginal opening.
  • The mother experiences sudden depression or marked lethargy.
  • The mother's rectal temperature exceeds 103ºF (39.4ºC).
  • You see a fresh bloody discharge from the vagina that lasts for more than ten minutes.

Difficulty delivering is called dystocia and may be managed with or without surgery. The condition of the mother, size of the litter, and size of the kittens are factors used in making that decision.

Is premature birth common in cats?

Occasionally, a mother will deliver a litter prematurely. The kittens may be small, thin, and have little or no hair. Although it is possible for them to survive with an enormous amount of care, most premature kittens die regardless of your best efforts. If you wish to try and save premature kittens, your veterinarian can provide you with specific and detailed instructions, including how to feed kittens that are too weak to nurse.

What happens if a kitten is stillborn?

It is not uncommon for one or two kittens in a litter to be stillborn. Sometimes, a stillborn kitten will disrupt labor, resulting in dystocia. At other times, the dead kitten will be delivered normally. In almost all cases, there is something wrong with the stillborn kitten, such as a developmental abnormality or birth defect.

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