Birthing and Raising Kittens
By Janice Reichle
Originally published in the 1990 CFA Yearbook
Many people in the Cat Fancy begin as I did – with a pet cat. “We’ll raise just one litter and then spay her.” Famous last words spoken by many of us! The experience with that first litter often determines whether or not you will continue as a cat breeder or spay your cat and forget about breeding. If you are fortunate enough to have a friend in the fancy, perhaps the person from whom you purchased your female, who will literally “hold your hand” and tell you what to do and what to expect, step-by-step, you are more apt to have a satisfying experience.
Most cats deliver their young in a no-nonsense manner. Some females or “queens” are calmer, some more high strung (especially with their first litter) and frequently the difference depends upon the breed of cat involved. I have bred both Siamese and Persians and there can be a notable difference in their kittening and mothering but without exception I have never had a cat I would call a poor mother. A couple have been not-too-bright at the beginning but once they got the idea, they were always good and devoted mothers.
There are a number of things one should do once the decision is made to breed your female. If this is your first litter you are probably taking your girl out for stud service. Once you have made your choice of studs, and the owner of that stud is willing to accept your female, a visit to your veterinarian is in order. If the owner of the male is conscientious, she will ask for a recent health certificate and FeLV test. If she doesn’t require these – look elsewhere for a stud! The stud owner should also be willing to show you the results of a recent FeLV test for her male too. You should be just as concerned about the health of the male as the stud owner is about your female. In addition to these tests you should have your female checked for parasites and make sure she has been vaccinated within a couple of months of the breeding but not closer than three weeks before breeding.
It is very important to have a clear understanding of what you are paying for before you take/send your female to the male. The stud owner should watch the cats breed at least once before leaving them together any length of time. Some breeders just toss the cats together and never know if they mate. Do you pay for stud service if no breeding is witnessed? If the female goes out of season and does not get bred, do you pay a stud fee or \ board? If she is bred but does not conceive, do you get a return breeding? If so, how many? If you get one or more return stud services, do you pay board for the time she is there for return stud service? If your female becomes ill while out for breeding, who pays for veterinary care? Will the owner of the stud hold you responsible if your female injures the stud? And conversely, is the owner of the stud liable if the stud injures your female. What constitutes a litter? If the kittens are stillborn, do you get another stud service? Some breeders feel that if the stud has done what you paid for (impregnated the cat), that is the end of their responsibility; others feel you should get one, and sometimes two, live kittens. When shipping a cat, you are responsible for air fare both ways and may be asked to pay for the cost of the breeder going to and from the airport. It certainly eliminates misunderstandings if you ask all of these questions ahead of time. Ask if the cats will be caged separately, side-by-side, to get acquainted. Some breeders put a female in with a male as soon as she arrives and because she is feeling frightened and strange, she may go out of season and not come in again for some time. Or – an aggressive male may try to breed a female right away and if she is not receptive she will fight him and in most cases, any chance of a mating taking place will end right there. Finally, if you are dealing with someone with high quality cats (and you should be and not a “backyard” breeder), remember that that owner is doing YOU a favor to take your female for breeding. The owner is the one who is dealing daily with a male who must be confined so needs lots of extra attention and is probably spraying. A boy will do his best to attract the girls and seems to think he can accomplish this by spraying farther (from every shelf in his cage) and smelling worse than any other cat.
Now that your girl is home, happy and hopefully pregnant, you can plan for the litter. You or the stud owner may have confirmed pregnancy by examining the nipples which become enlarged and turn quite pink about three weeks after mating or she or her veterinarian may have been able to tell by palpating the abdomen. Some of the signs of pregnancy in animals are the same as humans – a tendency to sleep more and an increased appetite! I found with the Siamese I had to limit what they ate because they never knew when to call it quits but I have never had to limit my (Silver) Persians.
WHERE TO DELIVER?
Think ahead to where you want your mother-to-be to have her kittens. The middle of the down comforter on your bed is NOT a good place. Nor do I like a closet floor because even in the best of locations it can be drafty. While my cats are generally caged only at night, I am a firm believer in cages for certain situations. Kittening is one of the times I insist on caging. It eliminates all sorts of problems you can do without! Many a breeder has gotten up in the morning to find dead newborns scattered all over the house while other mothers insist that every day is moving day until the babies have puncture holes in their necks. Get or make a cage, decide where you want the mother to deliver and put her in it for a few hours every day if she is not used to being caged. It is a good idea to feed her there too. About two weeks before delivery, put her in the cage and leave her there all night. Delivery dates can be tricky too. I put my girls in with the stud twice a day for three days unless I want to pinpoint the delivery date a little closer. Then I begin a kitten watch 63 days from the FIRST mating, NOT the last. I’ve had cats deliver anywhere from 61 to 69 days from that first breeding. Needless to say, she may not have conceived from that first mating or even the second – you’ll never know; but it’s much more expedient to keep a KITTEN WATCH from the 63rd day on.
IS TODAY THE DAY?
Some cats give obvious hints when they are going to deliver, others give none. Most cats will skip the last meal before delivering; I have a couple of girls who will snack between kittens. Anything to make it more confusing.. Some breeders insist that they can accurately predict delivery time by taking temperatures twice daily beginning the 61st. day after breeding. If the temperature reads about 101.5 for a couple of days, then drops to 98 or 99 degrees, you can expect labor to begin within 12 hours. If the temperature goes a couple of degrees ABOVE normal, you have been real sharp and caught a beginning problem and you need to call your veterinarian right away. This may mean a problem with the pregnancy or a developing illness of some other type.
I never seem to be able to tell with any real accuracy exactly when my girls are going to deliver – either I’m a nervous mother or they lie to me. For me, the best system, exhausting though it is, is to set an alarm for every hour and a half all night from the 63rd night – or sooner if your female shows signs of impending labor. With a husband who is a light sleeper and/or you want to avoid a divorce, you and the mother-to-be should spend a few nights in another room. Your queen will not object if you get her used to it ahead of time.
For a couple of weeks before delivery, your girl will be looking for places to deliver. She will poke into dark corners, make a mess of your linen closet if you are careless enough to leave the door unlatched or take over your overflowing laundry basket. Once you have her caged, she will do a lot of digging and nesting. Cardboard cartons or half of a large carrier make good nest boxes to put in your kittening cage. Some breeders line the bed with newspaper but I find that too messy so I use towels and the female can dig and nest in them.
SUPPLIES NEEDED FOR DELIVERY
- (Many) old, soft face cloths
- Heating pad
- Small carrier which opens from the top or a container of some sort to put the pad in
- White (colorless) iodine
- Small hemostat
- Extra towels for bedding
- Record book and pen
- Permanent markers
- Small scale which measures weight in small increments (postage scale, etc.)
- Dopram-V (doxapram hydrochloride)*
- Oxytocin **
FIRST STAGE OF LABOR
In the first stage of labor, perhaps all you will notice after a general uneasiness in the cat is a slight mucous discharge or a more or less constant washing of her genital area. About a week earlier you will have clipped her “bottom” (if you have a long-haired cat). It is also a good idea to clip the hair around the nipples and massage them with Vaseline or cocoa butter if they seem crusty.
The second stage of labor begins with straining. Sometimes the queen will go into her litter pan and squat but do nothing. Sometimes they will even deliver their kittens in the litter pan – a very messy ordeal – so when the second stage begins I remove the litter and replace it with paper toweling. If she delivers there – no problem – the kits won’t be covered with litter. If she urinates in the pan, it is easily cleaned. You can see and feel the muscles of the abdomen contract as the straining becomes more pronounced. To facilitate delivery, the vaginal opening will have enlarged and the vagina will be well lubricated. Though a cat will rest between contractions, the contractions will come closer and closer together as the kitten leaves one of the horns of the uterus and nears delivery. Some books will tell you that most kittens come “head first” – it would be nice if it were true. 50% head first delivery is about the best you can hope for. Hopefully, your girl will deliver her first kitten head first; rear first is a more difficult delivery, especially for the first kitten in the first litter. Once the head is out, the rest of the kitten comes without too much trouble. Tail-end first means the large rib-cage has to come first and it is more difficult to deliver. Head first or rear first, the first thing you will see is some portion of the kitten covered by the sac of membranes. Once the kitten is out you will probably find it is still pretty closely connected to the mother by the cord to the placenta (or “afterbirth”) which she should expel fairly quickly. She probably will begin to lick the kitten right away but may be more concerned with washing herself, especially if it is her first litter. Either way, break the sac over the face of the kitten and begin to rub it lightly with a small cloth such as a face cloth. If it is wiggling and making noise you have time for her to expel the afterbirth. If the kitten seems too quiet and lethargic, fasten the hemostat on the cord and holding the cord on the side closest to the mother, try to ease it out by pulling gently. This may stimulate a contraction. If it doesn’t, it is probably safest to break the cord so you can take the kitten out of the nest to work on it. Rub firmly with the washcloth and use the aspirator in the mouth to remove fluid. Hold the kitten between the palms of your two hands, head down, and swing briskly back and forth, pendulum fashion. I find bending over and swinging the kitten between my legs is most convenient. Stop and aspirate again and continue rubbing; continue the swinging and aspirating as long as you think there is liquid in nose, mouth or lungs. Another method for reviving a kitten or starting it breathing if this doesn’t work is to use bowls of water – one very warm and one quite cool. Dip the kitten first in one then the other: sometimes when all else fails the shock will make them gasp and begin to breathe. Once the kitten is breathing well and crying, stimulate by drying some more. Occasionally you will have a kitten born that does not seem to be breathing and the normal massaging doesn’t seem to help. If you have Dopram-V available, a drop under the tongue, using a regular syringe, may be a life-saver. It stimulates respiration. Continue to massage the kitten and “shake down”. (Discuss this with your veterinarian ahead of time). If there is fluid coming from nose and/or mouth, use an aspirator to suction it – again with massage and shake down which helps to inflate the lungs and remove fluid.
Now is the time for you to apply white iodine to the navel cord to prevent infection. I just drop the cord in the bottle, put the neck of the bottle against the belly of the kitten, and invert. After this you are ready for your record keeping. If your kittens are all going to be “look-alikes”, you will want to mark them. I use a permanent magic marker. Touch the kitten under the front leg (armpit) with the marker, weigh it and put it in the “incubator” on a well-covered, warm heating pad. I have a page in my record book fro each litter, and it looks like this:
Peggy x Serail June 6, 1989 due: 6/5/89 delivered: 66 days ***************************************************************** 4:00 a.m. silver female (breech - difficult delivery) 4 oz 4:30 a.m. silver female (headfirst) 3 1/2 oz 6:00 a.m. silver male (headfirst) 4 oz 7:00 a.m. silver female (breech)
The top line gives the date of the parents and the date of delivery. The second line gives the date due, and the number of days carried. The you will want to have a line for each kitten giving time of birth, color, sex, weight and a brief description of delivery. You will be surprised how valuable this will be in future breedings of this female. Use the rest of the page to keep daily weight records of the kittens. this is most important – a lack of gain one day may be followed by a loss of weight the next day. By the time you notice or feel a weight loss; it may be too late to help the ktten and reverse the condition. If you weigh them daily at about the same time, you will know if they are gaining regularly. Don’t count on your sense of touch to tell you this. You cannot tell a loss of 1/4 to 1/2 ounce and this can be serious with a very young kitten. If you need to give supplemental feedings as might be the case with a large litter or to give the smallest kitten an extra boost, the sooner you begin, the better.
Watch the mother carefully to see if she delivers the afterbirth and check off somewhere on the record for each kitten, the delivery of the afterbirth. It is VERY important to count a placenta for each kitten. I once had a mother deliver four kittens with no problems only to develop a high fever in 36 hours. She delivered early and I had found her in her bed with one kitten and no afterbirth and assumed she had eaten it. The result of “assuming” was that she had to have a Caesarian section to remove the afterbirth; due to high milk fever she couldn’t nurse and lost her milk. This was a most unusual course of events; if a retained placenta is not expelled after an injection of Oxytocin, it may liquify and be expelled or be absorbed.
IF YOU NOTICE A PROBLEM, CALL FOR HELP IMMEDIATELY
While most deliveries are problem-free, if a cat is in HARD labor for an hour and has not delivered a kitten, you should be concerned. Do NOT let anyone talk you into letting a cat continue in hard labor for more than two hours. (I tend to panic and phone the vet after one hour). It may be a simple problem where your vet can manually turn a kitten into a better delivery position. However, it could mean the kitten is just too large to deliver or it could even mean a torn uterus. In either case, a cat could labor forever and not deliver. The latter can, in most cases, be repaired for future eventless deliveries. Sometimes a cat needs a C-section but sometimes she just needs more expert help than you can give. Occasionally, labor stops and the veterinarian will give Oxytocin to start contractions again.
There is a problem you can handle yourself. “Each kitten is enveloped in a skin sac, transparent and filled with fluid. When the kitten starts through the birth canal, this sack sometimes is forced through first, the water forming a sort of blister-like protrusion before the kitten appears. Sometimes the force of the contractions makes the bubble very full of fluid and keeps the progress of the kitten back. Should this occur, pinch the bubble, or sack, between the nails of the thumb and the first finger to break it and allow some of the “water” to escape, and the kitten will then come rapidly as the pressure is relieved.” 1 I delivered my first litter of kittens with the book from which I’ve quoted in my hand and it was a text book delivery.
Most queens will attempt to eat each afterbirth; I figure one is enough and dispose of the rest. In the wild, an animal will eat the afterbirth to remove all traces of the birth as protection from enemies. It is also a source of nourishment, a possible laxative and a source of hormones to make the uterus contract. The queen may deliver her kittens at 15 minute intervals or even wait four hours before producing another. As long as she seems seems comfortable – don’t panic. An extended period of hard, unproductive labor is worth panicking about. Another unusual delivery was a Siamese which aborted one kitten seven weeks into her pregnancy. She went full term to deliver five more. Another girl delivered one kitten and waited 24 hours to deliver its littermate. You don’t get much sleep that way.
It is best to keep all of the kittens separate from the mother until delivery is completed unless it takes several hours. In most cases, the mother will not be too interested or have time to wash and cuddle kittens while in labor with another. She may even inadvertently roll on it. It is important at this stage to keep the newborns warm and dry. If she goes a long time between deliveries, put one kitten in for awhile for her to wash and nurse if she is willing. You can always alternate kittens as the litter grows in size. It is easier to sneak one kitten away from her when she is in labor for the next than it is to remove two or three kittens.
Most queens, when they finish delivering, make it pretty obvious by their relaxed attitude. The bedding gets wet and messy with each delivery so you will have changed it a time or two and now it’s time to change the bed again and return the kittens to their mother – one by one. The cage I use for delivery (24″ deep, 24″ high and 48″ long) will be home for the family for about 5 weeks. It opens from the front and has a removable top. The latter makes it very easy to deliver kittens. After all the kittens are back with their mother and she is attending to them, I fasten the top on and cover one end with a large towel to darken the “nest” area. Something such as Esbilac or KMR is welcome at this point. After a little while, peek in and if all the babies seem to be nursing and contented, turn out the lights (deliveries often seem to happen at night) and go to bed.
I find this style cage convenient because I can leave the front doors open for the queen to come and go as she pleases until the babies can get out of the nest box. Then I keep the front latched, remove the top, and mom can still get out. By the time the youngsters try climbing the wire doors (1/2″ hardware cloth), it is time to move them to a very large cage (5’L X 3 1/2’W X 4’H); graduation from that cage means they have the run of the house. This latter cage has shelves and a full size scratching post which they find great fun. By he time they are ready for full “freedom” they know all about scratching posts and litter pans and can concentrate on clearing my desk(regularly) and the computer set-up.
Up until now, your responsibility to the litter was pretty much limited to keeping the bed clean, the queen fed and happy, and handling the babies daily to weigh and inspect them. Now on to the next step …..
Every breeder has a pattern of vaccinations that works for them. You will have a number of decisions to make regarding vaccinations. You may opt for having your veterinarian give your kittens all of their vaccinations. Many breeders give their own vaccinations. My reason for giving my own “shots” are twofold. The vaccine is given to quite young kittens at a very vulnerable age. Upper respiratory infections are airborne and I feel I am exposing my kittens unnecessarily if I sit in an office waiting room where a cat is or has been sneezing. Cost is also a big factor. When I finally got up the nerve to give my own shots, I did so with my veterinarian’s agreement; he sold me the vaccine. I’m sure he wasn’t thrilled at the loss of revenue and that is the objection most veterinarians have to breeders giving their own shots. I found I could buy the same vaccine he used from another source at a substantial saving. Prices for office visits vary greatly around the country while the price of vaccine is the same. I have always used the same vaccine my veterinarians use (a modified live virus). We are currently using a vaccine (two doses, three weeks apart) that combines protection against four upper respiratory infections: rhinotracheitis, calici, panleukopenia and chlamydia psittaci. In addition to the preceding program, a few years ago I began using an intranasal (ocular-nasal) vaccine designed to be dropped in the eyes and nose. There are a couple of reasons why you might consider using it. If you have ever had a respiratory infection in your cattery, you probably have a cat or cats that are now “carriers”. Any kittens you produce will need protection at a very early age. Maternal protection acquired by nursing varies greatly from cat to cat.
My original reason for using this type of vaccine was somewhat different. In a given period of time we had, on occasion, a kitten develop a stubborn eye ulcer. Sometimes when the ulcer healed it left a scar. A new vet, a recent graduate, joined the practice and suggested using the o-n vaccine. His reason was that this literally “built a wall” over the eye to protect it. I had friends using the vaccine successfully for other reasons, so was more than willing to try. When trying to decide at what age to begin, he asked if I knew of any breeders using the vaccine as early as two weeks. I knew of one breeder who began it at that age, and another who began it even earlier – as soon as the eyes opened and sometimes in the nose before the eyes opened. We began using it and it was most successful protecting kittens against those early eye ulcers, and in later years, no doubt, against URI.
The vaccinating program I have found best for me is to give the ocular-nasal vaccine as soon as the eyes open and then every other week (or more often depending on the problems you may be dealing with), until kits are old enough for injectable vaccine. The ocular-nasal vaccine does not protect against panleukopenia. The age at which kittens are vaccinated varies from litter to litter and depends upon the age at which they are weaned. It has certainly been effective for me as it eliminated the eye ulcer problem and we very rarely get an upper respiratory infection (fewer than five in 25+ years of breeding) and I never isolate after shows. This is due, I believe, not only to a good vaccinating program but also because the cats are not contained permanently in one room. Eliminating crowding eliminates many problems.
Some breeders are unwilling to use the intranasal because they claim “it makes the kittens sick”. In the years I’ve been using it I have had two kittens run temperatures of 103 degrees for a day, and roughly one out of six or eight sneeze for a day. I have never had a kitten ill enough to stop eating as a result of the vaccine.
Now that your kittens are vaccinated you will be thinking about new homes for them. When I began breeding silver Persians, Grace Over of Gray-Ivy cattery gave me some advice which I have never forgotten. “You are responsible for every kitten you have caused to be born whether it is out of one of your females or SIRED BY YOUR MALE!” The latter is something often forgotten – think carefully BEFORE you breed your female and before you allow your stud to breed an outside female. This is quite a responsibility we take on when we choose to breed cats…
(1) Siamese Cat Book by Vera Nelson; All Pets Books, Inc. 1956
* Discuss use with your veterinarian
** Use only after discussing use with your veterinarian and ONLY when and as he directs.
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