Dr Reeja George P.*
Pregnancy is a time of special care for the cat. As a responsible pet parent there are many aspects of this period of her life that you should take care of and keep in mind. The cat’s demands for rest and food during this period are crucial. On the whole, breeding your cat can be an immense source of satisfaction, a whole new bunch of fluffy kittens is a treat to the mind as well as to the senses. But of course, just like any other aspect of our lives, there can be hiccups, which will have to be tided over. The beginning of any breeding journey would begin from an understanding of feline reproductive basics.
Exploring The Basics: Heat In The Cat
The cat, like most of her other female mammalian counterparts goes through periods of physical cycles that ensure that her body is ready for a possible conception and subsequent birth. This cycle is normally referred to as menstruation in female humans. In the cat, we call it estrus; and when your cat actually exhibits signs of this period we say that she is ‘in heat’. The cat usually comes into heat for the first time between six to ten months of age. Being in this state of ‘heat’ makes her hormones work in a way that she is receptive –hormonally- to the process of reproducing. During this period, her ovarian follicles produce the hormone oestrogen, which is responsible for a host of behavioural signs that she will exhibit during this period. But, unlike the dog, observable signs such as swelling of the vulva and discharge are a rare feature of a cat in heat. Your cat is polyestrous which means that she has heat cycles that occur many times each year. Each period of heat generally lasts for several days, in most cases it lasts for between a week and ten days. In case she is not bred, she will return to heat every two to three weeks, though for some cats their periodicity is between one and three weeks.
How Do You Know She Is In Heat?
The period of heat in the cat is a big affair! Or she makes quite a fuss about it through her behaviour and her calling or a loud howling – to put it plainly – all of which may make you worried if she is ill – but no, she is just calling out to all those potential knights in waiting! She becomes very affectionate to you and all at home, and even the furniture are not spared as she rubs herself against everything she can get hold of seeking all the attention in the world. She’ll even roll on the ground and if you attempt to pacify her by stroking on her spine she will usually raise her back and tread with her hind legs. As an anxious pet parent you may be worried that she has a tummy ache but your confusion can easily be cleared if you watch her slowly especially the way she lifts her tail. After all this hullaballoo, don’t be surprised to see all the handsome toms in your neighbourbood masquerading near your backyard or at your front gate. If she is successfully mated during this period she passes into pregnancy and she will return to heat only around 8 weeks after she has had her kittens. If however she is not mated, she may return to heat in a few weeks and this pattern is repeated till she gets pregnant.
Ensuring A Successful Breeding
In case you wish to breed your cat, the first thing to remember is that, unlike the dog she can be bred any time during her active phase of heat because cats are ‘induced ovulators’ which means that her ovaries release eggs when stimulated by the act of breeding. So eggs are released from the cat ovary only when sperms have already been deposited in her reproductive tract. To ensure successful ovulation however, a cat would generally require three or four matings within a twenty four hour period. She goes out of heat a day or two after ovulation which occurs approximately 48 hours after mating. Conception takes place within 20 to 50 hours of mating.
From An Embryo To A Foetus: Little Steps Over Time
The process of fertilisation in the cat is followed by development of the embryo that then implants itself or fixes itself in the uterine lining – this actually occurs two weeks after fertilisation. By week three of gestation evident signs of an increased appetite will signal the onset of pregnancy and the initiation of organ development in the embryo. Pregnancy usually lasts for between 60 to 65 days though most cats have their kittens between the 63rd and 65th day. At this point it is important to remember that as a responsible pet parent, keeping a record of the dates on which your cat was bred is important in keeping track of all her changes. Proper records about her breeding date coupled with an ultrasonological examination with her vet could go a long way in keeping you prepared about her possible date of kittening in case she needs any special assistance.
For most owners though, the first commonly seen change signalling pregnancy would be a pinkish coloration of the nipple area which may appear slightly swollen at around the 18th day: all this is due to the flush of hormones that rush into her bloodstream. In the period between the 20th to the 28th day, your vet may be able to feel the foetuses, but this is a very small window of time and very quickly the foetuses get covered in amniotic fluid which makes it difficult to feel them after this period. It will only be by the 49th day that the kittens can be felt; their heads become large enough by that time and can be felt. But this should be done by your vet only because of the dangers of damaging the developing foetuses. Development of organs would have been completed by four weeks after which the embryos are referred to as foetuses.
Getting Reading For The Kittens!
At around nine weeks of gestation or between the 63rd and 65th day of gestation, as the cat goes into pre-labour, the first indications of an impending kittening would be her search for a secluded area. She makes it evident by looking around for a place without any noise and people around where she can have the kittens. You could help in by preparing a box lined with several layers of newspaper or any absorbent material that would take in the birthing fluids but at the same time be easily disposable. You could also use cleaned and washed old cotton cloth. Though you may help in, she may have other ideas and choose to have her kittens in your closet, so it’s very important to have an eye on her and to keep your cupboards closed!
The box that you choose should be large enough to for her to settle down in and also to move around a little. A standard 4.5 kg cat should be comfortable with a box of size 16 to 18 inches x 24 to 26 inches. However the sides of the box should not be too high as she has a natural instinct to look around for impending signs of danger from the environment as she has her kittens. Anything that impairs her view of the surroundings is bound to make her uneasy. As labour approaches, you may notice behavioural changes, either way; she may become too affectionate or recede into herself. By around 24 hours before she actually has her kittens a milky discharge may be seen from the nipples. A few days before she goes into labour, a careful pet parent may also observe her abdomen appear as though it has dropped and the nipples may appear larger, darker or pinker in colour. Monitoring her rectal temperature is a good way to get an idea of when she would go into labour. During the last 24 hours of birthing and just before labour, her rectal temperature could drop to less than 100oF (37.5 ℃).
As labour approaches, the full term cat exhibits a variety of external signs ranging from excessive grooming especially of the birthing area, which is a sort of marking process also, she leaves a trail of saliva around her nipples which are to be followed by the new born kittens – who can neither see nor hear their mother’s anxious instructions- as they navigate to latch on to a nipple and suckle. She may also be very nervous, loose her appetite or even stop eating at all on the eve of the day of birthing, and in some cases she may vomit as well.
As she goes into labour, uterine contractions increase and push the foetuses out of the uterus into the birth canal. It takes between 5 minutes to 30 minutes for a kitten to be born; they are born within in a transparent fluid filled sac – the amniotic sac filled with amniotic fluid- which will be removed by the cat herself who will also bite through the kitten’s placenta and then rub it clean with her tongue. In case she does not severe the umbilical cord, you may help her by securing the cord with a piece of dental floss 1 inch away from the kitten’s body.
You have to keep an eye on the cat and her response to the new born kittens. In case she doesn’t pay any attention to them, you may have to cut open the thin amniotic bags in which the kittens lie, take them out, rub them dry with a clean absorbent towel or cloth and remove any debris from their nostrils gently rubbing them to stimulate the kitten to breathe. Generally each kitten comes out with a placenta. It would be a good idea to keep a count of both, the kittens and the number of placentae that come out. In case you feel that a placenta hasn’t come out, and the cat hasn’t eaten it, you will have to get the cat examined by the vet to ensure that nothing is remaining within her. During the intervening period between births as she busies herself with cleaning and suckling her priced possessions you could offer her a warm drink of milk or some food that is light and that she would usually enjoy so that she replenishes her energy reserves. The whole birthing process could extend to half a day or even more.
Once the kittens stop coming and her stomach looks rather emptied, you could assume that the process if over. The new mother and her kittens should however be taken to a vet within 24 hours to rule out the possibility of any placenta or kitten remaining within the cat. Though the birthing process is a little bit of a bloody affair and it is not usual for some bleeding during the process, bleeding for more than a week after the birthing process or a new bout of bleeding that starts after she had returned to a normal state, all necessitate quick and immediate checks by her vet.
Kittening is generally an uneventful and enjoyable experience. The end result- those balls of fluff- are truly a reward for the proud pet parent. However sometimes there may be a few problems that would require your active intervention. Time is the first issue. The births of kittens are usually spaced by intervals of 30 minutes to an hour. Sometimes this period can be extended. The maximum time that you can wait is up to two hours. If there is no progress in the birthing process you should call your vet. Sometimes your cat could have gone into labour with strong contractions, which is evident by the way she pushes and strains, but no birth takes place for half an hour. Such cases should also be viewed with caution and you should call your vet because sometimes –in four out of ten cases- a kitten may come into the birth canal tail first (breach birth). Sometimes such births may require a little care from your vet because if the kitten fails to move out of the birth canal within two to three minutes she may be in danger and by obstructing the birth passage and delaying the birthing process she may also put other kittens in danger. Whatever the case, it is important that the cat and kitten are closely watched and if your instincts tell you something is amiss, never hesitate to call your vet- that call could go a long way in ensuring both the health of the cat as well as the life of the kittens.
*Associate Professor, Department of Veterinary and Animal Husbandry Extension, College of
Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Mannuthy, Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences
University, Thrissur, Kerala 680 651