Pregnant Queen and Stages of Labor
Most queens display no significant changes in behavior for about the first three weeks of pregnancy. There is usually no increase in appetite, no change in activity levels. Very rarely, a form of morning sickness may occur which is short-lived. There is no need to restrict the queen's activity due to the pregnancy; however, it is best to avoid unnecessary exposure to other cats to reduce the risk of the queen contracting an infectious disease. Pregnant cats should not be exhibited, and trips away from home should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. If a queen has been shipped by air to be bred, the optimum time to travel home is during the first two weeks after breeding, and the pregnant queen should never be sedated for travel. Once the first few weeks have passed, the stress of travel could be detrimental to the pregnancy. We do not fully understand the effects of high altitude and pressure changes on animals traveling by air.
By about the end of the third week pinking of the nipples may be noticeable, especially with a first pregnancy. Gradually the hair around the nipples tends to recede as the nipples enlarge, becoming more prominent and making them easier for the newborn kittens to find. Longhair cats may be best kept clean by clipping the hair around the perineum and on the abdomen around the nipples.
By about the fifth week of pregnancy the fetuses have grown significantly and the queen's abdomen has expanded. She may require more food at this point and feeding small, frequent high quality meals is important. The queen's appetite during pregnancy may increase from 25% to 50%. Many breeders will feed a kitten or growth type diet to pregnant queens during the last two to three weeks of pregnancy. This diet is especially helpful during nursing, when the queen needs to produce large quantities of milk and therefore needs more calories and protein in her diet. Many nursing queens eat twice as much food as when not nursing. It is not necessary to feed this type of diet from the start of the pregnancy unless the queen is underweight or not in optimal condition. Unnecessary weight gain from excess nutrition during pregnancy should be avoided as it may contribute to difficulties during labor and delivery. Some queens will develop digestive upsets, such as diarrhea and/or vomiting, when fed growth diets. In these queens a high quality adult maintenance diet is best. Dietary supplementation should be avoided.
Stage One: The first stage of labor may pass largely unnoticed. During this stage, the cervix dilates and the uterus starts contracting. It can last for a few hours or for as long as 24 hours. Queens may be restless, overgrooming, pacing, panting, or even vomiting during this stage. They may not eat for up to 24 hours before active labor, although some queens eat normally right up to stage two. No visible contractions are seen, although there may be a clear mucous discharge from the vagina. As the end of stage one labor approaches, most queens will settle in the birthing box, purring loudly and scratching around to prepare their "nest." It is important to ensure that the location where the queen will give birth is warm enough for the neonatal kittens.
Stages Two and Three: During these stages of labor the kittens are delivered (stage two) and the placentas are delivered (stage three). The delivery of the litter is actually a series of stage two and stage three labors. Strong uterine contractions help deliver each kitten from its uterine horn into the uterine body and through the cervix and vagina. Once strong labor starts the entire litter may be born in under two hours, or it may take as long as 24 hours. Most commonly, kittens are delivered every 30 to 60 minutes, although they may be delivered more rapidly. Both head first (2/3 of births) and hindquarters first (1/3 of births) presentations are normal in the cat. A true breech birth is when the tail and rump are presented before the hind legs, and this is a more difficult delivery. The time from the start of active labor to the birth of the first kitten is usually less than 60 minutes. A queen who is in active, hard labor for two hours without delivering a kitten must be assumed to need veterinary attention.
As each kitten is born, many queens will pause to break open the amniotic sac if it is still intact and clean the membranes away from the newborn, stimulating breathing. The amniotic sac is often ruptured by the queen during licking at her perineum as the kitten is being delivered. Not all queens show interest in eating the placentas and there is no evidence to show that it is necessary. Queens will sever the umbilical cord with their teeth. In some cases the kittens arrive too rapidly for the queen to clean each one and sever the umbilical cord.
The breeder should be prepared to dry off each kitten to prevent it from chilling and to stimulate breathing if 10 minutes has gone by without the queen attending to the newborn. It is preferable to tear the umbilical cord with clean fingers, leaving it about two to three inches long, rather than to cut it, as there will be less bleeding and less chance of infection. It is acceptable, however, to tie a piece of thread or dental floss tightly around the umbilical cord about two to three inches from the kitten's abdomen after "milking" the blood in the cord away from the placenta and toward the kitten. A second tie is placed just beyond the first and the cord is cut with a pair of sharp, clean scissors (preferably swabbed with alcohol) in between the two ties.
The stump of each umbilical cord should always be dipped in 2% tincture of iodine to prevent infection. It is important to avoid having kittens crawling around the birthing box while their umbilical cords and placentas are still attached. The cords of the kittens can become entwined and cause tension on the umbilical area, which may lead to a hernia, or the cords can become entwined around a kitten's leg causing trauma. Sometimes, kittens are born with the placentas already detached, so it is important to count the number of placentas when labor is finished. In most cases, there is one placenta for every kitten, although twins and triplets sharing the same placenta do occur.
Occasionally queens may pause during labor and rest without having uterine contractions. This may be for an hour or two or, rarely, it can be for up to 24 hours. She may nurse the kittens already born, giving the appearance that delivery is finished. Queens are more likely to interrupt labor and delivery if something disturbing occurs in their environment. In general, the queen should be monitored but interfered with as little as possible. Labor and delivery can be made longer by inappropriate intervention by the breeder or curious onlookers. That having been said, there are queens who will be very restless unless their owner is present. Maiden queens need to be watched most closely as they may neglect to clean kittens adequately, especially if the time interval between kittens is small. In this situation, it is best to care for each newborn and remove it from the birthing box to a separate warm box until the whole litter is born.