Pregnant Mothers and the Birthing Process

We hope that this experience will be as rewarding for you as it is beneficial to the health and well-being of mom and her kittens. The majority of births and newborn litters are trouble-free and require only your quiet supervision. The information here will help you prepare for any complications that can, although rarely do, arise.  If you have any questions or concerns not addressed in these guidelines, please call C.A.R.E. Keep in mind that these are only guidelines and are not meant to replace expert advice.

Please note that C.A.R.E. medical staff may have an x-ray taken by a Vet hospital shortly before birth to get an idea how many kittens the mother will be having. 

Preparing for birth

It is imperative that you have a quiet, out-of-the-way place in your home that will be warm, safe and available for the entire time you are fostering.  This means that this space will only be used for mom and her kittens for the time you have them in your care. Inaccessibility from other family pets like dogs, or your resident cats, must be strictly enforced.  This is absolutely necessary for the health and safety of not only the litter, but for your resident animals as well.

New mother cats have been known to abandon or even resort to cannibalism if they feel that other animals or people threaten the well-being of their babies.  This is especially true with mothers who are not well socialized.

New kittens are very susceptible to disease and can pick up illnesses from your seemingly healthy pets.  Also, the stress of pregnancy and birth can cause the mom cat to become ill from something that has been dormant in her system, so do not put your resident pets at risk by exposing them.

A kittening or nesting box must be provided for the expectant mother.  This can usually be a cardboard box without a lid and a hole cut out of the side for the mom cat to enter and exit.  Fill it with clean towels or old cloth diapers and let her make her own nest. Change this bedding immediately after the birth and then on a frequent basis because it will become soiled – so don’t use the “good” towels.

After the birthing is over, remove the towels and replace them with fleece blankets, fleece beds, or cloth diapers. Some kittens cannot retract their claws and get caught in the loops of towels, making it difficult for them to crawl around. You can also put several layers of bedding in the nest prior to the birth; after the birth, you can roll the dirty upper layer off and gently move the kittens onto the clean layer underneath. 

Provide a litter box, food, and water.  During the last week or so of pregnancy, and during the nursing weeks, dry and wet canned kitten food should be fed to the mom cat.  Kitten food is recommended for lactating females, as it has extra calories and nutrients and will help support mom cat during this very exhausting time in her life.  Let mom eat as much as she wants—after all, she is feeding a brood herself!

The shelter strives to feed a premium diet to provide the best support for the mother cat, the best start for the babies, and an easier transition to the diet they will be fed when they return to the shelter.

The Birth

A week or less before the event, mom cat may start to move about furtively, root about in the nest, and may possibly attempt to escape the room you have designated for her in hopes of finding a linen closet or soft bedspread for her delivery.  Be sure to keep your eye on her to ensure she stays in her room!

About 24 hours before delivery, you may notice her belly drop to form a “pear” shape and her nipples start to swell with milk.  A small amount of discharge from the vagina is also normal. This is usually the first sign of labor and can last up to six hours.  Mom will start to breath heavily, pant, or purr during this time. Some moms-to-be will give you clues that it is time—others will not.  Some will not eat until the deliveries are finished and some will snack in between. Some will be vocal while delivering and some will be silent.  Some will want you in the room, others will not. Let mom tell you what she needs. After all, having kittens is a natural and normal experience and cats have been doing it for thousands of years!

Most feline births are routine and trouble free, so try not to disturb her during the process.  Make sure she has access to food and water, and replace her regular litter with shredded paper in the litter box before delivery begins.  She will start the second stage of labor, straining a few hours before the first kitten is born. If, however, she has been heavily straining, for an hour without producing a kitten, or three or more hours pass between kittens, call your mentor.

Occasionally, first time moms will not quite “get it.”  If this is the case and she delivers a kitten, and just walks away, she might not realize that it is alive and needs her care.  The membrane covering the kitten’s face must be removed immediately so the kitten can breathe. If mom doesn’t do this, gently tear open the sac covering the head so the kitten can breathe.  After the first kitten, mom usually figures it out and carries on as she should. Most moms will eat the afterbirth as it contains nutrients and hormones she will need to recover from the birth.  She will also bite through the umbilical cord and clean the babies. After she has cleaned the kitten, she will take a rest. This rest could last 30-60 minutes before she starts labor again to give birth to the next kitten.

Signs of a difficult delivery

Most births proceed without incident, and your role as a foster parent is to quietly monitor the birthing process. However, call C.A.R.E. (or an emergency contact if after hours) immediately if any of the following happens during delivery:

  • The mother cat seems to be straining or having strong contractions for a period of 1 hour without delivering a kitten.
  • There is unusual discharge from the vulva under the tail. Normal discharge is green; abnormal can be black, cloudy, or foul-smelling.
  • The mother is not cleaning the kittens after delivery. If this occurs, use a piece of sterile gauze and remove any fluid from the nose and mouth. Then dry the kitten using a clean towel and a gentle rubbing action.
  • A kitten is not breathing. If this occurs, rub him vigorously with a towel for several minutes all over his body to stimulate breathing.
  • Occasionally the umbilical cord will not separate from the mother and kitten. If this occurs, take a thread or floss (unwaxed, unminted) and tie a knot ½ inch from the kitten’s belly and another knot 1 inch towards Mom, and then cut the cord with the scissors between the two knots. This will prevent bleeding if the cord tears. Don’t be surprised if the cord retracts back inside mom during a contraction. The cord and placenta will be delivered in time. Never pull on the cord to try and get it out.
  • You observe any excessive bleeding (more than approximately two teaspoons).

Post delivery

After the delivery of the litter is finished, try to observe the family to make sure that the kittens are nursing, and that mom is not bleeding excessively from the vagina.  If things are not as they should be, call the appropriate C.A.R.E. staff immediately using our Support Contacts page. Once the event is concluded, and mom and kittens are resting comfortably, replace the soiled towels with clean fleece or cloth and let the new family rest in peace and quiet. Empty the paper out of the litter box and replace with regular kitty litter.

The temperature in the foster room should be kept a little warmer, especially for the first two weeks after birth. This is even more important if the kittens are orphans – ideally the temperature should be around 80F for the first two weeks. If you aren’t able to heat your whole room to that temperature, you can use Snuggle Safe warming disks, and make sure the nesting box is well insulated. Be sure that the mom and kittens have the option to get away from the warming disks if desired.

Handle newborns gently, but make sure to check on them at least twice a day. Are they nursing? Hanging out with mom? Crying a lot (this could be an indication that they are cold or not getting enough milk).  Make sure to count each time you check on them. Sometimes a mother cat will take a kitten out of the nest and leave it somewhere else in the room.  If this happens, put the kitten back in the nest and call C.A.R.E. right away. Make sure to weigh your kittens in grams each morning at the same time of day. You want to see them gain 10-15 grams per day. Reference the weight guide chart on our Feeding, Growth, and Development page

Be careful!  Mother cats can be very protective of their young and become overly aggressive toward resident pets.  This means watchful attention when entering or leaving the area you have set aside for mom and her babies.

Umbilical Cord Care

Each newborn kitten should have its umbilical cord swabbed with iodine tincture, an antiseptic antibacterial agent that aids in preventing infection (sepsis) of the umbilical cord site. 

As soon as the mother has chewed through the umbilical cord, or you have cut it, use a cotton swab with the iodine tincture applied to it to dab onto the entire umbilical cord and the surrounding skin. Repeat the umbilical cord swabbing again on day 2 and day 3. The umbilical cord should dry up and fall off around day 3 or 4.

IMPORTANT: If you see any signs of swelling, discharge, pain, or redness at the umbilical cord site, please contact C.A.R.E. immediately using our Support Contacts page. 

Post Natal Signs of Trouble

If all kittens and mom seem well, your only obligation to the mom and new kittens for the first week or so is watchful supervision. Mom will need kitten food (wet and dry) and water at all times. Contact C.A.R.E. immediately if you observe any of the following in the mother cat:

  • Acts lethargic, or as if she is in pain or continues to strain
  • Ignores her kittens
  • Continues bleeding from the vulva for more than two days
  • Has painful, hard, or swollen mammary glands

Kittens should be nursing up to 3 times an hour. The mother cat should be grooming each kitten after feeding, and licking their bottoms to stimulate elimination. Contact C.A.R.E. if you observe any of the following in the kittens:

  • Constant crying and failure to stay at the nipple
  • Refusal to nurse
  • Failure to gain weight daily
  • Feels cold to the touch
  • Withdrawing from the other kittens
  • Rejected or ignored by the mother
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