Birth and kittening

How do cats give birth? This guide looks at the basics

The ideal midwife

Cats often give birth unsupported, so watch quietly from a distance in case you need to help or call the vet.

How to help your cat during birth

Before your cat gives birth, talk to your vet to ask if your cat needs any specific support or treatments during pregnancy and birth.

The secret to being a good midwife to your cat is observation and timing. It is best to watch your cat from a distance, taking care not to disturb her or make her anxious. Your cat may be able to give birth without needing any help from you, but it's important to understand your cat's needs, as well as those of her kittens, in case your help is required. Contact your vet if any problems occur.

Have clean towels, a warm water bottle, a feeding bottle or syringe and some specialist substitute cat milk replacement - not cow or goat milk - ready in advance.

Birth, also called kittening or parturition, is divided into three stages, and the second and third stages are repeated for each kitten. Time between delivery of kittens is usually 10 to 60 minutes and stages two and three are repeated. The birth is usually complete within six hours after the start of the second stage, but can last up to 12 hours.

First stage of kittening

The first stage of kittening lasts up to 36 hours and is usually shorter for queens that have had kittens before.

What to expect:

  • intermittent contractions, but no straining
  • the queen will be restless and make repeated visits to the bed
  • late in the first stage, the queen may scratch the bedding and pant
  • vaginal discharge is rare

Second stage of kittening

The second stage of kittening lasts five to thirty minutes for each kitten.

What to expect:

  • stronger contractions
  • foetal membranes (water bag) appears briefly at the vulva and bursts. Liquid is usually cleared up by the cat
  • active straining starts and the kitten usually comes out head first
  • once the head is out, one or two strains from the cat should push out the kitten
  • the mother breaks the bag and chews through the cord and licks the kitten. This cleans the kitten and encourages it to breathe

Third stage of kittening

The third stage of kittening involves the passage of the membranes and the dark flesh mass of the placenta or afterbirth.

What to expect:

  • this usually follows immediately, although occasionally two kittens are born followed by two sets of membranes
  • try to count the number of placentae to ensure one is passed for each kitten. If they are not all passed within four to six hours, call your vet for advice. Bear in mind that the queen will usually eat the placenta to hide evidence of the birth and protect her kittens.
  • a red-brown vaginal discharge may be seen for up to three weeks after the birth. It is abnormal if it is green or foul-smelling, although there may normally be a small amount of greenish discharge after the kitten or placenta

What can go wrong during birth?

Most cats manage to deliver their litter of kittens without any help. So watching quietly and discreetly from a distance is the best approach.

However, your cat may experience a difficult birth and there are some things you can do to help:

  • ask your vet if you have any concerns
  • if a kitten is partly out, but the mother is very tired and the kitten isn't passed within a few seconds, you can gently try to pull them out by pulling downwards very gently with clean hands, but ask your vet for advice
  • if the mother does not clean the kitten, you can quickly and quietly clear the membranes from their head with clean, soft kitchen roll. Wipe their nose and open the mouth to clear it. Rub the kitten in small circular movements to get them breathing
  • if the mother does not bite through the cord, you can tie it off twice with clean sewing thread around 3cm from the kitten's body and gently tear between the two ties. Clean hands are essential
  • provide warmth if the mother is avoiding the kittens - a warm, well-covered water bottle does the job
  • if you've had to help at all, it is best to seek veterinary advice as the kittens may be more at risk of infection or being mismothered - being injured, rejected and not suckled or kept warm by the queen

When to call the vet

You should call the vet for advice during the birth if:

  • the first stage is lasting longer than 24 hours without any sign of straining
  • the cat has been straining for more than 30 minutes without producing anything - this could indicate an obstruction (eg a very large kitten)
  • the kitten has arrived and no further kittens appear after an hour
  • the cat suddenly seems weak
  • there is excessive bloody discharge or greenish discharge without a kitten. However, there may be a greenish discharge after the kitten or with the afterbirth
  • a kitten gets stuck half-way out and cannot be delivered by gently pulling

In some cases the kittens may need to be delivered by caesarean section.

Related topics

After birth

Kitten care