Cat birth: what is normal and when to worry

What to expect from a normal cat birth and when to intervene


Cat birth

If your cat is pregnant and her due date is approaching, you will want to know the signs to look out for, how to know when birth is imminent and when to worry. Cat birth is a very natural process and usually goes very smoothly. As with all natural processes though, cat birth can run into complications and it is good to know about the signs to watch for so that you know when to intervene.

It is worth noting that some breeds of cat have much higher rates of birth complications. These breeds are the more extreme breeds and include Persians, Exotic Shorthairs and Siamese cats. A large number of dog breeds suffer from birth complications and many dog breeds have to have cesareans as standard. It is unfortunate that these animals have been bred to such extremes, and we are very grateful that the British Shorthair has not suffered the same fate.

When is your cat’s birth expected?

The first thing to know is when to expect your kittens to arrive. If you planned your cat’s pregnancy then you will know when the matings occurred. If you took your cat to a stud boy then you will usually count the second day your cat was with the stud boy as the first day of the pregnancy. If your cat was there for a long time, then it gets a little more complex, but a good stud owner will be able to tell you when the matings occurred so you should be able to get a fairly good idea of when your cat became pregnant.

If the pregnancy was not planned then you will have to make a best guess at when your cat became pregnant. You can do this by considering when your cat called, when she pinked up and when she started to show. You can read more information on those signs and when to expect them here

In most breeds normal cat pregnancies last 65 days, so you can count from the first day of pregnancy to 65, and that is your when to expect your cat’s birth to occur. There is some variation though, and the normal range is considered to be 60-70 days.

Cat birth: when to worry...

cat birth when to worry

When to worry before birth

  • If cat birth occurs before day 60, it is unlikely that the kittens will be developed enough to survive. There is not much you can do if your cat goes into labour early, just be prepared and have some kitten milk replacer and all of the usual equipment to hand.

  • If your cat gets to day 70 and she has still not had her kittens, then a vet trip is in order. When kittens get to day 70 they have been growing in the womb for an extra 5 days. The danger is that they will grow too big to be able to delivered via a natural cat birth.

  • If your cat has any discoloured or foul smelling discharge (other than the mucus plug)

  • If your cat becomes ill during pregnancy. Infection with a virus during pregnancy like Coronavirus can cause damage to the unborn kittens.

  • If you are at all worried, a vet trip is in order. Your vet can scan your cat with an ultrasound and check that the kittens’ hearts are all beating. If the kittens’ hearts are not beating then your cat will need a cesarean. Kittens actually play a role in their own birth, so a kitten that is no longer alive often cannot pass through the birth canal successfully.

Cat birth

There are 3 stages to feline labour:

Stage 1: the cervix and uterus basically relax and the uterus gently contracts. This pushes the kittens down towards the birth canal. This stage can last 12-36 hours, and the signs are subtle. Signs of this stage of cat birth can include:

  • Your cat will lsoe her mucus plug: she may have a small amount of discharge, which is the mucus plug coming out ready for the kittens to pass through. This marks the start of stage 1 of labour. Your cat will usually lick herself clean, so you may not notice the mucus plug. It will be a small amount of green or pink-ish discharge. Once the mucus plug has come out, the first kitten will usually arrive within 24-48 hours, but it can vary and a maiden queen may take longer. If the mucus plug is lost and there are no kittens more than 48 hours later, you should contact your vet for their advice. The mucus plug prevents bacteria from entering through the cervix, so if it is lost and the pregnancy continues for days, it can be a risk to the pregnancy as bacteria can enter the womb through the cervix

  • Behaving more affectionately

  • Increased grooming, especially of the vaginal area

  • Looking for a nest, and re-arranging the bedding in it

  • Restlessness and lots of scratching in the litter tray. This usually happens the day before the kittens arrive.

  • Kitten movement: bubbling or rippling

  • Decreased appetite, although none of our cats have ever exhibited this behaviour!

  • Gentle contractions, but they are probably too subtle for you to notice. A contraction will probably look like a slight, jerky movement: her feet may just move about an inch every now and again

  • A loose stool, or repeated trips to the litter tray

Not every cat will have all or any of these signs, but most cats will have at least a few of them.

Stage 2 and Stage 3

Stage 2 and 3 tend to happen together. Stage 2 is the birth of the kittens and Stage 3 is the passing of the placentas. During Stage 2 the uterus contracts much more strongly and pushes the kittens out. The kitten will be in a protective mucus membrane. The kittens can come out head first or feet first and either way is normal. The queen will lick the kitten, removing the mucus membrane and biting through the umbilical cord of the kitten. It normally takes between 5 and 30 minutes to deliver each kitten. If your cat is actively straining for more than 30 minutes and no kitten appears, or looks in serious distress at any point, contact your veterinarian.

Stage 3 is when the placentas are passed. Usually each placenta will be passed after each kitten is born, but sometimes 2 or more kittens can be born before the placentas are passed. Occasionally twins may share a placenta. If you can, try to count the placentas as they come out, and make sure there are the same number as there are kittens - a placenta left inside a cat can cause serious health issues and needs a vet trip.

Interrupted labour

Interrupted labour is quite uncommon, but it is possible. Sometimes cats will give birth to a number of kittens, and then stop and have a break for several hours or even a couple of days. One of our girls once gave birth to two kittens, then stopped for seven hours. After seven hours she re-commenced active labour and a third kitten arrived. Please be aware that this is when your cat stops active labour. If your cat is in active labour for more than an hour and no kitten appears, it requires an emergency vet trip. If she is in active labour you will see the signs of labour: panting, contractions, meowing. A cat who has had an interrupted labour will be perfectly calm, and happily feeding her kittens with no contractions (or only very mild contractions) occurring.

When to worry during birth

  • If your cat loses her mucus plug and more than 48 hours later there are no kittens. Infections can enter the womb if this goes on too long, and it can also be a sign that labour is not progressing properly

  • If at any point your cat becomes lethargic or does not seem quite herself

  • If your cat has been actively straining for an hour or more, you need to go to an emergency vet. A kitten could be stuck in the birth canal

  • If there are more kittens than placentas passed. All of the placentas must be passed: if a placenta is stuck inside your cat this is a medical emergency

  • If your cat starts to bleed either bright red blood, a large volume of blood, or clotted red blood. Passing a small amount of pinkish-clear fluid, or even a small amount of red blood, is normal, but anything more than that can indicate a problem. If ever blood is free-flowing this is a medical emergency and you must get to a vet immediately.

  • If your cat fails to remove the sac from a kitten or bite through the umbilical cord: if this happens you must step in and do it for her.

When to worry after birth

  • Your cat seems very lethargic or unwell

  • You can see or feel another kitten in your cat

  • Your cat has a coloured or smelly discharge

  • Your cat is bleeding bright red blood, clotted blood, or bleeding freely

  • Your cat is in any distress

Please note that it is normal for a cat to bleed slightly for the couple of days after birth. This bleeding should be very minimal and pink or red in colour, and not smell badly. If your cat has a foul smelling, oddly coloured discharge, or bleeds a lot after birth please take her to your vet immediately. When taking her to your vet, take the kittens with her as well, as they will nor survive on their own. Put some bedding in the cat carrier and make sure the kittens are kept warm enough. 

In the vast majority of cases, cat birth is an entirely natural process that will happen and conclude happily without any intervention. So try not to over-worry, but do be aware of the situations when you would need to get veterinary help. It is important to try and be with your cat when her kittens are due, so that you can help out if there are any problems.