Cat birth is called queening, and the good news is that your queen-to-be will do most of the work herself.
large, pregnant cat
Credit: Stefan Studio / Getty

Nine short weeks after rendezvousing with the neighborhood tomcat, an unspayed female might be ready to give birth to a litter of kittens. How do you tell when a cat is ready to give birth? Whether you opted for a kitty pregnancy test, an X-ray, or aren't quite sure how far along your mama-to-be is, Erin Katribe, DVM at Best Friends Animal Society, says your cat's behavior will clue you in when the time is right.

"Giving birth can be risky for a cat and can be challenging for owners. We generally recommend spaying before this can occur," Katribe says. Mama Cat can go into heat again as soon as four weeks after giving birth. Unspayed kittens can go into heat and become pregnant as young as four months old. It's never too late to spay a mama after one or more litters, Katribe says. As for her precious bundles of joy, they can be spayed and neutered as early as six to eight weeks of age.

How a Pregnant Cat Behaves Before Birth

In the week before delivery (called queening) your cat will likely become less active—apart from "nesting" behavior. You'll probably find Mama preparing a queening nest in a quiet, secluded area of the house. This is where she plans to have her kittens.

Katribe says you can help her build the nest by offering clean blankets along with a carrier, plastic bin, or the tried-and-true cardboard box. "It's important for the birthing area to be safe for the kittens. They shouldn't be able to escape and become chilled, but Mom should be able to exit freely when she chooses," Katribe says. Place Mama's essentials like food, water, and a litter box in an easy-to-access location near the birthing area.

Signs Your Mama Cat Is Ready to Give Birth

Other than her big belly, the mama-to-be will go through a few physical changes just hours or days before welcoming her little furballs.

Changes in the Mammary Glands

In the days before giving birth, your cat's mammary glands will increase in size. Her nipples may leak colostrum, or what's known as first milk. Her nipples will darken and the fur around them will thin.

Decrease in Body Temperature

It's not necessary to track the mama's body temperature, but if you do, you'll notice a slight drop nearing the big day. A cat's normal body temperature is 101 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. About 24 hours before going into labor, her body temperature will drop a few degrees to 98 or 99 degrees Fahrenheit.

What to Expect If Your Cat Is Giving Birth for the First Time

If this is your first queening experience, it might be tempting to meddle in the process. Stay calm and let nature take its course—unless complications arise. That includes foregoing medications and calming supplements, Katribe adds. "Medications should not be given to pregnant or nursing cats without express direction by a veterinarian. Any drugs may have adverse effects in the fetuses or kittens."

"In most cases, birthing takes place without the need for assistance," she says. "The primary complication that can occur is called dystocia, which means difficulty giving birth." Cats could have difficulty queening due to low calcium or blood sugar, physical obstructions like a kitten becoming stuck, or extended labor. At the first sign of distress, call your vet immediately.

How Long Are Cats in Labor Before Giving Birth?

Kitty labor can be described in three stages. In reality, they may blend together more than a textbook birth.

Stage one labor: This stage "is characterized by restlessness and pacing behavior," Katribe explains. It's not unusual for cats to stop eating during this stage, vomit, vocalize, pant, or tremble. She might have a clear, watery discharge too. This pre-birth phase could last anywhere from six to 24 hours.

Stage two labor: When visual abdominal contractions are apparent, your cat has entered the second stage of labor. This is when she'll actively birth her kittens. It usually lasts under six hours but could go as long as 48 hours. "It's normal for mothers to rest between kittens, and periods of rest can be several hours long," Katribe says. But, she adds, if the period of rest between kittens last four hours or more—call your vet for immediate care.

If you had an X-ray taken before delivery, you'll know how many kittens to expect and when Mom is done giving birth. If you didn't get X-rays and are wondering how to know when a cat is done giving birth, Katribe says when visible abdominal contractions have stopped, it's typically safe to assume all kittens have been born.

Stage three labor: This is the passing of the placenta, Katribe explains. It might happen during active delivery of the kittens or following. The important thing is that the number of placentas passed equals the number of kittens born. If you're unsure, let your vet know. Mama will likely want to eat the placenta. This is okay, or you could choose to remove it from the area.

6 Ways to Prepare for Your Cat to Give Birth

The first step in preparing for your queen-to-be is chatting with your vet. Katribe recommends this visit weeks before the big day "to discuss plans for delivery, what complications to watch out for, and to schedule preventive care follow-up visits for the mother and the litter after birth."

Mama will do most—if not all—of the work herself. So, not much is needed beyond clean towels and blankets to replace the ones in the nest after birth. But Katribe says it's a good idea to have emergency care items on hand.

  • A bulb syringe to suction any fluid or mucus out of the kittens' airways immediately following delivery.
  • Dental floss for tying off any umbilical cords that bleed after delivery.
  • Clean towels to assist in wiping down kittens after delivery, but only if Mama needs help.
  • Your vet's phone number and an emergency clinic number. Plus, a clean cat carrier with bedding ready in case an emergency visit is necessary.
  • Milk replacer and nursing supplies in case Mom isn't producing enough milk or if she doesn't allow the kittens to nurse.
  • Heat support like heating discs or warm water bottles.

Let your vet know if you're unsure how to use the emergency care items listed above. For example, your vet can show you how to safely use a bulb syringe.

Kittens are one of life's miracles. A little preparation will help you be ready to enjoy the process of welcoming them into the world.