- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
As a responsible pet owner, you want to make sure you understand how to keep your cat happy and healthy. And, if you’ve got an unspayed female cat on your hands, that could mean dealing with a cat pregnancy.
A pregnant cat is known as a queen. According to one study published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), free-roaming cats get pregnant on average 1.4 times per year (so, a little more than once a year) and have three kittens per litter. Although the Guinness Book of World Records notes there was once a cat who birthed 19 kittens at once.
Suffice to say, over a lifetime, that’s a lot of kittens. The same JAVMA study noted that kittens born to roaming cats didn’t do well — 75 percent of the kittens disappeared within the first 6 months of their lives. That is, in part, why veterinarians highly recommend getting your female cat spayed. And there’s no reason to let your female cat get pregnant, even once. A popular myth says that cats who have been pregnant are friendlier, but it’s not true, say the veterinarians at VCA Hospitals.
Still, cat pregnancies happen. If you’ve got a pregnant cat on your hands, you likely have some questions. For example, how long do cats stay pregnant? What does the cycle of pregnancy look like for a cat? And how can you support your cat’s pregnancy to make sure that mama cat—and her kittens—stay healthy throughout the process?
How long are cats pregnant?
Let’s tackle the most basic question first—how long does a cat pregnancy actually last?
Pinpointing an exact number can be challenging. “It can be tough to know exactly how long a cat is pregnant for,” says Adam Christman, DVM, veterinarian and co-chief of staff at Brick Town Veterinary Hospital in Ocean County, New Jersey. “The cat gestation period can vary from as short as 61 days to as long as 72 days.” And because cats don’t show symptoms of pregnancy until about three to four weeks into their pregnancy, it can be hard to lock down an exact gestation period.
While every cat pregnancy will last somewhere within that 61- to-72 day range, most normal feline pregnancies will fall somewhere in the middle.
“Cat pregnancy normally lasts between 63 [and] 67 days,” Dr. Christman confirms.
How can you tell if your cat is pregnant?
Some of the most common cat pregnancy symptoms include:
- Darkening of the nipples. One of the earlier signs your cat is pregnant is a darkening of the nipples. “After approximately 15-18 days of a cat pregnancy, you may notice that your pet’s nipples become enlarged and red—this is known as ‘pinking-up,’” says Dr. Christman.
- Vomiting. “Similar to morning sickness in humans, cats may go through a stage of vomiting,” he says. Just make sure the vomiting stays under control—otherwise, it could be a sign of a larger problem. “If [the vomiting] persists more frequently, a trip to the veterinarian is warranted.”
- Weight gain. A pregnant cat is going to gain weight, although perhaps less than you think. “Generally half a pound to one pound, depending on the number of kittens she is carrying,” Dr. Christman tells us. If that weight gain is localized in the stomach, it’s an even bigger indicator that your cat is with kittens. However, don’t be tempted to rub or prod at your cat’s stomach. You could end up hurting mom or the kittens, so avoid your cat’s abdomen.
- Increased appetite. That pregnancy weight gain isn’t just coming from the kittens—it can also come from an increased interest in food. “Queens tend to have an increased appetite later in their pregnancy, which will also contribute towards her weight gain,” Dr. Christman says. Just make sure that your cat’s sudden hunger is actually related to their pregnancy and not indicative of another health issue.
- Increased affection. When a cat is pregnant, all their maternal instincts kick into high gear—and that can translate as an extra affectionate, extra snuggly cat. “Pregnant cats may act more maternal, meaning that she purrs more and seeks extra fuss and attention from her owners,” Christman explains.
What is the timeline of a cat pregnancy?
According to Dr. Christman, the timeline of a cat pregnancy breaks down into three stages:
- Days 0 – 12: Pre-implantation. “This is when the egg is fertilized in the uterine tube. It then travels down the oviduct and enters the uterus, on about the sixth day of development,” says Christman. The placenta starts to form and connects the mother to her kitten.
- Days 12 – 24: Embryogenesis. This is the critical period when all the major organs and systems of the soon-to-be-kittens start to develop. That includes the nervous system, heart, spine, and blood vessels. “All this happens in just two to three days,” says Christman. Afterward, the liver, digestive tract, lungs, limbs, bladder, and even the skull form. “The veterinarian can feel the kittens by abdominal palpation at twenty days after conception,” he adds.
- Days 24 – birth: Fetal growth. This rapid growth cycle is when an embryo transforms into what we know as a kitten—and gets ready to make its entrance into the world. “The organs take on their proper shape, nerves develop, and the hormonal glands begin to function and control the processes,” Dr. Christman says. Around day 35, the kittens have begun to float in capsules of fluid and then aren’t able to be felt again until around day 49, when their heads get large enough to be palpated by veterinarians. A pregnant cat will also exhibit specific physical symptoms as she prepares to give birth. Her breasts will get larger and she may start expressing milky fluid from her nipples, or blood-tinged discharge from her vulva.
How is a cat pregnancy diagnosed?
While you can be on the lookout for signs and symptoms that your cat is pregnant, you’ll need a trip to the vet to confirm for sure.
“Veterinary examinations should be carried out as soon as you suspect your queen is pregnant,” says Dr. Christman. There are a few different ways your vet may confirm your cat’s pregnancy according to WebMD:
- Enlargement and pink color of the teats and mammary glands (from day 18)
- Ultrasound (from day 18)
- Abdominal palpation of the uterus, individual fetuses, and fetal membranes (from 20 to 30 days)
- Ultrasonic detection of placenta and fetal heartbeat (from 30 days)
- X-ray of the abdomen (from 40 days)
It’s also important to check in with your vet to make sure your cat is thriving and hitting all the benchmarks of a healthy pregnancy. Dr. Christmas recommends at least one check-in during a cat’s pregnancy to make sure the mother cat is an appropriate weight, meeting nutritional requirements and overall healthy.
What changes should you make to your cat’s diet during pregnancy?
During her pregnancy, your cat needs food that’s formulated to support growth—or, in other words, kitten food. “Queens should be fed kitten food during the entire pregnancy and while she is nursing her kittens,” says Dr. Christman.
But the biggest change in your cat’s diet during pregnancy will have less to do with what she eats and more to do with how much she eats. “During pregnancy the female cat’s food consumption increases and will reach approximately 1.5 times her level before she was pregnant,” says Dr. Christman. “At the end of the nursing period, her food consumption may exceed twice her pre-pregnancy amount.”
What happens when a cat goes into labor?
So, we’ve covered how to spot a pregnancy in your cat—but how can you tell when she’s ready to go into labor?
The first thing you’ll notice will probably be changes in behavior. Refusing food, acting fidgety, and looking for a spot to hide can all be signs that your cat will go into labor soon. Immediately before birth, your cat might get especially vocal, agitated, and start compulsively cleaning herself, Dr. Christman says.
There are also physical changes your cat will experience. “A cat’s body temperature will drop to around 99 degrees Fahrenheit in the 12-24 hours before her labor starts,” says Dr. Christman. Like humans, cats have strong abdonimanl contractions. They also release a discharge, after which the kittens come quickly.
So, the question becomes—do you let your cat give labor on her own or do you need the vet? Dr. Christman says that most cat labors are seamless, and pet owners won’t need to get involved. However, if you notice your cat straining without any kittens being born, it could be a sign of complication and you should contact your cat’s vet.
Cat pregnancy can be a bit of a mystery. But now that you’ve got the inside scoop on the feline pregnancy cycle, you have everything you need to support your cat through her pregnancy—and as she brings her kittens into the world.