A Guide to Mother Cat Behavior

A mother cat, or queen, may display a range of behavioral changes throughout the stages of pregnancy and while giving birth and rearing her kittens. Although some behavior shifts may seem confusing or troubling, most are natural and important to the health and safety of the mother cat and her offspring. Understanding the characteristics of typical queen behavior, including the motivations of certain actions, can help you make informed decisions regarding the care of your mother cat. It's also important to recognize signs of uncommon queen behavior that can indicate the need for professional medical attention.

Pregnant Mother Cats

Female cats begin displaying signs of pregnancy around three weeks after mating. The gestation period usually lasts from 60 to 67 days. During this time, you may notice several significant changes in your cat’s behavior, like:

  • An end to her heat cycle, resulting in her stopping head rubbing, genital licking, spraying and howling
  • Increased affectionate and loving behavior
  • Increased appetite and sleeping

Although most cat pregnancies are relatively trouble-free, occasional complications such as spontaneous abortion, severe calcium deficiencies or fetus resorption can occur. Immediate medical attention may be required when a pregnant cat experiences symptoms like sudden appetite or weight loss, severe lethargy, lack of coordination and depression.

Mother Cats Giving Birth

Around the final two weeks of pregnancy, a mother cat might show nesting behavior. Before queening, or giving birth, she will seek out an isolated, quiet and dark place to have her kittens. You may want to provide a large box with dry paper, towels or blankets in the location she seems to prefer.  

About 24 to 48 hours before labor, a queen can lose her appetite or appear anxious or sleepy. During the first stages of labor, she will demonstrate common behaviors like:

  • Meowing and panting
  • Shifting the bedding in her nest
  • Licking her perineal area or mammaries
  • Frequent visits to the litter box

Kittens will begin arriving about an hour after a mother cat begins labor. The queen will forcefully lick each kitten after it is born. This crucial step helps remove the kitten’s fluid-filled amniotic sac, allowing it to breathe. It also helps stimulate respiration and circulation. The mother will also chew off each kitten’s umbilical cord. In rare instances where a queen does not remove the amniotic sac or umbilical cord, human intervention may be necessary. However, most animal medical professionals recommend allowing a mother cat to complete much of the birthing process on her own. This encourages the natural bonding between queen and kitten.

Mother Cats Raising Kittens

A queen will care for her kittens intensively during the first three weeks of their lives. During this time, she may appear even more territorial, nervous or aggressive than usual. This behavior is part of her instinct to protect her young. Some queens even move their kittens from the nest and hide them in different locations. This common activity results from a mother’s need to keep her kittens safe from prey. It is also seen more commonly in first-time mother cats. For the health and well-being of the mother and her young, owners should avoid handling the kittens as much as possible during the first few weeks after their birth.