Common Kitten Birth Complications

While less than one percent of kitten births involve complications, those few problems can be fatal and may require intervention to save the mother or kittens. Understanding the natural and expected course of a cat pregnancy will help an observer recognize when the mother needs help, either during the pregnancy or with kittening.

The Feline Birthing Process

The average feline pregnancy lasts approximately 8-9 weeks. A few days before delivery, the mother will become restless, more vocal, and seek a safe nesting place for the kittening process. Once contractions begin, delivery of the first kitten will usually begin within an hour. The time between each kitten's birth should be less than an hour and may be as little as 10 minutes. Occasionally, a cat may deliver a few kittens, then wait 24 hours to deliver the remaining ones. Litters range from one to eight kittens with three to four being the average.

As each kitten travels through the birth canal, it sloughs off the amniotic sac surrounding it. After each birth, the mother licks off the remainder of the sac. Her licking around the nose and mouth also stimulates the kitten to begin breathing on its own. The mother also chews off the umbilical cord.

Potential Complications

While complications surrounding feline pregnancy or the kittening process are rare, they can be fatal. The following are some common conditions to watch for.

  • Vaginal bleeding before the due date- May indicate spontaneous abortion or the impending birth of premature kittens.
  • Dystochia- The mother has contractions for more than an hour with no delivery. The mother may have aborted or the kitten may be stuck in the birth canal.
  • Kitten stuck in birth canal- This may occur because the mother's uterus is too small or too weak, because the mother has an infection or is too fatigued, or because the kitten has died. If a kitten is in the canal for more than 15 minutes, the pressure on the umbilical cord can fatally deprive it of oxygen.
  • Kittens birthed too close together- This may cause the mother to fail to properly wash each kitten so that its breathing passages are not cleared, and it dies. Gently wash the kittens with a soft damp cloth to help the mother.
  • Placental problems- The mother may fail to cut off the placenta or may cut it too close to the abdomen, leading to a hole requiring surgery. The mother may also retain the placenta herself, which can lead to an infection called metritis, resulting in weight loss and neglect of her newborns.
  • Incompatible antibodies- Most cats have type A blood, but if the mother has type B and her kitten type A, the antibodies in the mother's milk may harmfully destroy the kitten's red blood cells.

Conditions that compromise the pregnant cat's health can also be transmitted in utero and harm the developing or newborn kittens. Anemia from fleas is a leading cause of death in young kittens. Birth defects like cerebellar hypoplasia, which cause tremors and wobbling, can result if the pregnant mother has distemper or has received a distemper vaccine while pregnant. If any of the above conditions, or other signs of illness, are apparent or suspected in a pregnant feline or during the birthing process, veterinary assistance should be sought immediately to protect the health of the mother and the kittens. If a vet cannot be reached in time, an emergency vet can guide you through ways to help, such as extracting a kitten stuck in the canal or cutting off the placenta. While most feline pregnancies will be smooth, it is best to be prepared.