Pregnant cats are usually more than capable of taking care of themselves, although they need close attention and monitoring during labour. If you have any concerns, consult your vet as soon as possible. If you are an inexperienced breeder, then read up on what to expect during labour and delivery, and chat to your vet beforehand so you are prepared.
Leading up to the birth
During your cat's last two weeks of pregnancy, make sure she is kept away from other pets and children, particularly other cats to avoid transmission of certain infectious diseases. Try to keep her as calm and inactive as possible during this time, and try to get her accustomed to the maternity bed. Remember she may reject your soft bed for the corner of a cupboard, so ensure she has some choice on where to give birth and never try to move her from her chosen spot.
Make the maternity bed irresistible! You can create one out of a cardboard box at least 2 feet x 3 feet and about 1½ feet high. Preferably, the box will have a top, or high enough sides to help keep the new-born kittens warm and safe, plus a hole in one side that is large enough for mum to crawl in and out of. It must be large enough for mum to comfortably lie down. Place a few inches of shredded newspaper in the bottom of the box and cover with a blanket or old shirt. Finally, make sure to place the box in a warm and quiet place. She may re-arrange your bedding to her own preference!
Ensure the area the cat will have her kittens is warm enough (around 22°C), quiet and undisturbed.
It's best to try to get your cat accustomed to this special bed, as well as the room or area she will raise the kittens, so she is familiar with it and comfortable in this environment.
It is important to observe the birth so that you can step in if there are problems, especially for first-time mums. However, too much interference will slow labour and upset the cat. Generally, everything will go smoothly, so try to observe without intervening unless absolutely necessary; contact your vet if you have any concerns. Limit the number of spectators; although the family may want to be involved, this may upset the mum.
Labour has three stages. The first stage can pass without you noticing but the cervix and uterus are preparing for delivery. Contractions are occurring but may not be visible from outside. During this stage the mum (queen) will become very restless, pace as if she is looking for something, and become very vocal. She may also make many unproductive trips to the litterbox, but hopefully will settle into her maternity bed. If she is not well accustomed to her bed, or prefers another location, she may choose another suitable spot. Don't move her or make her use the maternity bed if she doesn't want to. It's always safer to let her give birth where she chooses. She may also start experiencing a vaginal discharge.
Stage two of labour is the birth of the kittens and this can last a variable amount of time from 2 hours to 24 hours. During this time you should prepare for the birth by getting a bowl of warm water, clean towels and cloths, dental floss, disposable gloves and petroleum jelly together. Always have the cat carrier handy, as well as the vet's phone number.
Some kittens will be born head first (like human babies), but others will appear feet first and this is quite normal. Kittens normally come at 30-45 minute intervals, sometimes over an hour. Stand and watch at a safe distance, and only intervene if absolutely necessary: if, for example, you see her straining excessively without producing a kitten, there is a bloody discharge, or she passes kittens in very quick succession with no time to clean them/break the amniotic sacs. See article 'Things to look out for during labour' for information on when to call the vet.
Once a kitten is born, the mother will break the amniotic sac (thin membrane around each kitten containing fluid). If not, you may need to help tear the sac using a towel (never a sharp object), so the kitten can breathe. The membrane is easily broken. If you need to do this then also rub the kitten gently and clean his/her mouth with a towel to stimulate breathing.
After each birth, only some mothers will eat the placenta but all should still clean every kitten carefully. If she fails to remove the membranes from the kittens' faces, you will have to step in. Gently clean the mouth and nose, then quickly dry the kitten against the grain of the hair using a clean cloth or towel (facecloths work well because they're big enough to cover the kitten but won't get in your way). Finally, firm rubbing with a warm cloth will dry and warm the kitten, and also stimulate it to take its first breath.
Mum will also normally bite through the umbilical cord, but your help will be needed again if she doesn't. With clean hands or wearing disposable gloves, tie dental floss around the cord about 2 inches away from the kitten's body, tie again a further inch away from the kitten and cut the umbilical cord between the ties. Don't cut it too close to the kitten, as this may cause infection or even death. Do not leave long ends on the thread in case it is chewed or swallowed by the mother. If you notice the mother trying to chew too close to the kitten, stop her and do it yourself. The stump of the umbilical cord should also be dipped in a tincture of iodine or chlorhexidine (obtained from your vet). If you are unfamiliar with these practices then consult your vet before the birth to make sure you are happy with what to do.
Stage three is the passage of the placentas and in cats this occurs after each kitten. Ideally count the number of placentas the cat passes to ensure this is the same as the number of kittens. Although some twins can share placentas this will give some idea to the vet regarding retained placentas.
After the birth
The entire delivery generally takes between 2 and 5 hours, but can last up to 24 hours. If you notice the mum having trouble giving birth at any time, contact your vet immediately to discuss the next step. If your cat appears to be straining unproductively for an hour or more during the birth, contact your vet. (See article 'Spotting the signs of pregnancy').
Litters are usually of between four and six kittens, although litters of just one or two can occur. Once all the kittens are born, let your cat have time to clean and feed her kittens. Do not handle them unless this is necessary for their health. If mum doesn't seem to be taking care of her kittens, is not cleaning them or is not feeding them, then consult your vet immediately.