Cats are very efficient at reproducing and are able to have several litters a year with multiple kittens in each. Most cats go through puberty at an early age—somewhere between five and nine months. Females can be fertile for about seven years, while males may be able to reproduce for 11 years or more. The large numbers of feral cats (cats who have returned to a wild existence) demonstrate that in an uncontrolled environment, cats will keep reproducing.Today’s methods of sterilization are surgical and thus are not easily applied to the vast numbers of feral cats.Researchers are working on new methods of feline contraception,including oral medications and even vaccines.These methods will help stop kitty overpopulation in the future.
THE ESTROUS CYCLE
Most females reach puberty around six months of age and cycle every two weeks until they are bred or induced to ovulate.The cycle begins with proestrus, which lasts one to three days.This is the stage when female cats start showing they are ready to mate, but they will not yet
allow males to mount them. Restlessness, increased vocalization, facial rubbing and rolling are the not-so-subtle female signals. Estrus is the period of sexual receptivity that follows.The behaviors that began in proestrus become more apparent,plus the female will now permit copulation. If there are no tomcats and therefore no mating, estrus lasts about 10 to 14 days,then the cat gets a break for 2 to 3 weeks, then estrus returns.Repeated estrus can be annoying for owners,because there is nothing that can be done to calm the cat’s behaviors. It is also stressful for the cat, who cannot control her urges to find a mate. Cats have been known to lose their appetite and sleep poorly during estrus. When a female cat is in estrus,she does not bleed like a dog;rather, she has changes in behavior.The changes can include:
• Increased vocalization
• Rolling on the ground and crying
• Lying on her belly with her rear end pushed up in the air
• Acting more affectionate
• Attempting to escape the house and get outside
• Urinating outside the litter box,often on vertical surfaces
Metestrus occurs the day after estrus ends.During this time females aggressively reject male approaches. Pregnancy follows if fertilization occurred during mating. Anestrus is the quiet part of the estrous cycle. It occurs between periods of estrus and during the late fall,when the seasonally polyestrus cat does not cycle.
Male cats have the ability to be continually sexually active once they have reached puberty.Females,however,are only sexually active when they go through their heat cycles. Female cats will only accept a male mounting them and copulating when they are in heat (estrus). If a female is not in heat, she will not stand still for a male. If she is in heat, she will allow a male to mount her, then, after intromission occurs, she will bite and strike at him to leave her alone. Female cats are induced ovulators, which means the act of copulation stimulates them to release their eggs.They can ovulate more than one egg during each breeding and can be quite unparticular about their partners,
allowing several males to mount them during estrus.This makes it possible for different males to sire different kittens in the same litter.A female may allow four or more breedings (with the same or different males) to occur during a few days of a heat cycle.Intact tomcats are ready to do their duty at all times,but they are not the decision makers.They may attempt to mount females who are not in heat,but they will be rebuffed.As a dominant behavior,some male cats even try to mount other male cats. An average healthy male is usually fertile. Problems with male reproduction may be caused by:
• Lack of libido
• Low sperm counts
• Hair caught around the penis
• Lack of coordination
If someone is trying to breed a male cat, they will most likely put him with an experienced female for the first attempt.Often when two kitty virgins are put together, neither knows what to do and the male can get frustrated and lose interest if he is not successful. Most professional cat breeders keep one or two intact males in their catteries with four or more females.Keeping a tomcat can be a smelly experience, and because one male can breed with several queens (unspayed female cats), fewer males are needed to have a good breeding program. The entire mating process of cats can last a few short minutes and can be repeated several times within a day.Cats do not care who their partners are,and the female could care less about the male after he has done his duty. If you have ever observed cats mating,you’ve likely noticed that it is a rough activity.The tom will mount the female and bite her on the back of the neck.After intromission,the queen will scream,turn around and bite the male until he releases her.
WHEN YOUR CAT IS PREGNANT
If she’s in heat and given the opportunity to be with an intact male, chances are a female cat will get pregnant.The average cat’s gestation period is 63 to 65 days.There are many physical changes a female cat will experience during a pregnancy.
The tom takes no role in raising his kittens,and some toms are even aggressive toward kittens.On the other hand,a queen will be very protective of her babies. You may remember Scarlet,the mother cat who made headlines in 1996.Scarlet entered a burning building five times to save her five kittens,although she was severely burned in the process.A mother cat will also protect her kittens from you.If you are caring for a feral queen,be careful of how much you handle her kittens, because she may reject them. She may also become aggressive with you if you try to handle them in her presence.
Signs of Pregnancy
An inexperienced cat owner may be unaware of the signs of heat.Some cats put on more of a show than others.If you have a cat who has come in and out of heat and suddenly seems to stop cycling, she’s probably pregnant. Cats do not need much special care to maintain a pregnancy.They seem to do fine on their own.Other than allowing a queen to eat what she wants and protecting her from illness and parasites, you can leave the rest to her. Because cats are only pregnant for about nine weeks,things happen fairly quickly.The progression of signs is:
1.Increased appetite and weight gain
2. “Pinking up”of the nipples within two weeks of being bred
3. More rounded appearance of the abdomen
4. Engorgement of the mammary glands
A veterinarian can palpate a female cat’s abdomen and confirm a pregnancy three to four weeks into gestation.The fetuses develop bones at about 54 days,so an X ray at this time can tell how many kittens will be born.An average litter contains three to five kittens, but in reality, litter size can vary a lot.X rays do not damage the fetuses,and they can be useful if you want to know what to expect.Ultrasound is useful for confirming pregnancy as early as two to three weeks,but it is not reliable for determining the number of fetuses.
Can You Terminate Your Cat’s Pregnancy?
Purebred cat breeders know when their females are cycling and try to plan their pregnancies. Ideally, they mate cats who are not too closely
related and try to produce offspring who are healthy and have certain characteristic traits. Owners of pet cats may want their female to have a litter,and they have the right to do so—although again,I suggest that they visit their local animal shelter first and see what happens when there are too many kittens and not enough good homes. Sometimes time just gets away from a cat owner, and his cat is in heat and pregnant before he’s had a chance to have the animal sterilized.What are the options?
Pregnant cats can be safely spayed, but most veterinarians do not like performing the surgery when a cat is close to full term. If you know your cat is in heat and that she got outside, she can be spayed before significant fetal development has occurred. If you are already noticing that the cat’s belly is distended and she looks pregnant, chances are the cat is at least six weeks pregnant.The risks of spaying a pregnant cat are slightly higher than performing the surgery on cat who isn’t pregnant, due largely to blood loss and increased surgery time.However,if you do not want kittens,spaying at this time should be considered.
Currently there are no safe and reliable medications that will terminate a feline pregnancy, and if your queen is bred by an undesirable male, you are out of luck.Drugs are available that will cause the pregnancy to abort, but they can also harm the queen.For the safety of the queen,let her have the kittens if you are set on breeding her again;otherwise,spay her.
Kitty Birth Control
Veterinarians do not prescribe birth control medications for cats because of the risks they carry.There is one drug,however,that is occasionally used by breeders to suppress a female’s heat cycle. Called megesterol acetate, it is a synthetic hormone. Because most hormones have multiple functions,there are possible side effects to any hormone treatment. Cats who receive even small doses of megesterol acetate run the risks of:
• Developing diabetes mellitus
• Developing pyometra,a uterine infection
• Mammary gland enlargement
• Developing mammary cysts
• Mammary cancer
• Decreased fertility
THE BIRTH OF KITTENS
You can expect that a queen will soon be delivering when she shows interest in creating a nest for the kittens to be born.You can express milk from her mammary glands a day or two before she delivers. You can monitor a queen’s rectal temperature twice daily if you are not sure when she will deliver.Twenty-four hours before delivery, the body temperature of most queens drops to about 99°F.
What Happens During Labor?
The length of a queen’s labor depends on whether she has had kittens before and how many kittens she is having.The period from the start of contractions to the end of labor can be minutes,hours or even a day if several breedings were responsible for the litter. You may observe a mucus plug being passed when a cat begins labor.Contractions will follow and kittens will be born.The queen will lick and remove the sac from the kitten;if she does not,the kitten can suffocate and you need to intervene.The queen will then bite off the umbilical cord that connects the kitten to the placenta. When kittens are born, they weigh only a few ounces and are extremely fragile.They are very dependent upon their mother for survival because their eyes are closed,their ears are not completely developed and they can only crawl. The queen may continue her labor and produce more kittens.She will continue to lick and clean the kittens that have been born and gently nudge them toward her nipples so that they can begin nursing. Kittens are able to nurse within an hour of being born. Kittens receive their initial immunity to disease by absorbing antibodies present in their mother’s colostrum. Kittens are only able to absorb the antibodies in colostrum during their first 24 hours of life.It is therefore very important for kittens to nurse from their mothers as soon after birth as possible. The queen may eat the placentas,and as unappetizing as this looks, it is very normal.She may have a vaginal discharge for up to two weeks
after giving birth.The discharge might look like blood or might even be green and mucoid, but it should not look like pus. If it looks like pus,consult your veterinarian. If you have a queen who likes to roam,try to confine her in a room with her kittens so that they aren’t neglected.Also be careful about flea control.If a queen has fleas,they can jump to the kittens and cause lifethreatening anemia.
Unfortunately,kittens can be stillborn.If a kitten is not crying and wiggling after the placenta has been removed,pick her up and try to see if she is alive.You can gently shake her upside down to try to clear any mucus from her mouth and throat. Touch the chest to check for a heartbeat. Check for jaw and muscle tone by opening the mouth and moving the limbs,and if all feels limp,the kitten is probably not alive.
Within a few hours after the kittens are born,you should look them over for any apparent birth defects or you can take them to your veterinarian for an assessment.Things to check:
1.Open the mouth and look for a hole in the roof of the mouth.This is called a cleft palate.
2. Check to see that there are four legs and a tail.
3. Check the umbilical area and make sure a hole is not present at the abdominal wall.
4. Check under the tail and see if there is a rectum and a set of genitalia.
Kittens who are unhealthy at birth generally do not survive.Queens may abandon or cannibalize kittens who are not healthy.
RAISING AN ORPHAN
Mother nature knows best, and kittens who are cared for by their mothers have a better chance of survival than orphan kittens who are raised by humans.If you find kittens who have been abandoned by their mother or have kittens who are not being cared for by their mother,be prepared for a lot of work and possible disappointment.But if all goes well,there are few more rewarding experiences than raising an orphan kitten into a healthy cat.
Newborn kittens need to eat every two to three hours.They have very small stomachs and require small amounts of food regularly. Do not give cow’s milk to a kitten,because it will cause diarrhea and dehydration. You need to use a commercial kitten milk replacer.There are several brands available through veterinarians and pet supply stores.There are also pet nursing
bottles with small nipples.Kitten milk needs to be fed warmed,but not hot—just like the milk you would give to a human baby.
Kittens do not have control over their urination and defecation until they are about four weeks old.From birth until that time,their mother normally stimulates them to eliminate by licking their genitalia. Of course, you don’t have to go this far; you can simulate this action by using a warm, damp washcloth or cotton ball, turning the kitten over, and gently rubbing the genitalia until urine and feces pass.This should be done after each feeding.
Keep Me Safe and Warm
Kittens do not have any body fat to keep themselves insulated.They usually pile on top of each other next to their mom and share her heat. If you have an orphan, you need to keep her warm using a hot water bottle or a heating pad set on low;both should be covered with a towel. Make sure the kitten has a way to crawl off the heating pad or bottle if she becomes too hot. Except when you are handling her, a newborn kitten should be confined in a small box with a towel in an area free from drafts.Because newborns cannot see,it is essential to know where they are at all times to keep them out of trouble. Orphans are weaned in the same manner as kittens raised by their mothers.They can be introduced to a gruel of meat baby food at four weeks of age. Litter box introductions are also recommended at this time. Behavior problems are common in orphaned kittens because they miss out on being trained by another cat. Orphans tend to bite more, be less tolerant of restraint and play roughly.They would not get away with these actions if their mother, siblings or other cats were around. Other cats teach manners and appropriate responses by biting back,reprimanding with their paws and demonstrating by example. Exposing orphans to humans and other cats at a young age helps.Don’t allow an orphan kitten to bite you or play with you in an aggressive manner.It only reinforces bad behavior.