BREEDING AND REPRODUCTION - The Well Cat Book: The Classic Comprehensive Handbook of Cat Care - Terri McGinnis

The Well Cat Book: The Classic Comprehensive Handbook of Cat Care - Terri McGinnis (1996)

Chapter 5. BREEDING AND REPRODUCTION

Male (tom) and female (queen) cats usually reach puberty between six and twelve months of age, although some are not mature until fifteen months. The actual onset of sexual maturity and the time of first breeding vary greatly with the individual cat because these are influenced by many factors; among them are day length, nutrition, characteristics of the breed, and “psychological” maturity. (Some females have had their first estrus cycle as early as four months or as late as twenty-one months.) In general, male cats mature physically and breed later than female cats. Although a tomcat may be able to produce sperm and copulate as early as four or five months of age, the actual time he first breeds is dependent on attaining a minimum body weight (usually 7 to 8 pounds, 3.3 to 3.6 kg) and on many social factors not associated with physical maturity. A male cat not yet “psychologically mature” and secure in his social position may not breed in spite of the physical ability to do so.

Queens undergo a cyclical physiological rhythm of reproductive function called the estrous cycle. This cycle is divided into four stages: anestrus, proestrus, estrus, and diestrus (formerly called metestrus). Of the four stages, however, only two, anestrus and estrus, are easily differentiated without laboratory tests.

During anestrus the ovaries are quiescent. This period usually lasts three to four months and usually occurs during the fall and early winter (September or October until January or February in the Northern Hemisphere). It may, however, occur any time of the year. The anestrous state can be artifically induced by the ovariohysterectomy or “spaying” operation. Anestrus is followed by proestrus, estrus, and diestrus, which occur sequentially and repeatedly during the spring and summer months. During this period of active sexual cycling (seasonal polyestrus) breeding occurs. The estrus or “heat” period, during which the queen is sexually receptive and breeding will occur, is usually marked by an obvious change of behavior and voice.

SIGNS OF HEAT

The meow becomes lower and very frequent (calling), and the cat usually becomes much more affectionate toward humans, rubbing against them (or against inanimate objects) and rolling. Occasionally the estrus female will lose her appetite or spray urine. Sometimes you may notice increased size of the vulva, but this is extremely variable and is not a reliable sign of heat. If grasped at the nape of the neck with one hand and stroked along the back or genital area with the other, female cats in estrus usually elevate their hindquarters, move their tails to one side, and tread (step up and down) with the hindlegs. These same postures occur when a queen accepts a tom for breeding.

ESTRUS POSTURE

The changes associated with estrus are most easily detected in queens who are kept indoors and not allowed to breed, since the signs may persist up to twenty days (average six to ten days) in the absence of breeding. Cats with free access to the outdoors or to a tom may pass into and out of heat before you recognize it. Cats are induced ovulators (ovulating in response to breeding), and, if bred, signs of estrus soon pass and pregnancy almost always results. The estrus period in females allowed to breed at will usually has a maximum length of four days. During the breeding season female cats will return to signs of heat about every two or three weeks unless bred or artifically stimulated to ovulate. Remember, however, that these time periods are only averages. Each queen has her own normal cycle that, once established, tends to repeat itself.

PREVENTING PREGNANCY

Because the estrous cycle shows a large amount of individual variation and since the onset of heat and breeding can be easily overlooked if your cat has free outdoor access, you must keep an unspayed female indoors and isolated from unneutered male cats to prevent pregnancy. Although several companies are working on products to prevent pregnancy in cats and dogs, there are no reliably safe and effective nonsurgical methods available now to prevent pregnancy in cats. This means that if you choose to live with an unneutered female cat, you must effectively deal with the recurrent behavioral changes that occur during the breeding season if pregnancy is to be prevented. This can be difficult to do, especially if your cat is one of the more vocal and affectionate breeds (e.g., Siamese). Your veterinarian can help you by providing tranquilizers, which may quiet the behavior to some extent, or he or she may be able to artifically induce ovulation, thereby reducing the length of the heat period.

ARTIFICIALLY INDUCED OVULATION

Artifical induction of ovulation is achieved by allowing mating with a vasectomized (sterile) male cat or by stimulation of the vagina with a smooth glass or metal rod or moistened cottontipped swab. A technique using acupressure over the lower spinal area may also work. Such sterile matings produce a state of false pregnancy and can result in a delay of a month or longer before signs of heat occur again. If you desire, your veterinarian can show you the best way to use a rod, cotton swab, or the acupressure technique for sterile mating or may be able to put you in touch with an owner of a male cat that has had the vasectomy surgery. Unless your cat is a female valuable for breeding purposes, however, these methods are usually more trouble than they are worth. The best way currently available for preventing pregnancy and eliminating heat behavior is the ovariohysterectomy or spaying operation.

OVARIOHYSTERECTOMY OR SPAY

Many misconceptions surround the spaying surgery. One of the most prevalent is that the spay will cause a female to become fat and lazy. Not so. As mentioned earlier, this surgery induces a permanent condition comparable to the anestrous state. Cats become fat only if they are using fewer calories than they are eating. Inactivity (laziness) usually accompanies excess weight. Fatness can be caused by metabolic abnormalities (e.g., low thyroid activity), but this is rare. It is most often caused by overfeeding and is not caused by the ovariohysterectomy. Another common misconception is that it is important for a cat to have a litter before being altered (spayed), that having a litter is important to “personality development,” or that it “calms a cat down.” In fact, the heat cycle or process of having a litter has no persistent beneficial effect. Although a female cat often has marked changes of personality during estrus, while pregnant, and when nursing, once the kittens are gone most females return to their usual anestrous personalities.

The best time to perform the ovariohysterectomy is before the first heat. Most veterinarians recommend not earlier than about four to six months of age. The surgery is easiest to perform while the cat is still young (therefore, easier on the cat) and it is usually least expensive for you at this time. It is uncommon for a cat to come into estrus before six months, but it does occur so be aware of your unneutered female’s behavior in case an earlier heat cycle calls for surgery sooner. Some veterinarians and humane organizations have experimented by performing ovariohysterectomies on kittens less than ten weeks of age. Although this practice has not yet been proven harmful, it does subject incompletely vaccinated and physiologically less mature cats to the stress of a major surgical operation. Pet owners should consider these facts when selecting the age at which to spay their females. If you fail to have the surgery performed before heat or breeding occurs, however, don’t worry that you will have to have an unwanted litter. Spaying can be easily performed during heat and can also be done during pregnancy, although it will probably be more expensive than if performed earlier. Although there are individual variations, the procedure for an ovariohysterectomy in most good veterinary hospitals is similar to the following:

Your veterinarian requests that you withhold food from your cat at least eight to twelve hours preceding surgery. This allows time for the stomach to empty, preventing vomiting and aspiration of the vomitus into the trachea and lungs during general anesthesia. Preanesthetic drugs are given to reduce apprehension before surgery and to prepare the body for general anesthesia. Anesthesia is usually induced with a short-acting drug given intravenously. Its effects last just long enough to allow the veterinary surgeon to place an endotracheal tube into the cat’s windpipe (trachea). This airway is the path via which gas anesthetic agents and oxygen are administered to maintain sleep during surgery; it also provides a ready means for resuscitation if any emergency arises.

After the cat is sleeping, the abdomen is clipped free of hair, washed with surgical soap, and disinfected. The cat is then transferred to the surgery area and placed on the operating table belly up. An assistant stands by to monitor anesthesia, breathing, and heart function. The veterinarian, who has been scrubbing his or her hands and donning sterile clothing—cap, mask, and gloves—while the cat is prepared for surgery, steps in and places a sterile drape over the patient before surgery begins.

PREPARED FOR ABDOMINAL SURGERY

ENDOTRACHEAL TUBE

An incision into the abdomen is made at the midline. The length of the incision varies with the size of the cat and the difficulty of the surgery but is usually not more than an inch long. Most veterinarians use a special hooklike instrument to reach into the abdomen and pick up one horn of the uterus where it lies along the body wall. The uterine horn is brought out through the incision and followed to the ovary. Clamps are applied, and the blood supply to the ovary is interrupted by ligatures (ties placed around blood vessels) or metal vascular clips. The ovary is cut away from its blood supply, which is allowed to return to the abdomen. The other uterine horn and ovary are brought to the incision and treated in the same manner. Then the uterine horns are followed to their point of attachment to the body of the uterus. Its blood supply is interrupted by ties or clips and the uterine body itself is ligated. An incision is made through the uterus to free it, and the horns and ovaries are removed. (Turn to Anatomy, if you need to review the structure of the uterus and ovaries.) The inner part of the incision is closed with layers of absorbable suture material or stainless steel; then the skin is sutured (stitched) closed. With modern anesthesia, the cat begins to wake up shortly following the last stitches and is ready to go back to an enclosure for final recovery. Most healthy cats are acting and eating normally one or two days following surgery. In fact, most feel so good that it is often a chore to try to restrict their exercise.

When you take your female home following surgery, it’s a good idea to take her temperature and examine the incision daily even if you are not given specific instructions to do so by your veterinarian. (These are good things to do following any surgery.) Fever and/or swelling, redness, or discharge at the incision site should alert you to call your veterinarian for advice. Normal feeding should resume within forty-eight hours following surgery. Many veterinarians allow you to take your cat home before this time; so if you do, provide meals and water frequently, but in small amounts to avoid stomach upset. Vomiting that occurs more than once or twice, especially if accompanied by inactivity, should again prompt you to call the hospital where the surgery was performed for advice.

TUBAL LIGATION, HYSTERECTOMY

Rarely veterinarians and spay clinics perform tubal ligations (tying of the fallopian tubes so the ova cannot pass into the uterus). This involves the same type of abdominal entry as an ovariohysterectomy and, although it is effective in preventing pregnancy, it has definite disadvantages compared to an ovariohysterectomy. It does not prevent pyometra, and it does not prevent signs of heat. If you are sure you won’t mind living with repeated signs of heat, then you may choose a tubal ligation or, better in terms of health, a hysterectomy (removing the uterus but leaving one or both ovaries). Remember, however, that neither prevents the signs of heat or has a benefial effect against breast cancer. People who choose a hysterectomy or tubal ligation often change their minds a year or two later and request additional surgery to remove the ovaries. Tubal ligation and hysterectomy are not considered standard practice for female neutering in veterinary medicine.

ACCIDENTAL BREEDING

If your cat was bred accidentally, there are alternatives to having an unwanted litter. If you were planning to have your female spayed, as mentioned before, your veterinarian will usually go ahead with the surgery. Usually this is the best and safest step to take. Particularly in the early stages of pregnancy, surgery is not much more difficult than for a female in heat and the fee may be the same. In the later stages of pregnancy the surgery becomes more difficult and the fee usually increases accordingly.

If you have not yet decided on the question of spaying, and if you can get your cat to a veterinarian soon after breeding (within the first twenty-four hours or so, assuming you know your cat has been bred), injections of an estrogenlike compound can be used to prevent pregnancy. The compounds used for this purpose work by preventing implantation of the fertilized ova into their “beds” in the uterine wall. These drugs should be used to prevent pregnancy only if you are unwilling to choose another alternative and are willing to accept possible side effects. Their use in cats is not usually recommended by veterinarians since they may cause uterine changes leading to infection or death of the bone marrow (followed by death of the patient), and most owners cannot be sure when breeding has actually occurred.

Some drugs will induce abortion in cats. Ask your veterinarian for information if you think your cat needs such treatment. A surgical abortion can be performed late in pregnancy if absolutely necessary. Methods similar to those used in humans are not used in cats. Surgical abortions in cats consist of cesarean sections in which the kittens are removed through uterine and abdominal incisions. This procedure usually results in blood loss, is stressful on the female, and is not encouraged by most veterinarians.

MALE BIRTH CONTROL

Castration (removal of the testes) is the traditional method employed for neutering (altering) male cats. Although castration renders a male cat sterile and unable to impregnate a female and is the socially responsible thing to do, the birth control aspect is of minor importance unless other neighborhood males are also neutered. (One roaming tom can impregnate all the unaltered females in a neighborhood.) The prime significance of castration for most owners of male cats is the changes of behavior that follow it.

Breeding, fighting, roaming, and urine spraying are behavioral patterns that are activated when the blood level of testosterone (a hormone secreted by the testes) rises markedly, following sexual maturity. Roaming results in encounters between cats—by nature loners—and fighting often results. The wounds and abscesses that follow are not only extremely stressful for the cat but can also become very expensive when they occur repeatedly and require veterinary treatment. Urine spraying is a kind of scent-marking behavior associated with territorial identification. Both neutered male and female cats may spray, but this behavior is most characteristic of tomcats. The male who is scent marking backs up to the object to be marked, raises his tail to a 45- to 90-degree angle, and as the tail quivers sprays or squirts a small amount of urine onto the vertical surface of the object. Occasionally squat spraying occurs where the urine is deposited on the ground. Although perfectly normal, this behavior is not acceptable to most cat owners when it is performed around the house. Tomcat urine has a strong and objectionable odor that, together with the stains left from spraying, can be difficult to get rid of.

BENEFITS OF CASTRATION

Castration before puberty prevents the development of behavioral patterns most often considered objectionable by owners of male cats. Castration later in life, after roaming, fighting, and/or spraying has developed, often stops objectional behavior within two weeks, although in some instances improvement takes several months. In a few instances (6 to 13%) fighting, roaming, and/or spraying persist and are independent of the age of the cat at castration or time of the onset of behavioral problems. Castration also helps prevent the development of “stud tail”. And castrated males are generally more affectionate and docile. In other words, a castrated cat is usually a much better pet and companion than his unneutered counterpart.

Castration can be performed by your veterinarian as early as six months of age. Many animal population control advocates encourage the surgical neutering of toms by castration before six months of age. Although this effectively prevents breeding, males neutered at this age do not develop the characteristic secondary physical sex characteristics that distinguish mature male cats (e.g., larger heads and bodies and better defined muscles). Their behavior toward people is not adversely affected by early neutering. Should you desire normal male development and if you will be careful to prevent random impregnation of queens by your pet, castration can be delayed until adulthood or until objectionable behaviors develop.

The surgery is simple and should be inexpensive. A short-acting general anesthetic is usually administered intravenously. The hair is plucked from the scrotum. After disinfection, two incisions are made in the scrotal sac, one over each testicle, and the testes are removed through them after the spermatic duct and the blood supply are interrupted. The incisions are allowed to heal as open wounds. Most veterinarians will send your cat home to recover the same day or within twenty-four hours following surgery. It is a good idea to examine the castration site for signs of infection and to take your cat’s temperature daily until the castration wounds are healing well. No special care is necessary later except perhaps to watch your cat’s diet. Although castration does not cause a cat to become fat, the lower daily calorie needs of an altered male may result in obesity if you allow free-choice feeding or overfeed him.

VASECTOMY

Vasectomy, surgical removal of a portion of the vas deferens that conducts the sperm from the testes to the urethra, is rarely performed on male cats. Although vasectomy renders a male cat sterile and unable to impregnate a female, it has no effect on his ability or desire to breed, or on other behavior undesirable in a pet, because it does not remove the source of testosterone—the testes. A vasectomy may be useful to the owner of a purebred cattery who desires to keep a sexually active but sterile male available to bring queens out of heat. But since it has no effect on fighting, roaming, urine spraying, grooming, or docility, it is not desirable for most house pets. Also, vasectomy is a more difficult, and therefore more expensive, operation than castration.

CRYPTORCHIDISM; (RETAINED TESTICLES)

A cryptorchid (“hidden testicle”) cat has only one (unilateral cryptorchidism) or no (bilateral cryptorchidism) testicles descended into the scrotum. Males with these conditions should not be allowed to breed because the defect is usually inherited. The parents and siblings of these male cats should also be removed from the breeding pool as they can carry this genetic trait. Since both testes are normally present in the scrotum at birth or shortly thereafter, if they have not descended by six to eight months of age, you should assume that the condition is permanent. Although retained testicles do not produce sperm, they continue to secrete testosterone and must be removed unless you want your pet to continue to act like a tomcat. As some testicles have a delayed descent, castration is usually delayed until after one year of age. Retained testicles may be more subject to tumor formation, and although this is a rare problem in cats, it is another reason to be sure that retained testicles are removed. To check the testes, see Anatomy.

BREEDING

Before you decide to breed your cat, ask yourself several questions. The first is are you sure you will find good homes for the kittens? Except for the most sought-after purebred cats, permanent good homes are difficult to find. There is an extraordinary excess of cats (and dogs) in this country. More than twenty-seven million cats and dogs are impounded annually and more than seventeen million are killed every year. Most animals entering animal shelters and pounds are killed. These are not just cats who have strayed from home; many are pets that have been taken to the pound by owners who know that they will almost certainly be destroyed. They include cats given as unwanted gifts, cute Christmas kittens who have grown into adults and have lost their cuddly charm, cats bought on impluse from pet shop windows, and whole litters intentionally and unintentionally produced for which homes could not be found. Statistics don’t include those hundreds of animals who die following abandonment or straying before reaching a shelter or pound, or those killed by humans maliciously or when homes for them could not be found. If you are not sure that your kittens won’t end up in a pound or pet shop, and if you are not willing to provide a good home for kittens you can’t place in other homes, do not allow your cat to reproduce.

DECIDING TO BREED

Do you have a good place to keep kittens and are you willing to care for them if the mother can’t? Even the smallest apartment is usually suitable for raising a litter of kittens since a mother and kittens take up little space, and the mother usually cares for them, at least until around four weeks of age when the kittens begin to consume solid food. But what if the female refuses to care for the kittens or is unable to care for them? Are you ready to assume the responsibility and devote many hours of your time? And what if the mother has difficulty at the time of delivery? You must be willing and able to pay veterinary expenses—perhaps for a cesarean delivery—if real difficulties occur.

Why do you want to breed your cat? Almost everyone is awed by birth and hardly anyone can resist the charm of a kitten, but the cat population cannot afford another litter bred solely so that your children or you can watch the birth. If this is the only reason for breeding, it might be best to make arrangements with a dairy, horse farm, or established cattery to watch a birth, or to take advantage of films and books available on animal reproduction. If you are breeding for profit, you will find that it can be a full-time business to produce quality purebred cats, care for them properly, and still make a profit. Many purebred breeders raise cats as a hobby because they know they are likely to break even at best or even take a financial loss. If you are breeding so the female can “have the experience of being a mother” or so she will “calm down” you are being too anthropomorphic and possibly falling prey to old wives’ tales. Cats can’t anticipate the experience of having kittens; a few will even neglect their litters to be with their owners. The fact that breeding has no permanent effect on personality has already been discussed. Until the pet cat population reaches a more manageable size, these fascinating and beautiful creatures will continue to experience mistreatment and neglect. Everyone, purebred breeders and pet owners alike, should think very seriously before deciding to let males or females breed and produce even a single litter.

If you decide that it is reasonable to breed your cat you need additional information. Only outstanding individuals should be selected for breeding. Both temperament and health should be given equal consideration, and if either is lacking, reproduction should not be permitted. In general terms, no animal affected with an heritable disease or whose littermate or parent is affected should be allowed to reproduce. Many physical abnormalities of cats including forms of retinal atrophy, deafness, patellar luxation (kneecap dislocation), head and facial abnormalities, and heart and kidney defects are genetically influenced diseases and can be elimated by appropriate selection of toms and queens. Genetic selection against shy, nervous cats is also possible. Genetically influenced problems cause unnecessary and extraordinary suffering for pets and expense for their owners. For more information on how to avoid them, consult: Foley, C.W., J.F. Lasley, and G.D. Osweiter, Abnormalities of Companion Animals: Analysis of Heritability, lowa State University Press, Ames, lowa, 1979; and Robinson, Roy, Genetics for Cat Breeders, 3rd ed., Pergamon Press, New York, 1991.

BEFORE BREEDING

Before a female is bred, she should be vaccinated against infectious diseases. She should also test negative for feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus. Live vaccines should not be given during pregnancy (killed type can be given to a pregnant animal), but the female should be fully protected before breeding so she can pass on a protective level of antibodies to her kittens in the colostrum (first milk). Take a fecal sample to a veterinarian for examination to be sure that a female to be bred is free from intestinal parasites that compete with her for nutrients. It is best to avoid breeding most queens on the first heat unless they are definitely full grown. Generally, this means waiting until the cat is at least one year old so she won’t have to try to get enough nutrients to meet both her growth requirements and those of pregnancy. No special feeding is necessary before breeding, assuming your cat is already on a balanced diet, but avoid breeding obese females because they will have more difficulties at delivery. If your cat is over five years old at the time you first consider breeding (most unusual for a cat), definitely consider preventing pregnancy. The incidence of difficult births is much higher in animals first delivering in their later years.

BREEDING PROCEDURES

The ideal way to insure that breeding will occur is to take the estrus female to the male’s home and let breeding occur at will. “Emotional” factors play an important role in determining whether or not a male cat will breed. Often breeding will not occur in an environment unfamiliar to the male; therefore, it is best to take the female to the male. If the male must be brought into the female’s home, keep in mind that it may take several days or even several weeks until the male will readily mate, and allow for this when planning breeding schedules. Planning ahead is also important to allow adequate time to test the male cat for parasites and other transmissible diseases before allowing him to meet the queen. To help insure conception, queens should be bred within the first four days of estrus and allowed to copulate at least four times to help insure ovulation. Even when the male feels comfortable and the female is in heat, breeding sometimes will not occur. Female cats in estrus do show preferences for certain males and will sometimes reject one male while readily accepting another. (Males will also occasionally reject estrus queens, but this is uncommon.)

BREEDING BEHAVIOR

When placed together, a receptive female and an interested tom will often sniff one another’s noses, and the female will rub against the male or roll on the ground. The male moves toward the female’s back and grabs the skin at the nape of her neck with his teeth. At this time the female will begin treading with her hindlegs, move her tail to one side, and strongly curve her back downward and her pelvis upward. The male slips over the female’s back and then moves backward until genital contact occurs. This is followed by several strong and rapid pelvic thrusts resulting in intromission, quickly followed by ejaculation. Within five to ten seconds after actual breeding has occurred the female usually emits a loud, sharp cry, and the male rapidly dismounts and springs away to avoid being scratched by the female. The female usually licks her vulva, then rolls and rubs on the ground (the after reaction). If the cats are left together, this series of events may be repeated three to five (or sometimes more) times in an hour.

MATING

The female may lose her receptivity to the male (willingness to breed) as early as twelve hours following mating, but, on the average, ovulation occurs twenty-seven hours following breeding. A return to the nonreceptive state follows ovulation. After breeding, be sure to confine your cat until you are sure receptivity has passed. If another male is accepted and breeding occurs again before all the ova have been fertilized by the desired father, the litter could have more than a single father.

DETERMINING PREGNANCY

The first external sign of pregnancy you may see is a change in nipple color from pale to dark rose pink, and hair loss around the nipple area making them more prominent. These changes appear about three weeks after successful mating. Three or four weeks following conception it is often possible for a veterinarian to feel the fetuses in the uterus through the abdominal wall. At this time they are distinct round lumps in the uterus. Later the fetuses are not so distinct, but usually a veterinarian can still confirm pregnancy by palpation. If necessary, an ultrasound examination can be used to detect kittens at two to three weeks or a blood test can confirm pregnancy as early as six days post breeding. An X-ray picture taken after five and one-half weeks of pregnancy (when the kittens’ bones are ossified) can also be used for confirmation of pregnancy and to determine the number of kittens present.

FALSE PREGNANCY

Following a sterile mating, which occasionally occurs in cats, false pregnancy (pseudopregnancy) may occur. Although signs are not usually marked, milk production may occur, and a rare cat may even make a nest and go through a pseudolabor. False pregnancy usually terminates spontaneously about five weeks after breeding. Hormones and/or prolactin- (lactation-stimulating hormone) inhibiting drugs can be administered by a veterinarian to relieve severe signs of pseudopregnancy. It is best, however, to avoid hormone treatment if possible, since reproduction-modifying drugs have side effects in cats, and following hormone treatment some cats appear to remain in continual estrus or anestrus. Cats with repeated pseudopregnancies should have an ovariohysterectomy to prevent recurrent signs.

CARE DURING PREGNANCY

Pregnancy usually lasts sixty-three to sixty-six days, although some normal pregnancies have lasted as long as seventy-one days. Most queens kitten around sixty-six days. If delivery occurs before sixty-three days many kittens are stillborn or die shortly after birth. Pregnancy increases the protein and calorie requirements of the mother, but if you have been feeding a good quality, well-balanced diet, no major changes in content or calorie supply are necessary during the first two to three weeks.

FEEDING DURING PREGNANCY AND LACTATION

Sources of high-quality proteins, such as milk products, eggs, and muscle meat, can be used to improve the protein content of maintenance foods and to increase their palatability without sacrificing nutritional balance if they are added at no more than 10% of the diet’s dry matter. Kitten milk replacement formulas can also be offered as a supplement to maintenance foods.

After three weeks of pregnancy, well-balanced commercial foods adequately formulated for kitten growth are nutritionally satisfactory for the rest of the pregnancy and for lactation. Good products will provide at least 1,800 to 2,300 calories per pound dry matter (4 to 5 calories per gram fed) and contain at least 30% high-quality protein. The amount of food offered will have to be increased as pregnancy advances. By the end of pregnancy expect to be feeding about twice the volume of food your cat ate before she was bred. Although food intake increases, calorie requirements on a per-pound basis increase only slightly during pregnancy—from a baseline of about 40 to about 50 calories per pound (from 85 to 110 calories per kilogram) body weight per day. It is because the mother is gaining weight due to the growth of the fetuses that her food intake must increase as much as it does. Since it is often impossible for the queen to take in all the necessary food in two meals, particularly as the uterus enlarges and begins to compress the other abdominal organs, you must increase the daily number of meals throughout pregnancy and lactation or offer food on a free-choice basis.

It is not unusual for a queen to partially lose her appetite and perhaps lose a little weight over a few days during the third week of pregnancy, but after that period a steady increase should be evident until twenty-four to forty-eight hours prior to delivery. Ask your veterinarian for advice if you don’t think your queen is eating adequately to maintain a healthy pregnancy. Vitamin and/or mineral supplements are not usually required if the diet you offer is nutritionally sound, but you may also wish to discuss this issue with your veterinarian.

Throughout pregnancy it is extremely important not to overfeed and/or underexercise, to prevent obesity and poor muscle tone that can cause a difficult delivery. Most cats restrict their exercise as the time for delivery approaches. If your cat seems too active during the last week of pregnancy, however, you may have to confine her to certain areas of the house where jumping and running can be prevented.

To minimize psychological stress and to prevent your cat from having her kittens in an undesirable place (like the middle of your bed!), accustom her to a warm and draft-free delivery area well before the time of delivery. If your cat has her own bed, which she prefers, this is all that is really necessary.

MATERNITY BOX

GIVE YOUR CAT A MATERNITY BOX

Otherwise, provide a maternity box (queening box). The best, most simple kind is a cardboard box with an opening cut on the side about four or five inches from the bottom. This design provides a convenient entrance and exit for the mother, but keeps the kittens from falling out. The box should have a top that can be opened or removed to provide access to the kittens when necessary but left in place at other times to provide a dark, secure environment for the queen. Introduce the cat to the box daily, beginning at least a week before delivery and encourage her to sleep in it by lining it with soft clean towels. If you find that she is not interested but attempts to make a nest in a closet or some other area, you may need to place the nest box there to get her to use it. Since newspapers are easy to remove and discard, it is simplest to line the box with several layers of them at the time of delivery. Clean sheets, towels, or diapers, however, are just as satisfactory and may be more pleasing to your cat.

If you have a very long-haired cat, you may wish to gently clip (not shave) the hair away from the vulvar area and the nipples before delivery. It makes delivery a little more tidy and allows the kittens to reach the nipples a little more easily, but is not a necessity.

DELIVERY

A week or two prior to parturition (delivery) some queens may become restless and search for a nesting area. Even if there are no behavioral changes, you will usually be able to detect rapid enlargement of the mammary glands in the week before delivery. Milk (colostrum) can usually be expressed from the nipples within forty-eight hours of delivery. In some cats the rectal temperature drops for a short time around twelve to thirty-six hours before delivery from the normal 101 to 102°F (38.3 to 39.2° C) to as low as 98°F (36.7°C). However, this is not a reliable sign, and it is necessary to watch for others that more accurately signal the impending birth.

Usually a day or two before delivery the queen will lose her appetite, become anxious and more vocal than usual, and begin to shred the materials used for lining the nest box. She may even vomit. As delivery becomes even closer, she usually licks frequently at the abdominal and genital areas. If you have failed to adjust the female to the kindling (kittening) area, your cat may try to nest in your bed, in a closet, or in some other unsuitable spot. Encourage her to remain near the maternity box and stay with her until she becomes comfortable. It is not necessary for the queen to actually be in the box, as mild exercise during the first stages of labor and between kitten deliveries actually helps the process. If she seems particularly distressed about using a designated nest box, however, it is best to let the queen nest where she is most comfortable since emotional stress can inhibit or terminate labor. Queens often move their kittens after delivery, so it is not usually a problem for you to allow them to be delivered in one spot, then move them to a new, more suitable one, once delivery is completed.

During the first stage of labor the female kneads and rearranges the bedding and may even pull hair from her body in her attempt to make a nest. Rapid breathing (sometimes panting) and trembling are often seen, and her pulse rate will increase. Frequent changes of position are made; colostrum may drip from her nipples, and bloodtinged discharge may appear at the vaginal opening. Uterine contractions moving the kitten from the uterine horn to the body of the uterus and the cervix are occurring during this first stage, which may last twelve to twenty-four hours. A long first stage is particularly characteristic of a first pregnancy. If the signs last more than a day, if the vaginal discharge is foul smelling or consists of large quantities of pure blood and/or blood clots, or if your cat seems to pass into the second stage then back to the first, or seems unusually uncomfortable, discuss the matter with your veterinarian before assuming everything is all right.

During the second stage of labor you will see forceful straining movements caused by the simultaneous contractions of the abdominal muscles and the diaphragm. At the beginning of this stage you may see a small amount of straw-colored or greenish fluid passed at the vulva. This is due to the rupture of the allantois-chorion (the protective membrane that covers the kitten) as it passes into the vaginal canal. It may take as long as an hour for a kitten to be delivered once the second stage begins. The female may lie on her side or on her sternum (chest), or she will stand and squat as if she were going to have a bowel movement during the most vigorous portions of straining. The amnion (membranous sac) enclosing the head of the kitten sometimes appears at the vulva. It may, however, be ruptured before the kitten is delivered. Once the head and paws of the kitten appear, complete delivery should be finished within fifteen minutes—if not, call your veterinarian. The nose and feet of the kitten should not appear and disappear each time the female strains. In the classic birth position the kitten is delivered with its sternum on the vaginal floor, nose first and its front paws along the sides of its face. Nearly half of all kittens, however, are delivered rear legs first. This usually causes no problem.

QUEENING (DELIVERY)

As soon as a kitten is delivered, the amniotic sac (amnion) should be broken to allow the kitten to breathe. Cats are normally very good mothers and usually do this immediately, but inexperienced or nervous females may not. If this is the case, you must break the amnion or the kitten will suffocate. However, if the umbilical cord is not broken during delivery, it is not necessary to break it immediately. Significant amounts of blood are found in the placenta, and by allowing the umbilical cord to remain unbroken, you allow time for this blood to pass into the kitten. Normally the mother nips the umbilical cord and breaks it as she cleans and licks the kitten following delivery. If she doesn’t do this after about fifteen minutes, a clean piece of thread or unwaxed dental floss should be tied around the cord about one-half to one inch from the body wall. The cut or break the cord just beyond (distal to) the tie and dip it briefly in povidone-iodine disinfectant solution. If the mother has a tendency to bite the cords very near the kitten’s abdominal wall, you should prevent this and cut the cord yourself, as very short umbilical cords become infected much more often than those of a more usual length.

TYING THE UMBILICAL CORD

PREVENT UMBILICAL INFECTION

If you have a kitten with a short cord prompt treatment with antibiotics given by your veterinarian will usually prevent umbilical cord infection, a common cause of death in young kittens. Examine the umbilical area for evidence of swelling, discoloration, or drainage that may indicate infection. Untreated infections can easily cause death within three days.

Normally, the placenta (afterbirth) is delivered with or just after the kitten. It is a good idea to count the placentas as they are delivered to be sure all are passed. Retained placentas can cause uterine inflammation and infection. It is normal, but unecessary, for the female to eat the placenta following each delivery. It is best to let the queen eat only one or two; the ingestion of too many can cause vomiting and diarrhea.

The time of delivery of the placenta and the period of uterine rest that follows each kitten is the third stage of labor. During the rest period the queen often lies still and tends her kittens. Some queens will get up and move about; this can actually help speed delivery. The rest period between kittens varies from about ten to fifteen minutes to several hours. It is not usually more than one to two hours, however. Average-sized litters for cats range from three to five kittens, but as many as fourteen have been delivered and survived! Average delivery times range from about two to six hours. Normal parturitions, however, may take longer than six hours. Some last up to twenty-four or even thirty-six hours, but deliveries lasting longer than this are considered abnormal even though kittens have survived when delivered over a period of three days.

DIFFICULT DELIVERY (DYSTOCIA)

Difficult deliveries are usually caused either by obstruction of delivery of the fetus, or by uterine inertia (see below). Dystocia must usually be treated with the help of a veterinarian. If any of the stages of labor seem abnormally long, if large amounts of fresh blood and/or blood clots are expelled from the vagina for more than ten minutes, or if your cat shows signs of excessive discomfort or extreme quietness, call your veterinarian.

If you can see a kitten at the vulva, but delivery seems slow or the kitten appears and disappears, you may be able to help delivery. Wash your hands and lubricate a finger with a lubricant such as sterile petrolatum or sterile water-soluble jelly. Insert your finger into the vaginal canal and move it around the kitten, trying to determine where the head and the front and rear legs are. You may be able to hook a front leg in an abnormal backward position and bring it forward. If the kitten seems fairly normally placed (see illustration), grasp him or her with a gauze pad, clean cloth, or your fingers and gently pull with each contraction. It is best to try to grasp the kitten around the shoulders to avoid excessive pressure on the head, and it is best to pull downward because the vagina is angled toward the ground. Do not pull on the amniotic sac surrounding the kitten. If the kitten’s head just seems too big to fit through the vulva, you can sometimes gently manipulate the edges of the vulva around the head. A veterinarian will sometimes make an incision at the upper part of the vulvar opening to enlarge it. It is not advisable to perform this procedure at home unless it is impossible to get veterinary help.

If a retained placenta blocks delivery of a kitten, you can often reach it. Grasp it with a gauze pad or clean cloth and gently but firmly pull until it passes out of the vaginal canal. Once an obstruction to delivery is relieved, a female will often have a prolonged rest period before the next kitten is delivered.

Failure of the uterus to contract efficiently (uterine inertia) may occur following prolonged straining to deliver a kitten or may be a primary problem, as in the case of an obese or older cat. A form of uterine inertia can be caused by excessive excitement, or by other psychological stresses during delivery. This is why it is important to familiarize your cat with the maternity area well before delivery. It is also why strangers should not be present during delivery unless the cat is extremely calm about them. A labor inhibited by psychogenic stresses can often be helped by having only one or two familiar people remain with the cat during delivery. Rarely, tranquilizers will be necessary. If you suspect uterine inertia, call your veterinarian for advice.

If no obstruction to delivery is found, your veterinarian may have to administer a drug called oxytocin to initiate new uterine contractions. Other drugs may be administered as well. If medical therapy does not initiate proper birth or there is some other problem that cannot be relieved with external manipulations, your veterinarian will want to perform a cesarean section—surgery in which the kittens are removed through incisions in the abdomen and uterus. It is usually possible to spay your female at the time of such surgery. Unless the difficult birth is solely attributable to the kittens’ abnormalities it is probably best to have the spaying done. Mothers who have difficult deliveries tend to repeat them. Most queens are able to nurse and care for their kittens normally following cesarean surgery.

KITTENS WHO WON’T BREATHE

SHAKING NEWBORN KITTEN TO CLEAR FLUIDS FROM MOUTH

If the queen doesn’t break the amniotic sac covering the kitten’s head within a minute or two, you should. Then hold the kitten in your hands or wrap in a towel. Support the head so it doesn’t swing freely, then move the whole kitten vigorously in a wide arc from about chest to knee level. At the end of the arc the kitten’s nose should point toward the ground. This helps clear excess fluids from the nose and major airways. Other methods to remove excess fluids are to put your mouth over the kitten’s nose and mouth and suck, or to use an infant ear syringe to suck the fluid from the kitten’s mouth and throat. After clearing the airways, rub the face, chest, and body of the kitten with a rough towel. If the kitten still does not start to breathe and cry, take in a breath of air, place your mouth over the kitten’s nose and mouth, and blow gently until you see the chest expand. Remove your mouth and let the kitten exhale, then repeat. (Using mouth-to-nose and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and/or airway clearing carries some small risk of infection for humans should the kitten be contaminated with certain bacteria.) Shaking and towel drying even healthy kittens is a good idea if the mother is not interested or is too slow, but this is not absolutely necessary.

CARE OF THE FEMALE FOLLOWING DELIVERY

Although for the first two days the queen will stay almost constantly with her kittens, within twenty-four hours of delivery she should leave the nest for short periods of time, move about, and be normally interested in eating and drinking. For cats who do not eat or drink after delivery, those who have fevers or who seem abnormally quiet or inactive, as well as those who seem to neglect their kittens, there should be no delay in arranging for examination by a veterinarian. Problems following delivery are too complex to be treated well at home without veterinary consultation.

Shortly after delivery a brownish-red vulvar discharge may be seen that may become greenish or greenish black. Such discharges should change to clear mucous or cease within one to three weeks following delivery. A profuse red, bloody discharge following delivery or any vulvar discharge that is odorous or looks like pus or seems to be present in abnormally large amounts or for too many days should alert you to take your cat to a veterinarian for a thorough examination. Such abnormal discharges may indicate excessive internal bleeding, retained placenta or kitten, and/or uterine infection.

If all seems well with the mother, little special treatment is necessary. Keep her indoors following delivery. Heat (estrus) often occurs within one to four weeks following delivery, and she may become pregnant while still nursing newborn kittens. Since lactation itself is a great stress and the uterus has not had sufficient time to return to its prepregnancy condition, breeding should not be allowed at this time. Keeping the queen indoors also avoids exposure to diseases that she could catch or carry home to the fragile nursing kittens. Her diet the first few days following delivery can be the same as that just before. As lactation progresses, however, expect her food intake to increase. A rule of thumb to use is to feed the normal maintenance requirement (about 40 calories per pound per day, 85 calories per kilogram) plus 100 to 125 calories per day per pound of kittens (220 to 275 calories per kilogram). And be sure to continue to feed a high-quality, high-protein diet since, as in pregnancy, protein requirements for lactation are higher than normal. By the end of lactation a female may be consuming three to four times as much food as she was prior to breeding; in fact, it is almost impossible to overfeed a nursing queen! But despite all rules of thumb, the best guide to feeding is the appearance of the cat. If she is thin and worn-out looking her diet may need adjustment. Diarrhea in the nursing mother often indicates that a diet inadequate in energy is being fed. Poor-quality high-fiber diets cause the mother to consume large volumes of food in an attempt to meet her nutritional requirements, and diarrhea soon follows. Avoid this problem by offering only good-quality high-protein/high-energy foods to nursing females. Although balanced vitamin-mineral supplements are not required if a proper diet is fed, they are probably most beneficial when used during lactation. Also be sure water is freely available as dehydration will decrease milk production.

The common problems which may affect the female following parturition are infection of the uterus (acute metritis), inflammation of the mammary glands (mastitis), and milk fever (puerperal tetany). These problems are covered.

CARE OF NEWBORNS

It is a rare queen who needs help caring for her kittens following delivery. The most common problem with kittens following delivery is caused by people who are too anxious to handle the kittens, upsetting the mother and causing her to move them from place to place. Since it is not customary for a veterinarian to examine the queen and kittens immediately after delivery (since problems are uncommon and handling may cause psychological upset to the mother), it is wise for a person with whom the queen is familiar to examine the kittens thoroughly within twenty-four hours following delivery to be sure they are free from defects. The sex of each kitten can also be checked at this time. After this, restrict handling of the kittens to about fifteen minutes per day until their eyes are open and they are moving about freely. Some handling is both physically and psychologically beneficial to kittens, but too much is stressful. A normal litter is quiet, and the kittens sleep most of the time they are not nursing. Most kittens weigh between 3 to 3.7 ounces (90 to 110 g) at birth. Each kitten should gain a minimum of 7 to 10% of his or her birth weight each day following birth. Normally the birth weight will double in about ten days. Kittens who fail to gain weight, or cry and squirm continuously, should alert you to look for signs of neglect or illness, such as weakness, inability to nurse, diarrhea, or lowered body temperature. If you find these or other signs of illness or defect, have the litter examined by a veterinarian, since treating young kittens is difficult.

First-time mothers may not have much milk during the initial twenty-four hours following delivery. The first milk is colostrum, which is rich in antibodies to help protect kittens from illness during the first few weeks of life. If at all possible, the kittens should suckle the first milk soon after birth, since they are best able to absorb these special proteins through their intestines for only the first twenty-four hours. Only small amounts are necessary, so don’t be alarmed unless the mother’s milk supply continues to seem small after the first twenty-four hours. (Test this by looking at the fullness of the mammary glands and squeezing a nipple with a milking action, from near the body to the nipple tip, with your fingers. It should be easy to express a few drops of milk.) Kittens use their sense of smell to locate the nipples, so don’t wash the mother’s breast area just before or just after delivery.

CARING FOR ORPHANED KITTENS

Cats who ignore or actively reject their litters should be examined by a veterinarian, who can sometimes solve the problem by prescribing tranquilizers. Rejection must be eliminated or the kittens will be unable to nurse, since the mother actively initiates the nursing process during the first two to three weeks of the kittens’ lives. In some of these instances, however, nothing helps. In such cases and at times when there is insufficient milk, or if the mother dies, you must take her place. If it has not been possible for the kittens to suckle the colostrum, contact your veterinarian for advice on their immunization.

Then assume care of the kittens or foster them to another nursing mother. (Nursing cats readily accept new kittens.) Try to cross-foster orphan or rejected kittens onto mothers with kittens the same age and size or supervise nursing to be sure all are getting sufficient milk.

Kittens who must be separated from a mother must be kept in an environment free from drafts because they have difficulty controlling their body temperatures. A kitten’s temperature may normally be as low as 98.6°F (36°C) at birth, increasing to 100°F (37.5°C) by seven days and it must be maintained for proper nursing to occur. From birth to about five days of age, the room or box temperature should be 85 to 90°F (29.4 to 32.2°C); from about five to twenty days, about 80°F (26.7°C). After twenty days the environmental temperature should be lowered gradually to somewhere between 70° (21.1°C) and 75°F(23.9°C) by the fourth week. Humidity of around 60% helps prevent dehydration.

The best way to provide the proper temperature for orphan kittens if you don’t have a incubator is to use a heating pad. Water-circulating pads prevent burns, which may occur when electric pads are used. Hang the heating pad down one side of the box and onto about one fourth of the bottom. Then adjust the temperature control to maintain the proper air temperature. By covering only part of the floor of the box, you allow the kitten to get away from the heat if necessary. For kittens less than seven days of age, place the pad only on the side of the box, since their reflexes are not sufficiently developed to permit them to move if they are becoming overheated by the pad. The heating pad and box bottom should be covered with newspaper, cloth, or diapers that are changed each time they become soiled. Although newborns cannot stand or walk, they move with a swimming motion. The floor covering should provide firm footing to help them move and to avoid splaying of the legs, which can interfere with the normal development of walking.

Many authorities recommend that each kitten be kept in a separate compartment until two or three weeks of age to keep them from sucking each other’s ears, tails, feet, and genitals, but if they are allowed to suckle sufficiently at each nursing period, you will probably find that this is not necessary and can thereby avoid this unnatural rearing practice. Research has shown that kittens handled daily are more emotionally stable and resistant to stress. This does not mean, however, that children should handle them without supervision or that they should be handled by strangers (who can carry disease). Handling while feeding is sufficient for kittens less than three weeks old.

NORMAL DEVELOPMENT

Expect the dried umbilical cord to fall off a normal kitten two to three days following birth. Although kittens are blind, vision is present when the eyes open around seven to ten days of age (range of two to fifteen days). The eyes are normally blue-gray when they first open and change to the normal adult color by four to six weeks of age. Newborn kittens can hear even though the ear canals are closed. The ear canals open at about two weeks of age. Kittens can normally support their weight on the front legs between one and two weeks of age and begin walking just after two weeks. They cannot retract their claws until about three weeks after birth and they are not steady on their feet until they are four weeks old. By five to six weeks they are running, jumping, and climbing. Use the illustration to help you sex kittens.

SEXING KITTENS

FEEDING ORPHAN KITTENS

Orphan kittens should be fed the formula that most closely approaches the composition of normal queen’s milk. Although you can get by with home formulas made from cow’s milk, cat’s milk is very high in protein (about 60% more on a dry-matter basis than cow’s milk, about five times as much as human milk) and comparatively high in fat, and commercial formulas designed for cats (e.g., KMR® and other kitten milk replacers) come much closer to the real thing. These commercial formulas are usually available in pet stores and from some veterinarians, but if they aren’t, you can use similar formulas designed for puppies that are usually readily available. Commercial orphan kitten formulas can be used to supplement-feed large litters as well. The best way to determine how much formula each kitten needs is to weigh the kitten and use a table of calorie requirements. The required amount of formula is then divided into three portions fed at eight-hour intervals unless the kitten is very small. Kittens weighing less than 4 ounces will probably do better with feedings spaced at six-hour intervals.

CALORIES NEEDED PER POUND BODY WEIGHT

CALORIES NEEDED PER KG BODY WEIGHT

WEEK

190

418

1

125

275

2-5

100

220

5-10

(Example: A 4-ounce [120 g] kitten needs ¼ X 190 = 47.5 calories per day during the first week of life [0.12 kg X 418 = 50 calories]. This is about 1.6 ounces of formula [48 ml], a little over 3 tablespoonfuls, containing 30 calories per ounce.)

If you supply the proper caloric requirements you do not need to feed most kittens more than three times a day. However, if the kitten cannot take in the required volume at three feedings, the number of feedings must be increased. At each feeding the kitten should eat until just comfortably full—not until the abdomen is tight and distended. A steady weight gain (about ¼ to ⅓ pound, 100 to 150 grams per week) and a normal stool are indicators that the kitten is being fed properly.

HOME FORMULAS FOR TEMPORARY FEEDING OF ORPHAN KITTENS

4 oz (120 ml) whole milk

1 egg yolk (15 g)

1 drop multiple infant vitamins

About 30 calories per ounce (30 ml)

16 oz (480 ml) whole cow’s milk

1 tsp (5 ml) corn syrup

1 egg yolk (15 g)

pinch table salt

About 30 calories per ounce (30 ml)

All formula is best fed after being warmed to body temperature (about 100°F, 37.8°C). Keep all unused formula refrigerated and all equipment used scrupulously clean to avoid introducing infection. To sterilize feeding equipment, immerse it for fifteen minutes in boiling water. Formula can be administered with an eyedropper, syringe, nursing bottle, or stomach tube. A small syringe or eyedropper is easiest for inexperienced hands. If a nursing bottle is used, the holes in the nipple should be enlarged if the formula does not drip slowly from the nipple when the full bottle is inverted. Be sure the nipple size is suitable for the size of kitten you are trying to nurse. Kittens need to be fed with a special pet nursing bottle or a doll’s bottle. Hold the kitten on his or her stomach. Gently separate the kitten’s lips with your fingers and slip the nipple in. A healthy, hungry kitten will usually suck vigorously after tasting the milk. Use a towel to give the kitten something to push and knead against as if nursing naturally.

KITTEN NURSING FROM BOTTLE

FEEDING A KITTEN WITH A SYRINGE

Weak kittens may have to be held vertically and formula placed slowly in their mouths. Do not place a kitten on his or her back for feeding or squirt liquid rapidly into the mouth. These methods can cause aspiration of the fluid into the lungs, which will be followed by pneumonia. If you wish to use a stomach tube for feeding (the fastest method), ask your veterinarian for a demonstration.

After each feeding the kittens should be stimulated to urinate and defecate. Moisten a cotton swab, tissue, or soft cloth with warm water and gently but vigorously massage the anogenital area. Nursing kittens’ stools are normally firm (not hard) and yellow. If diarrhea develops, the first thing to do is dilute the formula by about half by the addition of boiled water. If this does not help within twenty-four hours, consult a veterinarian. Cow’s milk often causes diarrhea because of its high lactose content.

WEANING

Between the ages of three and four weeks you can start to wean most kittens. Solid foods containing meat should be a part of kittens’ diets as soon as possible to prevent iron deficiency. Place a shallow pan of formula on the floor of their box. Change it as needed to keep the food fresh, but leave it out most of the time so the kittens have plenty of opportunity to eat. At first the kittens will step and fall into it and make a general mess, but soon they will be lapping at it. When this stage is reached meat or egg yolk baby food, or commercial cat food can be added to make a gruel. After they are eating the gruel, the amount of formula can be decreased until they are eating solid food and drinking water. Eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt, and meat may be added to their diet as they become adjusted to eating solid food. However, it is best to encourage the consumption of complete, balanced commercial growth foods to avoid developing preferences for nutritionally incomplete food and to avoid causing nutritional deficiencies. Kittens with a natural mother should be allowed to continue nursing during the weaning process until they are eating well-balanced meals of solid food on their own. Although disease-preventing antibodies found in mother’s milk cannot be absorbed into the kitten’s system, they provide local protection (passive local immunity) in the gastrointestinal tract. Gradual weaning, then, is very desirable to allow time for the kitten’s immune system to mature. All changes in feeding should be made gradually to avoid causing digestive upsets.

By five weeks of age the kittens have most of their baby teeth, so that a mother will usually become more and more reluctant to nurse. As the kittens increase their intake of solid food, the mother will gradually restrict nursing time so that weaning can be completed between six and eight weeks of age. Weaning may be achieved this normal, gradual way. But if there is an actual weaning day, offer the queen water but no food, or feed only a small portion of the maintenance diet on that day. Over the following five days gradually increase food back to the normal maintenance level. This procedure helps decrease her milk production.

If milk production does not seem to decrease rapidly enough and the female seems uncomfortable, do not remove milk from the glands. This will only prolong the problem. Cold packs applied to the mammary glands may help. If the problem is severe, consult a veterinarian for help as lactation-inhibiting drugs can be administered in cases of extreme discomfort.

UMBILICAL HERNIAS AND OTHER CONGENITAL DEFECTS

Serious birth defects are uncommon in mixed breed kittens, but each member of the litter whether purebred or not should be examined soon after birth and watched as he or she develops to detect any which may be present. Problems to look for soon after birth because they may need veterinary intervention include cleft patate (hole in the hard palate that makes nursing difficult or impossible), imperforate anus (anus sealed closed by skin preventing stool passage), and umbilical hernia.

A hernia is a protrusion of a part of the body or of an organ through an abnormal opening in the surrounding tissues. In an umbilical hernia a portion of fat or internal organs protrude through an incompletely closed umbilical ring. Most umbilical hernias are present at birth, but some may be acquired if the mother chews the umbilical cord too short, leaves the placentas attached too long, or through other careless handling of the cord and/or placenta. Congenital umbilical hernias in kittens are usually small, often get smaller as the kitten ages, and usually do not require surgical repair. If your kittens have large umbilical hernias or hernias you can push into the abdomen with your finger, consult your veterinarian about the necessity of repair.

Heart defects are sometimes present at birth and are sometimes the cause of ruting (smaller-than-average-size kittens). Kittens with such defects who survive until weaning are usually diagnosed abnormal by a veterinarian at their first physical exam.

Problems that are noticed after the first three weeks of age usually consist of abnormalities in the development of walking. Incoordination may result when kittens are infected with the panleukopenia virus while still in the uterus. There are, however, many other causes of locomotor difficulties. If you notice any, a veterinarian should be consulted.

NEONATAL CONJUNCTIVITIS

(OPHTHALMIA NEONATORUM)

Signs of infection of the conjunctiva are often seen about the time kittens begin to open their eyes (around seven to ten days). Sticky yellow discharges are present that often seal the eyelids shut until you or the mother cat cleans them, and soon after being cleaned away they return. In some instances the infection is so severe that the lids do not open and severe damage to the eye itself occurs. This type of infectious conjunctivitis of kittens is caused by various bacteria and bacterialike organisms that are thought to be acquired from the mother while the kittens are still in the uterus or soon after birth.

If you notice signs of conjunctivitis in your kittens or if their eyes do not open on schedule, early treatment is important to avoid permanent damage to the eyes. The best procedure is to take the whole litter to your veterinarian who can tell you whether actual eye damage is present or likely to occur. If the infection is simple he or she will provide you with an appropriate antibiotic ointment that you will be instructed to instill into the eyes several times a day after removing the discharges.

Until the kittens can be examined by a veterinarian, home care consists of gently wiping away accumulated discharges with a soft cloth, tissue, or cotton ball moistened with warm water. Follow this by gentle separation of the eyelids and removal of discharges that have become trapped behind them.

For more information on breeding and reproduction in cats, see: Pederson, Neils C., Feline Husbandry, American Veterinary Publications, Inc., Goleta, Calif., 1991.