Friday, 24 June 2011
So the day has arrived and kittens are due. But what should you be looking out for? How will you know when the queen has begun serious labour, and what should you do when she has?
As mentioned yesterday, the queen will drop her mucous plug when she is ready to birth. This announces the first stage of labour, and she could remain in this state for 12-24 hours. Not much happens visibly, but her cervix will be dilating in readiness to pass the kittens. She will most likely be over affectionate, either that or ignore everyone completely. They tend to extremes in this period, and it's often one of the first warning signs an owner has if they fail to notice the plug.
Second stage labour is also known as active labour, and for a very good reason, for it is now that the queen begins contractions, and will start to actively push to birth the kittens. It is now that she should be encouraged to enter and stay in the birthing box. Some cats wish to be left alone while others have been known to follow their chosen human from room to room, often with a kitten half born, hanging from them. The cat's wishes should be respected at this time, but rather than leave her, sit back and watch as help may be needed if problems arise.
Experienced queens can produce kittens as quickly as five minutes after contractions begin, but for a maiden, a first-timer, it commonly takes much longer. However, no cat should be allowed to actively push for any time greater than an hour without the production of a kitten. If this happens, a vet visit is in order.
About 40% of kittens are born tail and back legs first. In humans this would be grounds for a C section, but in cats, it's regarded as normal. As birthing begins in earnest, allow the cat to do as much as she can before stepping in. Kittens will be born in a sack, the consistency of which is like very thick egg membrane, you know, the stuff you get right next to the shell? Normally, the mother will begin to lick the kitten's face as soon as it is born, but if she does not do this, human intervension is necessary very quickly. The kitten inside is being deprived of oxygen and will need help to breathe. The sack should be broken with fingers around the baby's nose and mouth. Then the kitten needs to be rubbed vigorously with one of those facecloths we spoke of yesterday. In times gone by, it was suggested to swing the kitten gently to remove fluid from the lungs, but research has shown that this can lead to brain damage. It is now recommended to hold the kitten with its head lower than its body, and stimulate with rubbing in order to encourage the breath.
Each kitten will be born still attached to its placenta. The mother will pass this shortly after the kitten is born. She should chew the umbilical chord herself, but if not, this should be cut about 1 inch from the kitten's body after it has turned blue and blood has stopped flowing. This is normally about three minutes after birth. It is normal, and should even be encouraged, for the mother to eat her placentas. It provides a good source of nutrition for her. As disgusting as you may find it, it is the right thing for her to do. Placentas must be counted, and there should be one per kitten. If she retains one, she will need to visit the vet fairly urgently. Retained placentas rot and cause major, sometimes life-threatening infection. An injection of oxytosin will encourage the placenta to be passed.
If the cat has a large litter, she may tire in between kittens. It is permissible for her to sleep, sometimes for hours at a time between kittens, but only if she does not have any active contractions at the time.
Kittens should only be separated from mum if she is restless, upset or frightened and is in danger of standing on them. Where possible, they should be left with her. A kitten's whole drive once it has been born is to suckle, and when they do this, it stimulates the release of a hormone called oxytosin. Not only does this bring in the milk but it strengthens uterine contractions which means that the rest of the kittens will follow more quickly and easily. Mum will normally be more content with her babies with her, and the kittens will feel secure. They will also be able to maintain their body temperature by using mum's heat to stay warm.
Expect the cat not to use the litter tray for a day or two, and only to leave the nest to eat and drink. In the wild, it is paramount that she avoids detection by predators. Her babies are defenseless and easy pickings. Instinct tells her that the smell of her wee or poo might draw a predator to her, so she will hold them in for as long as possible. It is not a good idea to place the litter tray too close-by until this period has ended as it will potentially stress her to have her smell so strongly in the nest. That being said, some cats take security from this. Again, it's a case of whatever works.
As soon as kittens are born, weigh them, then record this weight in a chart. It is important to monitor the weight gain over the next few weeks, as this will tell you if a particular kitten needs topping up with KMR. If you are forced to hand feed a litter, it will be an exhausting process. Kittens need fed every two hours, and while that doesn't sound like much, weeks of broken sleep are terrible on the body.
Kittens can be handled from day one. Contrary to common misconception, the mother will not reject them simply because they smell of humans. Remember, she knows those humans and their smells, and realises that they pose no threat. Outsiders should not be permitted to handle the newborns as the unfamiliar scent can upset the mother. However, the earlier they are picked up and cuddled by family members, the quicker they will socialise and come to enjoy the contact. Initially, a kitten will scream and cry for its mother as it thinks the human is a predator. Because of this, they should only be handled for short periods. As time progresses, however, they will come to realise that you don't want to eat them for a mid morning snack, and will begin to appreciate that good things happen once you pick them up. Be respectful of the mother. If she comes running as soon as the baby squeaks, handle him near or in the pen so that she can see he is unharmed whilst being able to remain with the rest of the litter for comfort. If you are across the other side of the room and the little one is screaming, when she leaves the litter, they will call for her. This leads to a mum being pulled in two directions, and it will make her take the kitten from you to return it to the nest. This means shorter handling time for you and less socialisation for the kitten. When I handle young kittens, I do so almost under the mother's nose. Many of them will give a comforting lick to the shrieking baby to reassure him that he is not for supper, and while it rarely quiets them, it does indicate that she is happy with the handling.
So, kittens are born and with mum. The hard bit is now over... The harder bit has only just begun. That's all for my week of education, but I hope you've enjoyed what you have read, and perhaps even learned a thing or two. If this helps even one unsure fosterer, breeder, or unfortunate recipient of an oops litter, then I've done my job. I wanted you to see what is happening with Tia at the moment, and what will be happening here when I am unable to write during the birth. I really hope it's given you a window into the workings of a breeding household. Kittening is no simple business! Now all that remains to do is to wait, and it's that which I find the hardest. Will you all wait with me? It'd be nice to have the company!
Tia is due on Monday evening if she carries exactly to term. however, it is not uncommon for cats to birth at 63 days. if so, that's tomorrow! I'll let you know as soon as anything happens!