The first thing to do as the end of the pregnancy approaches is to identify a quiet place for the cat to have her kittens, then change your mind once you've found the perfect spot, settling instead for the most inconvenient or awkward to get to place in the house, as no doubt, the queen will choose here. To be fair, many of them will settle where you've decided, especially with a little coaxing.
At the very least, a cardboard box should be placed in the spot that cat and owner have compromised on. This is normally sufficient for an oops litter, but if a person is breeding, it is more common to place a kittening box or pen here instead. This structure contains mum and babies securely and also serves to keep other cats out of the nesting place, something which mum is normally grateful for. Line the box with soft towels, but allow mum to arrange these to her own liking, i.e, try not to neaten them once she's pulled them around with her nesting.
Cats prefer dark, cave-like areas to birth in. In the wild, they seek out thick clumps of bushes or similar accommodation. To simulate this, cover the pen. Mine is draped in a sheet, then covered with towels with only the front left unobstructed. This enables an anxious mum to feel secure whilst in the nest, but to keep an eye on her bonded human which settles her anxiety.
Whether you're using a pen or a box, it's important to ensure that mum has a way out but the kittens do not. Babies crawl erratically with no clear idea of where they are going, and if they travel too far, they will not manage to find their way back to mum. A kitten cannot regulate its own body temperature for the first few weeks. In the first days it is blind and deaf. It finds mum by smell and through the vibrations of her purr, so if it travels too far, it has little chance of making it back. Not only will it grow hungry, but it is also at risk of fatal chilling. The tops of kittening pens can be left open to allow mum to jump in and out. Boxes can have openings cut in them high enough that kittens will not crawl over the top. If given free access, the queen can continue to interact with other members of the household, but be aware that this will permit other cats entry. If the queen is very stressed by this, it is often better to close the pen and give her solitude.
Providing a secure area is not enough however. As the birth approaches, certain equipment should be bought, gathered and stored in a kittening bag to have ready to hand when labour begins. Some people only store the bear minimum; towels, scissors and that's about it. I would not kitten with such a small kit, but many do, and some are successful. However, I will list what I carry and tell you what each thing is for.
- human incontinence pads: These are far better than towels, as they actively soak up the mess produced during labour. These are layered in the birthing box. As kittens are born, soiled layers are peeled away to allow mum and babies always to lie on a clean area.
- Small box: This is used if kittens need to be separated from the mother. It contains them safely.
- Heating pad:A hot water bottle also works, but ensure it is no hotter than body temperature. Remember that kittens cannot maintain their body temperature. This is to keep them warm if separated from the mother during birthing.
- Rough facecloths: These are for stimulating limp or lifeless babies. Rough ones are good for rubbing, as they simulate the action of a mother's tongue. They can mean the difference between life and death.
- KMR, syringes and soft teats: KMR stands for kitten milk replacer. Syringes and teats are used along with KMR if the mother's milk fails to come in, or if she rejects her kittens and refuses to feed them. Hand rearing is very difficult and has a high mortality rate for kittens, so should only be a consideration if all attempts to encourage the mother to suckle them have failed.
- Scales: These must weigh in 1g intervals, and are used to keep track of kittens. Babies should be weighed at the same time every day for the sake of consistency, as weights vary dramatically. A kitten should gain between 7-10 grams a day and should have just about doubled its birth weight in the first week of life. More weight gain is good, but less will mean that the kitten needs topping up (supplemental feeding with KMR) to keep him on track.
- Iodine: This is to dab the end of the umbilical chords once they have been cut. It prevents any infection.
- Sterile scissors. They are used to cut the chord, although it is better to do this with fingernails. A more ragged end leads to quicker healing.
- Baby sterilizing tablets: These are used to keep syringes and teats clean. Kittens should be treated as though they were babies when it comes to infection control, as they are just as prone to illness.
- Nutri drops: A high glucose, high calory liquid. Nutri drops can be given to a struggling mother or a very week kitten. They provide the burst of energy need to push out another baby or to latch on for that all important suckle.
- Various homeopathic remedies: Secale and Caulophyllum to increase contractions in the case of a queen who is having difficulties with labour. Pulsatilla to keep contractions coming at regular intervals. Urtica to bring in the milk if she produces nothing. Carbo Veg to revive blue or still-born kittens. Arnica to ease the bruising experienced during labour.
- Baby wipes: For cleaning up mum once she's done. This is not necessary, but she is usually so tired by that point that she will appreciate the help.
As you can see, it's quite an extensive kit, but as you can also see, a lot of it is quite necessary if you wish to ensure a safe delivery for mum and babies.
Next, you need to speak to other members of the household about the birth itself. Select who will attend carefully. Now is not the time to invite friends, family and neighbors round to watch, as this will stress the labouring mum. Limit this to those who live in the house, and/or a mentor, and experienced person who has agreed to come and help you with the first birth. This source of knowledge can be invaluable, as problems may arise that only they know the solution to. A mentor should be sought as soon as pregnancy is confirmed.
Be aware that still births are quite common during kittening. Think carefully about whether you wish children to see this. Watching the miracle of new life being born is an incredible experience, but to watch it die, sometimes in your very hands, is one to break the heart of even the toughest person. It may be too much for a child to deal with emotionally. It may also be difficult for a small child to remain quiet and calm throughout labour, as it can take quite a long time to complete.
Watch the mother for signs that her time is approaching. In the week leading up to the birth, she will begin nesting behavior; pawing at carpet, seeking dark, quiet places to rest. She will also self-groom much more. In the last few days, her belly will drop and kitten movement will lessen. They are tightly packed at this stage, and there is little room for acrobatics. As her body lines them up in readiness for the birth, that space becomes even more limited.
About 12-24 hours before the birth, the mother's temperature will also drop from 102 to below 100 degrees. This is a sure sign that birth is imminent. You may also notice a small plug of mucous on her fur or on your floor. This is quite normal. It is the vaginal plug, and signifies the first stage of labour has begun.
Tomorrow I will talk about the birth itself; how to know when second stage labour is beginning, what to do when it does, when to call the vet and what to do once kittens are born.