When dogs give birth, they call it whelping. For horses, the term is foaling and for cows it’s calving. But when a cat gets pregnant, veterinarians and breeders use the term queening to refer to the process of feline birth.
Of course they do: An expectant cat — the queen herself — wouldn’t have it any other way.
But how long does the queen reign? How long are cats pregnant? How can you tell if your cat is pregnant — and for that matter, how can you tell how far along they are? Here’s what you need to know.
Cat Gestation Period
Cats get pregnant when they’re in estrus, or in heat — in other words, when they’re fertile and ready to reproduce. Although cats typically aren't sexually mature until they’re about six months old, some cats could have their first heat in as little as four months of age.
Unless they’re spayed or get pregnant, they’ll go through their cycle every two or three weeks, but typically only during months with longer daylight hours (which has an impact on their hormone levels). In the Northern Hemisphere, that’s generally from February to October. Cats don’t go through menopause as we know it, either: Unless they’re spayed, a female cat can go into heat well into old age.
But once they do get pregnant, the typical gestation period lasts for about nine weeks, although as with some human mothers, babies can come early or late and still be perfectly healthy.
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How to Tell If Your Cat is Pregnant
Cats go through a lot of the same symptoms as humans when they’re pregnant. Increased appetite and sudden weight gain over a few weeks is a common clue — although if your cat is already a chonk, it may be hard to tell. Cats do get morning sickness from hormonal changes, so if they’re vomiting (or vomiting more than usual, given that we're talking about cats here), that’s another classic sign.
You can also check their tummies: Once pregnant, a cat’s nipples will look swollen and take on a pink or reddish appearance. Many owners also report personality changes, too. If your normally standoffish queen is suddenly more affectionate towards you, that, coupled with any of these other signs, are pretty good hints that there’s a litter in your future.
If you do think your cat is pregnant, call the vet sooner rather than later. They can confirm that your queen is expecting and will be a critical partner in helping your cat (and you) through the process.
How Far Along is My Cat?
Judging how long your cat has been pregnant can sometimes be tricky even for the experts. Not every cat shows every symptom at exactly the same time. But as a rule of thumb, you may see nipple discoloration as early as two weeks from the time of conception. Size changes, especially an enlarged belly, can be noticeable on a normal-weight cat in about three weeks. If you track when your queen is in heat, that’s another helpful way to gauge how long they’ve been pregnant.
But for most owners who haven’t gone through a cat pregnancy before, by the time you notice any signs, it’s likely that your cat has been pregnant for a month or so, which means they’re already at the halfway mark. That’s another good reason to get to the vet. They can do an ultrasound or X-ray and give you a professional opinion on how far along your cat is. From there you can use any of a number of online pet pregnancy calculators to help you count down the days until the big event.
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Stages of Cat Labor
Cat labor depends on a few variables, including how many kittens the mom has to deliver. The average time can vary from a few hours to even a couple of days. Cats go through three stages of labor.
In the first stage, your mommy cat begins nesting and contractions will start as its body prepares for delivery. If your cat is in this stage for longer than 24 hours, check in with your vet.
The second stage involves the actual delivery of kittens. At this point, you’ll be able to see contractions and your cat will be visibly straining to deliver her litter (especially if it’s her first one). It can take as little as a few minutes to as much as an hour for mom to deliver each kitten. If your cat has been straining for more than an hour without producing a kitten, call your vet.
After a kitten arrives, mom will go into a third stage of labor, which typically involves expelling the placenta of each new arrival, resting a bit, and then going back to stage two to deliver the next kitten. At any point in cat labor, you may need to step in and help your queen, so be sure to talk with your vet beforehand to get a handle on what you need to know and what supplies you should have on hand.
How Many Kittens Can a Cat Have?
Litter size can vary depending on the queen’s age and general health. Four kittens is often given as the average, but eight is not at all uncommon. If it’s her first litter, most cats typically only have two or three, or sometimes just one kitten. The biggest recorded litter for a domestic cat, according to Guinness World Records, is 19 (although four were stillborn), set by a British kitty in 1970.
Not that your queen — or anyone else’s — should try to set any records. As the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been telling us for years, the world already has plenty of felines in need of families: More than 3 million cats end up in shelters every year, and roughly a half-million of them are euthanized. Which is why the ASPCA and most vets recommend spaying (or neutering for male cats) unless there’s a compelling medical reason not to. Your cat will never be a queen after that procedure — but don't worry: She’ll still expect you to treat her like royalty.
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