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Understanding common problems during feline pregnancy, queening and lactation

Although most cats deliver their litter without the need for assistance, problems do occasionally arise which require the attention of a Vet. Always seek veterinary advice if any of the following occur:

  • Twenty minutes of intense labor occurs without a kitten being delivered.

  • Ten minutes of intense labor occurs when a kitten or a fluid-filled bubble is visible in the birth canal, but not progressing at all.

  • The mother experiences sudden depression or marked lethargy.

  • Elevation of body temperature exceeds 103oF (39.4oC).

  • Fresh blood discharges from the vagina for more than 10 minutes.

Difficulty delivering (dystocia) may be managed with or without surgery. The condition of the mother, size of the litter, and size of the kittens are factors considered when deciding whether surgery is required or not.

  • Queening is the process of giving birth in cats

  • Lactation is the secretion of milk from the mammary glands, the process of providing that milk to the young, and the period of time that a mother lactates to feed her young.

Problems during pregnancy

Eclampsia (“Milk Fever”)

The depletion of calcium in the blood stream can result in eclampsia, a life-threatening disease, which can sometimes occur during the last stages of pregnancy. A calcium supplement can help prevent this potential problem if used judiciously in cats that are at high risk. You should discuss any supplements that you wish to use during your cat’s pregnancy with your vet before you introduce them to your cat.

Symptoms of Eclampsia:

  • Behavioural symptoms include restlessness, pacing, panting, and irritability.

  • Physical symptoms may include drooling, stiffness in gait, loss of coordination, and pain on walking,

  • Final stages of eclampsia include muscle spasms and seizure-like activity.

Eclampsia is a veterinary emergency, and the cat should be seen by a veterinarian at the first signs of symptoms.

Problems during Queening

Queening is term used to describe the process of giving birth in cats.

Premature delivery

Occasionally, a mother will deliver a litter several days premature. The kittens may be small, thin, and have little or no hair. It is possible for them to survive, but they require an enormous amount of care, since they are subject to chilling and are frequently very weak and unable to swallow. Some may be able to nurse but are often so weak that they must be held next to the mother. Kittens that do not nurse can be fed with a small syringe, bottle, or stomach tube (stomach tubing should only be attempted under veterinary instruction and/or supervision). The equipment and instructions for these procedures are available from your veterinarian. Premature kittens must be kept warm. The mother can provide sufficient radiant heat from her body if she will stay close to them. If she refuses, heat can be provided with a heat lamp, heating pad, or hot water bottle. Excessive heat can be just as harmful as chilling, so any form of artificial heat must be controlled.

Stillborn kitten

It is not uncommon for one or two kittens in a litter to be stillborn. Sometimes, a stillborn kitten will disrupt labour, resulting in dystocia, at other times the dead kitten will be born normally. Although there is always a cause for this occurrence, it is often not easily determined without an autopsy which is only recommended in special circumstances.

Dystocia

Dystocia is most commonly seen in cats with extremes of head shape, particularly Persian and Siamese cats. When dystocia is diagnosed, it is important to differentiate between a fetal and maternal dystocia in order to proceed with the correct therapeutic measures. Fetal dystocias are caused by oversized or badly positioned fetuses in the uterus or birth canal. Maternal dystocia is caused when the queen is unable to pass normal sized kittens.

Fetal dystocia can usually be corrected if the kitten can be palpated by applying lubricant, and allowing the queen to continue with parturition. If the kitten cannot be palpated, it is best to radiograph (X-ray) the queen to determine the kittens' position and relative size. Very small litters tend to have larger, oversized kittens that cause dystocia. In these cases, caesarean section is the preferred method to correct the dystocia since excessive manipulation or use of instruments may harm the kittens and queen.

Maternal dystocia is most commonly caused by uterine inertia. Uterine inertia occurs when the birth process has exhausted the uterine muscles making contractions impossible or non-rhythmic. It can also occur when the uterine muscles have insufficient stimulation from the hormone oxytocin. Uterine inertia can often be treated successfully by administration of oxytocin.

Problems during Lactation

Mastitis

Mastitis (inflammation of the mammary gland) occurs when the lactating queen’s mammary glands becomes inflamed, blocked or infected. Mastitis can affect a single gland or multiple glands. It is a medical emergency & requires immediate veterinary attention.

Signs of mastitis include:

  • Pain, heat & swelling of the affected gland(s)

  • Fever

  • The milk may be bloody, yellow or thick

  • The queen may refuse to let her kittens nurse from the affected gland

  • The queen may become depressed, lose her appetite & become dehydrated

  • The queen may be lethargic

  • Sick or dying kittens

This can affect the kittens receiving their required amount of colostrums. Colostrum is a form of milk produced by the mammary glands of mammals in late pregnancy and the few days after giving birth. Colostrum is high in carbohydrates, protein, and antibodies and low in fat, providing the newborn kittens with the mother’s immunity to diseases and helping the kittens to pass their first stools. If the queen is unable to nurse, the kittens will need to be hand fed with a milk replacer containing colostrum.

Treatment depends on the severity of the condition, your vet will probably administer a broad spectrum antibiotic to the queen until results of the bacterial culture are back in and then a more appropriate antibiotic will be given.