By Helen Anne Travis
With millions of cats in shelters around the country, veterinarians are quick to recommend you spay or neuter any furry additions to your family, but for some pet parents, especially those who adopt a stray female, it’s not always easy to get kitty to the vet before she goes into heat and sometimes she may already be pregnant before you take her in.
Learn more about your cat’s reproductive cycle, and how to take of her at each stage of the process, below.
When Do Cats Go Into Heat?
Cats become sexually mature around six months of age. Just like humans, this timing will vary from cat to cat; some late bloomers may not hit puberty until they are almost a year old. But unlike female humans, who cycle at regular intervals, nature tells feral cats when to come into heat, said Dr. Rachel Barrack of Animal Acupuncture in New York City.
A cat’s hormone cycle is activated when the animal is sexually stimulated or when the sun is out for approximately ten hours during the day (in most of North America, this occurs between March and September). An indoor female cat that is under artificial light 24 hours a day, however, can go into heat at any time.
There are several stages to the cat’s heat cycle. What we consider “in heat,” when a cat can become pregnant, lasts about ten days to two weeks. During this period, a cat will become restless, hungry and may appear more affectionate than usual. They’ll often tell you they’re in heat by screaming and howling to get the attention of Toms, or male cats. If your cat is indeed in heat, keep her indoors at all times so that she doesn’t attract any suitors and make arrangements to have her spayed. Spaying her will not only help keep the pet population in check, it will also reducing her chances of getting some reproductive cancers.
“As a vet, I cannot advocate enough the importance of spaying or neutering,” Barrack said. “You’re helping your cat live a healthier and less stressful life.”
My Cat’s Pregnant, What Do I Do?
Un-spayed cats that become pregnant can have up to two litters per year. Their pregnancy lasts about nine weeks and they typically give birth to between four and six kittens. You’ll know your cat is pregnant if her nipples suddenly appear darker and enlarged (which happens around week three of pregnancy). You can also tell by her size, as even an overweight cat will gain a noticeable amount of weight during pregnancy, Barrack said.
As soon as you notice that your cat is pregnant, bring her to a veterinarian right away to ensure she and her kittens-to-be are healthy. Your doctor may recommend an X-ray or ultrasound and will also propose a treatment plan for your queen (pregnant cat). At home, you’ll want to minimize stress, make sure your cat has plenty of food and water and let her rest. As she comes closer to giving birth, she may exhibit nesting behavior by stealing dirty laundry, towels and other soft items she finds around the home to create a comfy birthing area.
The amount of time it takes a cat to deliver her kittens will vary depending on the size and number of kittens; however, it should not take more than a few hours for your cat to birth her litter. Your veterinarian may recommend you bring your cat to the office for her delivery, but if she has her kittens at home, give her plenty of space and monitor her progress but for the most part let her be. Unless there is a long gap in between kittens, or a baby appears stuck in the birthing canal, your queen should be able to handle the birth on her own.