Category: reproductive-problems-cats

Rearing orphan kittens

Hand rearing a kitten or kittens can be an extremely rewarding experience but it is not a job to be taken on lightly. The task ahead is difficult, exhausting and there is no guarantee of success. However hard you try, you are a poor substitute for a kitten’s natural mother and despite the best efforts of human volunteers the death rate among orphaned kittens is often high.

There are many different situations when kittens may need human help to survive. The mother may have died or she may be unable to feed her kittens. For example, if they have been born by caesarean section, the mother cat’s breasts may not be ready to produce milk, or she may have mastitis or some other disease which dries up her milk supply.

Sometimes there are just too many kittens and the mother may be unable to give them all enough milk. In this case hand feeding some or all the kittens for a while may give the mother a chance to regain her strength. It may be the kitten that has the problem, kittens with an infection may not feed naturally and some extra help may be needed until they recover.

Occasionally a mother cat will abandon one or more kittens in the litter. The kitten may look perfectly normal but the chances are that it has some serious defect which would prevent it from living a full and active life. Letting it die may seem cruel but it is nature’s way and in these situations it may be kinder to ask your vet to put the kitten to sleep.

Sometimes people find a litter of kittens belonging to a stray cat. It is wrong to assume that they have been abandoned – the mother is probably out hunting or she may even be watching from a nearby hiding place. In this situation leave the kittens where they are and walk some distance away. If you do not see the mother cat return, ask your veterinary surgeon for advice.

If a foster mum can be found then this is ideal as the kittens will be brought up naturally. A foster mum could be a queen that has lost her own litter or only has a few kittens. If you have a very large litter the mother may be unable to feed all the kittens and supplementary feeding should be carried out although the kittens can be left with their mother at other times.

New kittens should be introduced very carefully to a potential foster mother, The foster mum is more likely to accept them if they smell of her. This can be achieved by letting the kittens cuddle up on a piece of bedding that the foster mum has been sleeping on. Do not wash the bedding first as you want the scent to rub onto the kittens. After a short time the foster mum can be introduced. The introduction must be closely supervised to ensure the foster mum accepts the kittens and doesn’t harm them.

It is not uncommon for hand reared cats to react aggressively to their owners when they are older. No-one is sure why this happens but it may be to do with the cat’s inability to deal with frustration. A queen weaning her kittens will divert them from sucking to eating prey and refocus their needs in this way. A human ‘mother’ may not be so successful at the behavioural aspects of weaning and the kitten reacts aggressively when it does not get its own way. Unfortunately, it is common for hand reared kittens, when adult, to be euthanased because of severe behavioural problems.

If the mother is dead or cannot cope, then the next best option is to find another female cat to act as foster mother. If that is not possible then it is up to you. There are a number of things that you will need – a warm, dry, clean box, a supply of dried milk specially formulated for kittens (commercial baby formula or cows milk do not have the right balance of nutrients), and equipment for feeding and cleaning the kittens. Your check list will include:

  • An incubator or a box with a heating pad, infra red lamp or (at a pinch) a hot water bottle.
  • Bedding (a synthetic fur ‘Vet bed’ is best, old towels will do if they are clean and warm).
  • Milk formula, e.g. Cimicat or Whiskas Instant Milk Substitute which are designed for kittens (both available from veterinary practices); Lactol is also suitable for kittens but not species specific. In an emergency a home-made milk of 9 parts full cream cow’s milk and 1 part vegetable oil can be fed until a milk formula is available. Plain cow’s milk and human formula milks are not suitable and should not be given.
  • A special feeding bottle designed for kittens or in the first week a 1ml syringe with a teat attachment.
  • Sterilising fluid, e.g. “Milton” baby sterilising fluid
  • Cotton wool
  • Thermometers, e.g. one sold for horticulture for measuring air temperature in the kittens’ box. Another thermometer to measure the temperature of the milk prior to feeding is also needed.
  • Accurate weighing scales, e.g. cooking scales or letter weighing scales.

A warm dry box is vital because, for the first ten days of life, kittens are unable to regulate their own body temperature by shivering. They can easily die from being too cold or even from being too hot. The heating pad (or other heat source) should be covered to prevent the kittens burning themselves.

In the first week the ideal temperature is 29°C to 32°C and can go down gradually to about 21°C by the age of six weeks. If a kitten becomes too cold it should be warmed up gently. Beware – rapid heating can be equally dangerous. A room thermometer should be placed among the kittens.

A newborn kitten needs about 2ml or half a teaspoon of milk every two hours throughout the day and night. It will need feeding regularly for the first 14 days but as it gets older it can take larger and less frequent feeds. Special formula milks are available from your veterinary practice and you should seek advice on their use. It is essential to make up and use formula milk according to the manufacturers’ instructions. Signs of under nutrition include failing to put on weight, crying and inactivity, however over feeding can be just as dangerous. It is important to increase the volume given as the kittens get bigger.

Kittens should increase in bodyweight by 5-10% per day for the first two weeks of life (after the first day – it is normal for them to lose weight in the first day of life). Failure to grow at this rate may indicate underfeeding or ill health.

It is helpful to weigh each kitten every day and to keep a growth chart so you can see that all the kittens are growing well. They should be weighed at the same time of day, e.g. just before a certain feed and you certainly need to take into account whether the kitten’s stomach and bladder are full or empty at the time of weighing. You may need to mark the kittens in some way in order to be able to identify each individual. Carefully clipping a little fur from a part of the body and carefully recording this may be helpful.

Milk substitute should be made up fresh for each feed and warmed to 38°C (body temperature) before feeding.

It is very important that you feed kittens very slowly, keeping their heads up to allow them to swallow. If you give milk too fast it might go down the wrong way (into the air passages) which could lead to pneumonia and death. A veterinary nurse will be pleased to show you how to feed the kittens initially.

For the first week of life it is often easier to feed the kittens using a syringe with a teat attached. Nursing bottles can be purchased in pet shops and through your vets – these are not recommended until the kitten has a good sucking reflex but are safer for inexperienced carers. A proper kitten bottle is the best way of delivering the milk safely. If you try to use a spoon, a syringe or a dropper there is a risk that milk will spill into the kitten’s lungs which can cause pneumonia.

If you are trying to save a weak kitten it is safer to feed it using a stomach tube rather then giving milk via the mouth. This should not be attempted by an untrained person and involves passing a suitably sized tube through the mouth, down the throat and into the stomach. Milk is then placed into a syringe and injected down the tube into the stomach.

Frequency of feeding

Kittens should be fed every 2 hours up to the age of 3 weeks. At this time you can decrease the feeding to every 3 hours, increasing the amounts given at each feed.

At 4 weeks solid kitten food can be introduced. Kittens tend to play in the food to start with so feeding with milk substitute should continue every 3 hours until 5 weeks of age. By this time the kittens should successfully be eating kitten food and milk substitute can be provided in a shallow dish along with fresh water. Weaning should have been completed by 6-7 weeks of age.


Colostrum is a special kind of milk that contains antibodies to protect the kitten during the first few weeks of life. Kittens that have inadequate colostrums are less likely to survive. Colostrum only works if ingested in the first 12 hours after birth. After this time the kitten’s stomach and intestine change so that they digest the antibodies rather than allowing them to be absorbed intact as is necessary. Also, after the first 12 hours, the mother begins to stop producing colostrum and switches over to producing normal milk.

So, if at all possible, try to obtain colostrum and get this into each kitten in its first 12 hours after birth.

The special milk that a mother cat produces in the first day after giving birth (called colostrum) is important in giving the kittens resistance to disease. Clearly, many hand reared kittens will not have had a chance to take in this milk. Special care should therefore be taken to avoid infection – you should wash your hands before and after handling each kitten and all equipment should be sterilised after use. Equipment should be sterilized and stored without rinsing, then rinsed thoroughly just prior to use. As well as not being good for the kitten if ingested, the sterilising fluid may put them off feeding if they can taste it.

Initially, kittens will be unable to empty their bowels or bladder without stimulation. After each feed the bottom (around the anus and penis) should be rubbed gently with warm, damp cotton wool. The normal bowel motions are yellow and the consistency of toothpaste. If the kitten has diarrhoea or has not passed a stool for 24 hours it could be seriously ill. Contact your vet urgently because a sick kitten can die very quickly.

Weigh your kittens each day and keep records of their rate of growth. Normally they should be ready to begin taking some solid food at around 3-4 weeks, although some kittens may take longer. At first put some milk formula on your finger or in a shallow saucer to encourage the kitten to lap. Mix in some solid food into the milk and gradually increase the amounts. Aim to complete weaning by 5-6 weeks of age.

Pyometra (‘pyo’ or womb infection)

Pyometra is a common disease in un-neutered female cats and dogs that requires major surgery to cure. Though potentially very serious, many animals respond well to the treatment and can expect to make a full recovery. The best way to protect your female pet against pyometra is to have her neutered.

Pyo = pus, infection; metra = womb or uterus. Pyometra is a serious infection of the womb resulting in the accumulation of infective fluid (pus) within the cavity of this organ. It is usually seen in older, female cats who have not been neutered.

Pyometra may be classified as open or closed. In open pyometra, a common sign is a discharge from the vagina. This discharge may be bloody or yellow or cream coloured. In closed pyometra, no discharge to the exterior occurs.

If the pus does not drain out though the vagina, your cat may become very sick and develop toxaemia (blood poisoning). The presence of this poison in the body has serious effects on other body organs and systems and can lead to life-threatening conditions such as kidney failure. Untreated, pyometra can cause death from dehydration, toxaemia and kidney failure.

A less common problem, stump pyometra, occurs in females who have been spayed (neutered), but in which a small remnant of womb remains within the body and becomes infected. Because only a small amount of womb is present, signs tend to be less severe, but this condition also needs treated to prevent complications.

Each time a female has a season (usually about twice a year) she undergoes all the hormonal changes associated with pregnancy – whether she is pregnant or not. The changes in the womb that occur with each cycle make infection more likely with age.

Infection is usually caused by a very common organism called E. coli. The disease often occurs in the weeks or months following a heat or season period. Injections with some hormones to stop seasons or for treatment of other conditions can also increase the risk of pyometra developing.

Pyometra is obviously only seen in females (since males do not have a womb). It is more common in older females (above 6 years of age). The signs usually develop around 6 weeks after the female has finished bleeding from her last season.

Early signs of pyometra may not be very obvious. You might notice that your pet is just licking her back end more than usual. She may be off colour and off her food. Often she will be very thirsty and because she is drinking so much may start to wet in the house. Sometimes the pus escapes from the womb and a reddish-brown or yellow discharge may be seen at the vulva. As she gets more ill she may start to vomit, become very depressed and unwilling to get out of her bed.

Symptoms are likely to worsen over a period of days to several weeks. If untreated signs progress to dehydration, collapse and death from toxic shock.

Your vet will probably suspect what is wrong with your pet from your description of the symptoms although they may want to do some other tests to confirm the diagnosis and also to make sure that your pet is well enough to withstand an operation. Blood tests may be taken to see if the toxins from the infection have entered the blood and could be affecting organs elsewhere. X-ray and ultrasound examinations may be undertaken to confirm that the uterus is enlarged.

Once the diagnosis has been confirmed your pet should have an operation to remove her womb as soon as possible. This is the same operation as carried out to routinely spay or neuter a female cat or dog, however in a sick animal suffering from pyometra it carries much more risk.

The risk of not operating is even higher; most animals will die if surgery is not performed. If the womb is not removed, toxins are released from the infection which get into her blood and make her more and more ill. Eventually these toxins can cause kidney failure.

Before performing the operation your vet may want to give your pet some fluids (into her vein) and antibiotic treatment. Surgery might be delayed for 12-24 hours to give your vet time to get your pet into a better condition to tolerate the surgery. She may need to stay in hospital after surgery for continued treatment.

Very occasionally cats have been treated with special hormone injections to empty the womb without having to perform an operation. However, this treatment is only considered in valuable breeding females and is often not successful.

In very old animals with pyometra and clear evidence of organ failure (e.g. kidney and liver failure), or where other major problems such as serious heart disease exist, euthanasia may be the kindest option.

Pyometra is a serious disease and unfortunately a proportion of patients will not pull through despite treatment, owing to organ failure and complications. Overall, many cats do recover remarkably well and it is certainly well worth pursuing treatment.

If your pet recovers from the operation then there is a good chance she will return to her former health. In fact many owners report that after the operation their cat is better than she had been for a long time before. It may be that the infection had been building up for a long time before the animal became really ill.

The only way to be sure your pet won’t develop this condition is to have her neutered. If you are not intending to have kittens from her then she should be neutered at as young an age as possible. Not only does this remove all the complications associated with the reproductive cycle but, if a female is neutered before her first season, she is also protected against breast cancer developing in later life. Ask your vet for details about the best time to have your pet neutered.

Although pyometra may be more common in females that are not neutered and have never had kittens, it is not exclusively a disease of these animals. Breeding does not guarantee protection and indiscriminate breeding of pet cats is not to be encouraged.

Breeding from your cat

A female cat (queen) can produce several litters of kittens every year throughout her life. If you don’t want the responsibility of finding good homes for the kittens you should have your queen neutered. Keeping an un-neutered queen indoors is not a good answer to the problem. A calling queen will keep you and your neighbours awake and will do her best to escape at every opportunity. There is also a risk of infection developing in your cat’s uterus (pyometra) if she is neither neutered or bred from, and cancer of the mammary gland (breast cancer) is more common in un-neutered cats. If you decide to breed from your cat there are various things to consider to make sure that both mother and kittens are strong and healthy.

Any un-neutered female cat that is allowed out of doors will find her own mate but you may wish to have some say in this choice, particularly if your cat is a pedigree! Certain breeds such as Siamese and Persians are more likely to have problems in giving birth, so get advice from an experienced breeder. It is also a good idea to join the relevant cat club for your breed. A breeder should be able to suggest a stud cat that is known to produce healthy offspring.

Before being allowed to mate, your queen should be treated for worms, have received her routine vaccinations, and have blood tests for Feline Leukaemia Virus and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. Ask the owner of the stud cat for proof that he has been tested for these viruses and is up to date with his vaccinations.

If you let your cat out she will probably be mated before you know she is calling, but it is better not to allow your cat to have kittens until she is fully grown. Some cats are sexually mature at an early age and can, if held back for too long, lose condition.

If your cat calls persistently when you do not think she is big enough to mate, consult your veterinary surgeon for advice. Your cat can have a hormone injection or tablets to prevent pregnancy before she is fully grown, but this may affect her future fertility and is not recommended by vets except in exceptional circumstances.

Most queens will have regular seasons throughout the year, apart from the winter months (November to February) – the process is controlled by day length and the cat’s general physical condition. Some breeds, especially Siamese and Burmese, will come into season at any time of the year.

Most queens will be in season (cycle) for between three and ten days and if they do not become pregnant will return to season about four weeks later. This varies between individuals and the oriental breeds, in particular, may cycle more frequently.

A queen in season will become more noisy and affectionate than usual. She will roll around on the floor and raise her hind quarters in the air, when her back is stroked. Sometimes the noise and unusual behaviour is mistakenly thought to be due to pain.

Queens are usually taken to the stud cat to be mated around the second day of their week long season. At other times she will probably be unreceptive and could fight with the stud cat. The queen should be introduced to the stud cat with caution. Mating is short and surprisingly violent – the tomcat grips the queen by the scruff of the neck as she lies on the floor with her rear raised and after mating she will hiss, roll around the floor and attack the stud unless he leaps out of the way.

The release of eggs from the ovaries (ovulation) occurs only after mating and several matings over three or four day period may be required. On returning home your queen may still be sexually receptive. As the queen is capable of having a mixed litter of kittens sired by several tomcats keep her indoors for a few days.

Most pregnancies in the cat last between 63 and 68 days but it can be between 60 and 70. Your vet will be able to confirm pregnancy about three weeks after mating. During pregnancy and especially when feeding her kittens, the queen will need more food than normal.

During pregnancy the behaviour of some queens will change. She may demand more attention or become more independent. When her time is near the queen will look for a suitable place to give birth. Line a cardboard box with newspaper or old towels and put it somewhere warm and quiet.

Problems in giving birth are much less common in cats than in women and queens usually do not need human assistance. However, occasionally there may be problems if the mother’s birth canal is too narrow, she is exhausted after a long labour or the muscles of the womb being unprepared to eject the kittens. Sometimes a kitten is abnormally large, has some other defect or it is badly positioned in the womb. These cases may require urgent veterinary attention to save both mother and kittens, so a queen should be watched during her kittening.

You should telephone your vet if there is no sign of a kitten after about 20 minutes of vigorous straining, or if a kitten is visible but has still not been born within about 10 minutes. If the mother seems feverish, lethargic or there are substantial amounts of fresh blood coming out of her vagina, you may need to contact your vet. If in doubt phone your vet who will be happy to give you advice.

During a normal birth there is no need to get involved unless the litter is large and the mother is clearly tired. If the mother does not move when a kitten appears some basic midwifery may help. Pull the birth membranes away from the kitten’s nose and tear (do not cut) the umbilical cord about an inch from the body. Tearing the cord leaves a ragged edge which helps to prevent excessive loss of blood.

If the kitten has not started breathing it may have fluid in its lungs. Hold the kitten in the palm of your hand with its head toward your fingers, hold your arm straight infront of you and bring your arm down to a vertical position in a firm but gentle swinging motion to expel the fluid from the kitten. Gently rubbing the kitten’s face and belly with a dry towel will help stimulate it to breathe. Once it is breathing it should be returned to its mother as body contact is important in keeping it warm.

Your cat will probably want to be left in peace with her new family for a few days after the birth. Most cats cope well on their own but keep a close eye on her particularly if this is her first litter. There are a number of rare complications that can affect a mother cat in the days immediately following the birth.

Contact your vet if your cat appears unusually restless, in pain, or shows signs of poor coordination and muscle spasms. Other indications of possible problems include a hot and swollen lump on her breast, a dark coloured discharge from her vagina or any unusual swellings in the vaginal area.

Pregnancy and kittening are natural processes for cats and are rarely associated with problems. Try not to intervene but keep a close eye on her and call your vet for advice if you are worried.

Birth control in the queen

Most responsible cat owners want to prevent unplanned breeding and the production of unwanted kittens. Most forms of birth control prevent the heat cycle of queens, and so mating and conception does not occur. The cycle can be controlled permanently or temporarily. Pregnancy prevention is also possible after an unplanned mating has occurred.

The reproductive cycle in queens is very different from that in women. Queens usually undergo oestrus cycling (also known as ‘heat’ or ‘season’) between one and three times every 12 months, although there is a degree of individual variation in this. Oestrus is the time at which mating, and hence pregnancy, may occur.

Queens usually develop a regular cycle and any alteration of this cycle should be taken seriously. Occasionally, factors such as ill health can act to delay or suspend oestrus cycling. Unlike women, queens do not experience a menopause and usually continue to have seasons throughout life.

The first oestrus period (puberty) usually occurs between 6 and 12 months of age, when the queen has reached 80% of her adult size. Large breed queens may be older, e.g. 12-18 months, when their first oestrus period occurs. Sometimes this initial oestrus is missed by owners as the physical signs may be subtle and not last for long.

The normal oestrus cycles lasts around 3 weeks in the queen, and can be divided into a number of distinct stages:


Usually lasts for around 9 days. In pro-oestrus the vulva becomes swollen with a red (bloody) discharge. Male cats may show interest in queens in pro-oestrus, but the queen will not allow mating.


Lasts around 9 days. The bloody discharge typical of pro-oestrus is reduced. This is the time when queens will allow mating.


Lasts around 45 days. After oestrus the same hormonal changes occur in the queen whether or not she is pregnant. During dioestrus, levels of progesterone rise. Dioestrus ends spontaneously in the non-pregnant state, and with whelping in the pregnant state. It is this part of the cycle that can result in a ‘false pregnancy’.


The 3-4 month period between oestrus cycles. In this period the uterus shrinks down and repairs. The reproductive system is outwardly inactive during this time.

There are 4 ways to prevent pregnancy in the queen.

  • Avoidance of male cats whilst in heat.
  • Neutering (spaying).
  • Chemical prevention of the oestrus cycle
  • Chemical intervention after unintended mating.

Avoiding male cats

This is a possible method of natural birth control. It relies on a firm understanding of the normal oestrus cycle (see above) on the part of the owner of an entire queen. Extreme care must be taken during the receptive oestrus period. Not only are male cats very resourceful at gaining access to queens in heat, but the queens themselves may stray during this period if they get the opportunity.

Nevertheless, with responsible cat ownership on the part of owners of both queens and male cats, this should be a possible method of birth control. This method of birth control is often used by owners who wish to breed from their queen at some time in the future.

Neutering (spaying)

This is the most common method of birth control, and is a permanent, surgical method of preventing oestrus cycling and therefore pregnancy. An operation known as ovario-hysterectomy is usually performed, i.e. the ovaries and uterus are removed surgically. Ovariectomy (removal of the ovaries only) is a less common method of surgical neutering that is performed in some countries. In either case removal of the ovaries stops reproductive cycling and conception is impossible.

Surgical neutering is a major procedure but most vets perform the procedure frequently, and the risk is relatively low. Most animals being neutered are young and fit. The procedure can safely be performed before puberty, (even in cats as young as 6 weeks of age). Early neutering has an additional health benefit – it results in a diminished chance of mammary (breast) cancer occurring later in life.

Chemical prevention of the oestrus cycle

Birth control can be employed using various drugs similar to natural reproductive hormones. The drugs are administered by injection or as tablets at specified intervals, and it is very important that veterinary advice is followed as regards the treatment programme. The drugs used can prevent or shorten oestrus cycles but many have potentially serious side effects which should be discussed with your vet.

This method is similar to human contraception, but the potential risks mean that it is not generally considered desirable for on-going, long-term birth control in pet cats. It may be used as a short-term measure, or as a permanent measure only in cats that for some reason cannot undergo conventional surgical neutering.

If your queen has been mated unintentionally contact your vet as soon as possible. Your vet will be able to discuss the options for terminating pregnancy if it occurs. Immediate treatment can be given (similar to the use of the ‘morning after’ pill in human females). All drugs used in the prevention of pregnancy have potentially serious side-effects and should be used as a last resort rather than a method of birth control.

If your queen has been mated unintentionally your vet may advise neutering your queen to prevent this and future pregnancies. If you want to breed from your queen later, treatment should be delayed until pregnancy has been confirmed.

Queens should be neutered when their reproductive tract is inactive (during the anoestrus phase). The best time is around two to three months after the end of the previous oestrus. There is more risk of bleeding if the operation is performed during oestrus, and the surgery is technically more difficult at this time. Early spaying of queens helps prevent mammary (breast) cancer in later life.

This is a serious infection of the womb, seen most commonly in older un-neutered queens. Queens with pyometra are often very seriously ill and emergency treatment is usually required. Pyometra is best treated by surgical removal of the womb, but the risks are higher.

False pregnancy occurs ‘naturally’ at the end of dioestrus (see above). Some cats have very exaggerated symptoms and may show:

  • Poor appetite, lethargy and depression
  • Nest building behaviour and ‘adopt’ toys
  • Behavioural changes, including aggression
  • Mammary development and milk production

Such queens tend to have recurring false pregnancies at every oestrus and symptoms may last for weeks. Drug treatment can help during the false pregnancy, but the best solution is spaying, after the false pregnancy has ended. If your queen has suffered a false pregnancy discuss the options for treatment with your vet.

The reproductive cycle in the queen is complicated and during this time your cat will undergo many hormonal changes which can alter her health and temperament. If your queen is not neutered you should be familiar with all the natural changes in her cycle so that you can be alert to any signs of problems. If you do not plan to breed from your queen discuss the option of permanent neutering with your vet.