The onset of labour is usually seen as strong contractions of the flanks of the queen, at which time she will either be in her nesting box or go to it. Unfortunately, this usually occurs in the middle of the night and in this case it may be easier to have the kittening box in the bedroom so that the owner, whose presence can often be of great psychological comfort to the queen, especially if she is a novice, can get some sleep between the arrival al each kitten With the onset of full labour, the queen may paradoxically purr with intervals of what may seem to be quite alarming panting. This is quite normal. As the labour contractions increase in frequency, the first kitten is moving out of the uterus into the vaginal tract and may be seen appearing at the vulva, paw or nose first. Ideally, the kittens should be born in the diving position -head first – as this ensures that the head is clear, the body passing through the vagina smoothly until the whole kitten has been expelled. At this stage the umbilical cord attached to the kitten’s abdomen will be visible disappearing into the vagina where it is attached to the afterbirth. This is all part of the tissue surrounding the foetus in the uterus, the afterbirth itself being responsible for the transfer of nutrients from the mother to the kitten during the development stage and the transfer back of waste products.
Very often the first sign that a kitten is emerging will be the appearance of a small transparent bubble at the vulva. This is the amniotic sac in which the kitten is enveloped whilst in the uterus. Sometimes this bursts inside the vagina and fluid is expelled. This is sometimes described as the ‘breaking of the waters’. The queen cat may sometimes bite through the amniotic sac to release the kitten’s head which she will then vigorously wash to clean away any mucus and fluid. The washing will continue over the whole body and during this cleansing process the queen will probably bite through the umbilical cord separating the kitten from the afterbirth or placenta. Before or at this time, the kitten will be squeaking quite loudly, showing that it has already inflated its lungs and is breathing normally. When the afterbirth is delivered, the queen will usually eat this. Hormones present in the afterbirth are useful to stimulate the flow of milk. Further kittens are then born at intervals which may be very short or can be from half an hour to an hour in duration.
The owner’s importance during this process will depend upon the natural ability of the queen to cope with her own confinement. It is as well to have handy some cotton wool, a bowl of clean tepid water with perhaps a very little mild and cat-safe disinfectant, a pair of curved scissors which can be kept in the water and therefore be clean and sterilized, and possibly a hot-water bottle to provide a second bed for the first-born kittens if further kittens are delayed and the mother is distracted as a result. The most important advice to the owner is to avoid interference if at all possible. Cutting the umbilical cord may be necessary if the queen is unable to do so, and this is best achieved with a sawing motion of the scissor blades rather than a straight cut, as this assists in healing and prevents excessive haemorrhage. Some owners wait until the afterbirth has appeared before doing this and squeeze the afterbirth before cutting the cord, thus ensuring that the blood contained in the afterbirth flows into the kitten’s body before severing the two. Normally, the cut end of the umbilical cord will contract and very little blood will be lost from the kitten. However, if you are worried, a silk thread can be knotted around the end of the cord to stop any blood flow. This will normally fall away as the cord shrivels and dries up during the next few days.