5 min read
Why Is My Cat Giving Birth to Stillborn Kittens?
By Adam Lee-Smith
Published: 10/27/2021, edited: 10/27/2021
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If you're inexperienced with breeding cats, you'll likely find it distressing when your queen gives birth to a stillborn kitten. Unfortunately, stillborn kittens are common. A study of pedigree cats found that approximately 7% of kittens born were stillborn. While this percentage is higher among pedigrees, it's still fair to presume around 1 in 20 kittens are stillborn.
It's important to learn about stillborn kittens just in case the unthinkable happens. Read on to learn more about potential causes, prevention, and what to do if your cat gives birth to a stillborn kitten.
Possible causes of stillborn kittens
If this is your cat's first litter and you're worried about the possibility of complications, you can notify your vet before your cat goes into labor so they can be on stand-by. You should also take the best possible care of your cat during pregnancy.
Once your cat goes into labor (known as queening), she should give birth in intervals between 10 minutes and an hour. If your cat goes for 2 or 3 hours between kittens without giving birth or has strong contractions for 20 minutes without giving birth, contact your vet.
Congenital malformation and defects
Congenital malformation and fetal defects are the most common cause of stillborn kittens. Congenital abnormalities arise due to problems in early development and malformation of genes. These defects can be inherited or caused by exposure to a drug or disease that affects development.
If a kitten dies from a congenital deformation in utero early in the pregnancy, the queen may absorb the kitten, or she may suffer a miscarriage. If the congenital defect forms late in the pregnancy, it can result in a stillborn or fading kitten.
Viral and bacterial infections are another frequent cause of stillborn kittens. Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is a severe viral infection that can be passed from mother to kitten in utero, resulting in a stillbirth.
Another viral infection that can be passed from mother to fetus is panleukopenia virus. Also known as distemper, this virus can result in an abnormality of the skull known as cerebellar hypoplasia. Other viral infections which can cause stillbirth in kittens include feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline herpesvirus.
Bacterial infections can also cause stillborn kittens. However, due to the nature of bacterial infections, it's difficult to pinpoint which bacteria cause stillbirths. Parasites, like heartworm, can also be passed from mother to kitten and could result in a miscarriage or stillbirth.
Premature birth is a possible cause for stillborn kittens. Cats are usually pregnant for 58 to 67 days, and kittens born weeks early could struggle to survive. If kittens are born very prematurely, it could result in a stillbirth.
Kittens can survive if they're born prematurely, but they'll require constant care from humans. You'll need to keep them warm and syringe feed them powdered cat milk every 2 to 4 hours. If your cat gives birth to a premature kitten, contact your vet immediately for advice.
Low hormone levels can also cause miscarriages and stillborn kittens. Progesterone, a hormone produced by the ovaries and placenta, helps maintain a cat's pregnancy. Lower than normal levels of progesterone could lead to a stillbirth. Some medications can cause low progesterone levels.
Dystocia is the scientific name for difficulties at birth. It can refer to issues with the mother or the fetus, including awkward positioning and improper contracting of the uterus and cervix.
Obstructive dystocia refers to issues with the size of a kitten in proportion to their mother's birth canal. Obstructive dystocia can result in malpositioning of the fetus and fetal malformation. Severe complications can result in a stillborn kitten.
Functional dystocia occurs when a queen's birth canal doesn't contract correctly, usually due to obesity, stress, or age. Extreme apprehension about giving birth can completely stop labor. Functional dystocia is different from interrupted labor, as it's usually caused by stress or a physical factor. If not addressed, functional dystocia could result in stillborn kittens.
Other factors, such as malpresentation, could also result in a stillborn kitten. If a kitten comes out tail-first, there may be a delay in delivery. As a result, there's a greater chance of the kitten drowning in fetal fluids during birth. That said, cases of death due to malpresentation are rare, and the kitten is usually delivered without complications.
How to prevent stillborn kittens
Stillborn kittens aren't always preventable, but there are steps you can take to ensure your cat has the healthiest litter possible.
First, it's essential your cat has up-to-date core and non-core vaccinations. Vaccines protect queens from several viral infections, which can be passed to kittens and cause stillbirths. Moreover, newborn kittens will have antibodies from drinking their vaccinated mother's milk, which will protect them from diseases during the first 8 weeks of their lives.
Deworming is also important during pregnancy. Talk to your vet about which deworming medications are safe to give a pregnant cat.
While congenital defects sometimes can't be helped, there are a few things you can do to minimize the risk. Feed your cat a high-quality diet to ensure their kittens are getting enough nutrients in utero. You should also make sure you don't expose your cat to any chemicals or medications that could cause fetal deformities.
Regular veterinary check-ups during pregnancy can also go a long way to preventing stillborn kittens. Your vet will be able to take ultrasounds to check for any potential issues.
A vet can also examine your queen and take her temperature to ensure she doesn't have an infection.
What to do if your cat has stillborn kittens
When a cat gives birth to a stillborn kitten, it's important to leave the kitten in place until their mother realizes that they're dead. Otherwise, your cat may become distressed at removing one of her kittens without knowing they had passed away.
Initially, a queen may attempt to revive a stillborn kitten by rigorously licking and cuddling them. If the queen is unable to revive the stillborn kitten, she will abandon the kitten to take care of the rest of the litter.
Sometimes, a queen will eat her stillborn young. This may be unsettling to humans, but it's normal behavior rooted in instinct. A decomposing kitten could attract predators and cause hygiene problems for the litter. The dead kitten’s body will also provide key nutrients for the mother's milk, improving the rest of the litter's survival chances.
If the stillborn kitten is the only one in the litter, the queen may dig a hole and bury the kitten. She will cover the hole and often sit on top of it for several hours. The reason for this is unclear but may be to do with getting rid of a health risk. Cats who are very trusting of their humans may even bring them their stillborn kitten.
If your cat simply casts aside her diseased kitten, you'll need to dispose of it yourself. Once the kitten is cold, gently remove them from the nesting area. Then, place it in a tarp or box, and bury them in your garden several feet deep so no animals dig them up.
If your cat has had stillborn kittens, take them to the vet. Your vet will want to run tests on your cat to ensure she doesn't have a viral or bacterial infection that could affect the rest of the litter. Your vet will also want to examine the living kittens to ensure they're healthy.
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