This article is about some of the grim but significant signs that something is wrong, along with some of the causes of neonate mortality in kittens. I will also give some basic first aid procedures, for emergencies, if vet help is unavailable. (This artilcle contains no photos / pictures).
If you do not wish to read about the grim side, please discover more articles here.
Where I have given emergency procedures / treatment below:
- Please never administer first aid without prior discussion with your vet – Vet advice / attention should always be your first priority
- Do Not attempt any procedure if you are not confident
- Always thoroughly wash your hands first!
Signs Something is Wrong
These are emergency situations which will require immediate vet attention:
- If there is bleeding during pregnancy
- Your queen fails to deliver a kitten after 30 minutes of strong contractions or after 30 minutes of the first bubble sac being seen
- A fowl smelling discharge is passed during or after labour (some discharge is normal but it should not smell)
- Your queen seems weak, is staggering, trembling or collapsed
- If your queen has hard, painful mammary glands
- Your queen is not wanting to eat or straining to urinate
- If any newborn kittens are regurgitating food, have discharge from their nose / eyes, have diarrhoea or cry excessively
Neonates are fairly tolerant of hypoxia (low oxygen); they also possess a haemoglobin type which maximises oxygen transfer effectiveness. So it is essential to persevere with attempts to revive any kittens who are reluctant to breathe. DO NOT think about giving up for at least half an hour!
Kitten Stuck in Birth Canal
If you can see a kitten stuck in the queen’s birth canal, you will need to seek immediate vet attention. If the kitten is in the correct position you can attempt to help – but please be Very Aware! You can damage a kitten whilst trying to help free it!
In an emergency, wash your hands thoroughly & sterilise if possible, before attempting the procedure. The kitten should be presented head first with its two front legs either side of the head. If the kitten is Not presented in this position or if there is resistance when pulling – You WILL need vet attention immediately.
Providing the kitten is head first with two front legs either side of the head – using a clean, warm towel, you can gently grasp the kitten. Apply traction steadily, in an arc, towards your queen’s hind (back) feet. The kitten should slide out gently.
Never pull between contractions! Always pull with contraction! Always pull gently!
Queen Not Helping Her Kitten
If your queen does not remove the sac from her newborn kitten or if she shows no interest in her newborn kitten, you will need to help so the kitten can breathe. Thoroughly wash & sterilise your hands. Use a clean, warm towel to remove the membrane / sac from the kitten’s face – Rub the top of the kitten’s skull gently, the sac should break and peel away. If it does not – pinch the sac with your thumb and forefinger, at the base of the kitten’s skull – gently! Pull away carefully.
Wipe around the kittens face and remove fluid from the mouth and nostrils. Then hold the kitten, belly down in one hand and rub the kittens back & body with the towel in your other hand (this is to stimulate breathing). The kitten should start wriggling around and being vocal / crying, give the kitten back to your queen and monitor.
If the kitten does not wriggle and doesn’t appear to be breathing – hold the kitten firmly between your cupped hands, making sure the kitten can’t fly out (obviously without squashing it!). This may sound harsh but it is necessary, swing the kitten rapidly in an arc from shoulder height down, then check. This action should expel fluid from the kitten’s air passages. If the kitten is still not breathing – rub the kitten vigorously with the towel and swing again – check – rub – swing – repeat. Keep going until the kitten moves / cries, or sadly until there is no response after at least 30 minutes of trying.
The Umbilical Cord
Most queens will compulsively chew each umbilical cord and eat every placenta / afterbirth. If your queen has not done this after approximately 5 minutes, you will need to cut the cord. Wash your hands thoroughly & sterilise. Use a clean & sterile pair of scissors. Ideally you would use a haemostat or an umbilical cord clamp (Please see * note below).
Alternatively tie some thread around the umbilical cord, approximately 3cm away from the kitten’s belly. Cut the side of the tie away from the kitten, sterilise the severed end – the one still attached to the kitten and dispose of the placenta (if your queen is not eating it!).
*Haemostat – this is a surgical tool for preventing blood flow, used to control bleeding (looks like a pair of funny ended scissors). I’m well aware you may not happen to have one of these at home, so alternatively you could use a sterile umbilical cord clamp or a piece of thread tied around the cord.
Kitten Is Not Breathing and The Placenta Is Still Retained
If a kitten is not breathing at all or with difficulty and the placenta is still retained. With clean, sterile hands, fasten a haemostat/umbilical cord clamp/thread on the umbilical cord, approximately 6 inches away from the kitten. Gently grasp the cord on the side closest to your queen and pull gently. The placenta should be passed all at once. If it doesn’t, don’t fuss, cut the cord on the queen’s side of the clamp, remove the clamp and sterilise the severed ends. Attempt to revive the kitten using the aspirate, rub, and swing method given above.
When a weak kitten breathes on its own, give the kitten back to your queen and monitor closely. If the kitten begins to feel cool to the touch or starts to breathe slowly – check its nose & mouth for any fluid, aspirate again and massage if necessary. Place the kitten on a heat pad to keep warm and attempt to give back to your queen when warm or after approximately half an hour, again monitor closely. If you are at all concerned please contact your vet.
Causes of Neonate Mortality
Sadly, there are many causes of neonate mortality. Please protect neonates and tiny kittens from danger at all costs. If you have other cats or animals at home, you must separate them. Neonates should remain protected and isolated with their mother for at least their first 2 weeks of life. You can introduce tiny kittens to other cats and animals after 2 weeks of age, but ideally not until the kittens are old enough to defend themselves.
Neonates and young kittens are vulnerable to trauma; common sense should be used here, with precautions such as:
- Safe kitten area and nursing pen
- Eliminate all opportunities where a kitten could fall
- Reduce the area or the size of the play pen, if necessary, to avoid any kitten straying from mum & litter
- Avoid any opportunities for kittens to become cold (always provide a heat pad)
- Be watchful over any handling of neonates and tiny kittens
- Restrict access for other pets to get to the kittens
Extremes of temperatures, humidity, overcrowding, stress and inadequate sanitation, will essentially discourage nursing. This could lead to infections or hypothermia.
Neonates are especially sensitive to cold, because they are unable to regulate their own body temperature. If they become too cold their suckling reflex becomes depressed, which can lead to hypoglycaemia and in worse cases, even death.
Prolonged or difficult labour, maternal inattention or over-attention and disorders with lactation can also cause neonate mortality.
This does occasionally happen and it is considered an instinct over which the queen has no control. It is thought that cannibalism usually occurs when a queen is very young, very nervous or highly-strung and cannot discern how to maternally and properly care for her new litter or if she has a very large litter. It can also happen when a queen senses a kitten is stillborn or weak and unlikely to survive. Intact (not neutered) tom cats may possibly kill newborns due to territorial issues; again this is considered instinctive behaviour.
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