Difficult Birth (Dystocia) in Cats

Last Updated on October 31, 2021 by Julia Wilson


Dystocia is an abnormal or difficult labour and is a life-threatening emergency. There are several causes of dystocia which can be classified as maternal or fetal.


  • Narrow pelvis.
  • Misshapen pelvis (from fracture etc).
  • Pelvic obstruction.
  • Uterine inertia. This may be primary or secondary (exhaustive). Primary inertia is when the uterus fails to produce any contractions or only weak contractions from the onset of labour. Primary inertia may be the result of poor health, obesity, age, stress. Some queens become nervous and highly strung during labour (known as hysterical inertia). This is seen more in oriental breeds such as Siamese, Orientals. Secondary inertia is the result of a long second stage resulting in uterine fatigue. Contractions start strong but becoming progressively weaker.
  • Uterine torsion (twisting) or rupture.


  • Abnormally presented kitten.
  • Excessive fetal size (often seen in small litters of one or two).
  • Excessive fetal head size (often seen in brachycephalic breeds such as Persians).
  • Malformation of the fetus.
  • Fetal death.

Three stages of labour

First stage labour:

Birth begins with the onset of uterine contractions. During this stage, the cervix begins to dilate (open). A clear, odourless discharge from the vagina is usually apparent. This discharge is known as the mucus plug and was in the cervix during pregnancy sealing the uterus from the vagina. As the first stage progresses, contractions will become closer and closer together.

Second stage labour:

Contractions become stronger and closer together and the cervix is fully dilated. The queen is ready to give birth. The kitten moves down the birth canal. Pressure on the cervix initiates an urge to push from the mother. You may see her visibly straining to push the kitten out. The kitten’s water bag (or bubble) is normally seen at the vulva, which burst. It takes three to four pushes to deliver the kitten.

The queen will tear and lick the membranes from the face and body which will stimulate breathing.

The second stage usually takes around 5 minutes to 1 hour. If a hasn’t been born after an hour it is time to call your veterinarian.

Third stage labour:

Immediately following the kitten’s birth, the queen delivers the placenta. Once the queen has cleaned the kitten and breathing have commenced normally the queen will chew the umbilical cord in two and quite often will eat the placenta.

Note: When the kitten has been delivered it is important that you pay attention to the delivery of the placenta. Have a pen and paper close so you can make a note of how many placentas have been delivered if you feel you may lose track due to the excitement of the birth. This is important because a retained placenta will lead to life-threatening infection.

Signs of dystocia

  • Gestation lasting longer than 70 days
  • Stage 1 labour lasting longer than 24 hours
  • 20 minutes of intense labour without birth.
  • Straining for 10 minutes if a fetus or a fluid-filled bubble is visible in the birth canal
  • Acute depression
  • Fever (above 103°F)
  • Sudden discharge from the vagina of bright red blood lasting longer than 10 minutes
  • Thick, black, foul-smelling discharge from the vagina.

Take your cat to a veterinarian immediately if any of the above occur.

Interrupted labour

There can be a significant gap between kitten births (interrupted labour). The queen will cease straining and attend to the kittens she has delivered by cleaning and nursing them. Some will eat some food and will appear to have completed labour. After a period of rest (interrupted labour may last as long as 24-36 hours), labour will resume and the rest of the litter will be delivered.

Contact your veterinarian if no kittens have been delivered in 4 hours and you suspect your queen may have gone into interrupted labour.

Presenting head first

Wipe away the membranes from the nose and mouth first. Once delivered, remove the remaining membranes and aspirate the fluid from the nose and mouth. Then place the kitten in front of the queen.


If it becomes necessary to take the queen to the veterinarian, bring along any kittens that have already been born.

Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination and evaluate the situation and establish what the cause of dystocia is so that the appropriate care can be provided.

He may wish to run some diagnostic which may include:


  • Administration of oxytocin, which is a naturally occurring hormone to stimulate or strengthen contractions.
  • Calcium stimulates muscle contractions. If the labour has been long, calcium levels may have become deficient. When combined with oxytocin, calcium gluconate can result in contractions that are more efficient than with oxytocin alone.
  • Anti-anxiety medication if the mother is anxious or stressed.
  • Intravenous fluids.
  • Caesarian section if strong uterine contractions do not occur following calcium and oxytocin or if the kittens are too large to deliver vaginally or if there is uterine rupture/torsion.

Even with an apparent straightforward delivery, it is always important to have the queen and her kittens examined by a veterinarian to make sure there are no remaining kittens, no retained placentas, and everything is healing as it should.