The little ones have just arrived and while you are busy gushing over how cute they are, you notice that momma cat is breathing fast after she has given birth. Her breaths are short and seemingly heavy, with her tongue sticking out a little.
Is it normal for cats to do this?
Some veterinarians have the opinion that fast breathing or panting is never normal in cats. While it is true that panting is not something that cats generally do, I have observed this fast breathing after giving birth phenomenon in some momma cats and not in others. In those cats that did exhibit fast breathing, it went away after a while and did not progress to any further problems. However, this is not to say that fast breathing in cats after giving birth is nothing to worry about ALL the time. In some cases it is the beginning of some seriously life threatening conditions in the queen. Let us consider this further.
Stress and Exertion of Labor
The stress and the exertion associated with the birth process may cause a queen to pant. As long as she is eating, drinking, going to the litterbox and happily nursing her kittens, it is not something to worry about. Sometimes fast breathing is an indication that kittens are still inside her waiting to be born or that there is a retained placenta that still has to be expelled. Queens are notorious for having what is called “interrupted labor” wherein kittens may be born as far as 48 hours apart. Again, if she looks happy and content despite the fast breathing, then leave her be but keep a watchful eye. If that time has elapsed and she still hasn’t delivered any more kitten and she is still panting, bring her to the veterinarian’s office so an abdominal X-ray or ultrasound may be done to confirm the presence of any more kittens or none. If at any point during the waiting period there are observable contractions in her abdomen and she is straining and no kitten comes out within one hour, then get her to the veterinarian immediately.
Fever Due To Infection
Another probable cause of fast breathing in a cat after giving birth is fever. The high body temperature may be brought about by serious conditions like infection in the uterus or the mammary glands. Fever usually comes with other associated signs like poor or no appetite and sluggishness. If you notice these signs, take her to the veterinarian for check-up immediately so she can be given antibiotics if there indeed is an infection.
One life threatening emergency condition wherein the first observable symptom is fast breathing in a cat who is pregnant or had given birth is Hypocalcemia. This condition is also known by other names: Milk Fever, Puerperal Tetany, and Eclampsia. As its name implies, this condition develops when the amount of calcium in the queen’s blood drops below normal level. Hypocalcemia may be observed in the queen either at late pregnancy, or at the time she is giving birth, but more frequently in the first three to four weeks after giving birth when she is in the height of producing milk for her kittens. At this time, the outflow of calcium via the milk may become more than the inflow of calcium from the gut and bone hence the drop in its concentration in the blood. Aside from fast breathing, watch out for the other signs of Hypocalcemia like fever (hence Milk Fever), loss of appetite and lethargy. She may become restless and nervous and later on you may be able to observe some tremors, stiff limbs (hence Puerperal Tetany) which makes it difficult for her to stand or walk.
What To Do During Hypocalcemia
It is extremely important to remember that fast breathing due to Hypocalcemia is a medical emergency. When left untreated the cat can go into seizure, convulsion, and organ failure. Therefore when you start to notice the signs mentioned above, take your cat to the veterinarian right away. The veterinarian will draw blood for a Complete Blood Count and Biochemical tests but even before the results are in, he will need to administer the cat immediate but controlled intravenous calcium to increase its level back to normal in the blood. Other drugs like those to control the fever and seizure may be needed too.
When the queen has been stabilized, your veterinarian might suggest an Electrocardiogram (ECG) test for your cat to check for any abnormalities in the heart resulting from the sudden drop in calcium in the blood. Momma cat may be kept in the hospital for cage rest and fluid therapy. The veterinarian should give you advice on handfeeding and taking care of the kittens in the temporary absence of their mother. In some cases, if she is deemed strong enough, momma cat may be allowed to go home. The veterinarian will most probably give her oral supplemental calcium and Vitamin D and she is allowed to nurse her kittens again but under your close observation to see if the crisis will happen again. If it does, the kittens will have to be weaned early and handfed with a milk replacer formula.
How Hypocalcemia Develops and How It Can Be Prevented
Hypocalcemia develops when blood calcium levels drop below normal levels occurring most commonly when the queen is producing milk after giving birth. If the cat had poor or insufficient diet during pregnancy and lactation, then she may not have enough calcium from her food to be absorbed into her bloodstream through the gut hence resulting to Hypocalcemia. On occasion, it may be a result not of an actual lack of calcium in the diet or in the body but in the inability of the cat to absorb calcium from the gut or to use the calcium stored in the bones fast enough to meet her needs.
To prevent this potentially life-threatening condition, make sure that your pregnant cat has a good quality commercial cat food diet made for her particular life stage. This should be complete with the vitamins and minerals she needs during pregnancy and subsequent lactation. Oral calcium supplementation during pregnancy is mostly not recommended as it may lead the body to think that there is more than enough calcium in the blood and causes the parathyroid glands, which is responsible for controlling calcium levels, to make less or even stop producing parathyroid hormone which will result in lowered blood calcium paradoxically leading to Hypocalcemia. Good quality cat food in adequate amounts should be sufficient for the mother during pregnancy. Supplemental calcium and vitamin D during lactation should be given only under veterinary supervision.