When the neighborhood ‘queen’ takes shelter beneath your deck sporting a clearly swollen abdomen, you know that kitten season’s start is 60-something days away. You eagerly await hearing those high-pitched squeaks and watching those follow-the-leader kitten trains prance across the backyard. But just how many cats are normally in a litter?
There are normally 2-5 cats in a litter, though four is most common, and 1-12 is ‘average.’ Pedigreed cats like the Burmese and Siamese tend to have larger litters (closer to 4-5), while a queen’s first litter will be slightly smaller than subsequent births. Larger kittens equal smaller litters.
Though far less rare than in the 1980s, twin births in humans are still uncommon (33 in 1,000), and triplets are even more of a medical anomaly and ‘defy the odds’ (1 in 9,000). But if you were prepping for a solo kitten, you’re in for a rude (albeit adorable) awakening. To learn about how many cats are generally in a litter, read on!
All You Need To Know About Feline Pregnancy
Before you begin stocking up on kitten milk replacer (KMR), a soft-sided playpen, and multiple nursing bottle kits, let’s reevaluate what brought us here: A pregnant female cat (‘queen’).
Unless they undergo spaying surgery (ovariohysterectomy), most female cats will experience their first heat cycle (estrous) by six-months-old. Heat is the bi-weekly estrogen surge typically lasting about six days where a female cat is most fertile and willing to mate with an intact tomcat.
Warm weather and longer days — typically March through September — signal the unofficial ‘start’ to the annual cat mating season and when queens cycle through heat most regularly.
When a female cat in heat finds an unneutered male cat, they’ll mate, which will then release an egg from the queen’s ovaries, also called ‘induced ovulation.’ If the tomcat’s sperm fertilizes the fresh egg, a process that could take a few days, the female cat will become pregnant.
But because female cats can mate more than ten times per day with several alpha cats, the resulting litter could have multiple fathers. That explains that unique calico, cream, and mixed black litter oozing with cuteness. A pregnant queen will carry a litter for about 58-70 days before seeking privacy (ex: taking shelter in the shed) and finally giving birth.
It can be challenging to distinguish a well-fed (borderline obese) queen from a pregnant kitty to an untrained eye. The educational video below reveals the signs that Fluffy’s nearing motherhood:
How Many Cats Are Normally in a Litter?
Most feline litters will produce four little healthy fluff balls, but solo births and up to a dozen kittens per litter are well within the realm of normal. The exact predicted litter size depends on:
- The mother/father cats’ breeds
- Whether this is the queens first, fifth, or tenth litter
- The queen’s age
Let’s review each of these more in-depth to help you better prepare for those upcoming, four-legged bundles of joy.
Purebred or pedigreed cats tend to produce larger litters than the standard domestic shorthair (DSH) or mixed-breed felines — affectionately dubbed ‘moggies.’ Fancy breeds known for birthing relatively larger broods include:
|Pedigreed Breed||Average Kittens Per Litter|
Breeds like the Burmese and Siamese are quite sleek and slender and often weigh fewer than 12 pounds (5.4 kg) when full-grown. So, carrying five rapidly-growing kittens in the womb can ‘reach capacity’ on the nearby organ systems quite quickly, sometimes shortening the classic 64-day gestational period, as standard in the majestic Norwegian Forest Cat.
An expectant queen’s first-ever litter is most likely to be the smallest in her lifetime, with 1-3 kittens being the ‘norm’ for first-time mothers. Every litter after will near the average 4-5 puff balls per brood unless she’s spayed before falling pregnant again. Unfortunately, fewer kittens in the womb also mean less sharing and more room to grow, which can make birth more painful or challenging to a new mother’s significantly narrow birthing canal.
Most female cats remain fertile between their first-ever heat cycle (before the half-year mark) through their golden years. However, a queen is in her fertile ‘prime’ or ‘peak’ around 4-5 years old — or a wider 2-8 year range. So, adolescent females and senior queens will typically deliver 1-3 cats per litter, though the six-year period wedged between can produce 12-kitten broods.
Kitten Survival Rates
While anything more than five kittens is an anomaly to the non-cat community, not all kittens will survive childbirth or their first few weeks in the new world. One study found that about 7% of kittens are born deceased (stillborn), and another 9% may pass within the first two months, meaning only 3 out of your kitty’s four offspring may survive weaning.
Intriguingly, certain pedigreed breeds are more likely to suffer low kitten survival rate or stillbirths than others, including:
|Breed||Stillbirth Rate||Kittenhood Mortality Rate|
While it’s impossible to prevent all devastating stillbirth and kitten mortality incidences, you can improve survival rates with proper queen and kitten care. For example, you can rush a kitten who stopped nursing to the vet, prevent hypothermia by providing a warm cozy shelter, and ask the vet for an infection or parasite test in lethargic kittens.
Record Kittens Per Litter
Though even six kittens per litter is a rarity in many feline breeds, it doesn’t compare to the Guinness World Record holder for the ‘largest litter of domestic cats.’ In 1970, a Siamese/Burmese queen moggy in Oxfordshire, UK, birthed a startling 19 kittens, though four didn’t survive.
How To Prepare for a Kitten Litter
As exciting as a new feline litter can be for the entire family, preparation is vital. On top of regular vet check-ups to ensure your pregnant female cat is healthy, you should also:
- Set-up a heated birthing room 72°F (22.22°C), fitted with a ‘nesting box’ for the actual birth, to keep Fluffy comfortable as her due date approaches.
- Switch the queen to high-protein, high-calorie kitten food to nourish those growing kitties in the womb.
- Monitor the birthing process and for any hours-long delays between kittens or before they start arriving.
- Invest in kitten milk replacer for the kittens who struggle with suckling or if your female cat is reluctant to nurse.
- Tame down the play sessions leading up to the due date and allow your kitty time to rest before her big day.
Natural home birth is 100% normal in felines, and your cat will begin showing labor signs in the hours leading up to delivery. Don’t forget to take the entire brood to the vet within a few days for a basic wellness check, though, especially if something seems amiss.
Congratulations! Whether you intentionally bred your cat or the neighborhood queen chose your property as her delivery room, it’s your responsibility to care for those runts. Here’s what to do next in these two very distinct scenarios:
It’s your cat: Take the litter to the vet within their first 1-2 weeks for a wellness check. If growth slows, or the kittens are having trouble nursing/latching, ask about bottle feeding.
It’s a local wanderer: If you discover abandoned kitties nuzzled in a dirty nest and crying for food, rescue them, feed them, and watch to see if their mother returns.
- VCA Hospitals: Breeding and Queening Cats
- Healthline: Seeing Double: How to Increase Your Chances of Having Twins
- VCA Hospitals: Spaying in Cats
- Animal Planet: At what age do cats go into heat?
- Theriogenology: Clinical management of pregnancy in cats
- Aust Vet J: Reproductive patterns of pedigree cats
- J Feline Med Surg.: Fertility parameters and reproductive management of Norwegian Forest Cats, Maine Coon, Persian and Bengal cats raised in Italy: a questionnaire-based study
- GWR: Largest litter of domestic cats
- International Cat Care: Kitten deaths (Fading Kittens)
- Reproduction in Domestic Animals: Epidemiological analysis of reproductive performances and kitten mortality rates in 5,303 purebred queens of 45 different breeds and 28,065 kittens in France