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Cat Pregnancy & Lactation


Pregnancy and motherhood place high demands on a cat. She provides all the energy that fuels her kittens’ growth, both in the womb and for the first weeks of life, and her diet throughout this time should be the best possible to successfully meet these demands.

The objectives of a proper feeding program for reproduction are to optimize the health and body condition of the queen throughout the various reproductive periods, reproductive performance and kitten health and development through the weaning period. Key indicators of optimal reproduction are ease of conception, a low rate of fetal and neonatal death, normal parturition, maximum litter size, adequate lactation and an optimal rate of growth of healthy kittens. Providing adequate nutrition throughout reproduction has long-range health implications for the offspring. Immune function is impaired for life in animals born to nutritionally deficient queens.

The first step is to diagnose pregnancy. Gestation usually lasts 63 to 65 days (range 58-70 days) in queens. One of the earliest indicators of successful breeding and conception is a steady gain in body weight, assuming the diet or amount of food per day has not changed. Weight gain increases linearly from conception to parturition in queens. This pattern is different from that of most other species, which experience small increases in body weight until the last third of gestation when weight gain and energy intake greatly increase.

Poor nutrition may lead to failure to conceive, fetal death, fetal malformations and underweight kittens. Queens that are underweight at parturition may experience poor lactation performance and inability to maintain body condition. As previously mentioned, poor maternal nutrition may impair the kittens’ immunocompetence for life. On the other hand, obesity has an equally negative effect on pregnancy outcome. Stillbirths or dystocia (abnormal or difficult labor) occur more frequently in obese queens than in cats at ideal body condition. Therefore, good nutritional management is important to optimal reproduction.

One of the most important changes in nutrient requirements of pregnant and lactating cats is an increase in energy requirement. Although many essential nutrients are required at increased levels during pregnancy, dietary energy is often the most limiting “nutrient.” Food intake normally fluctuates slightly throughout gestation. There are two common times when food intake and weight decline. Reduced food intake occurs approximately two weeks after mating and is thought to occur in association with fetal implantation at about day 15 postconception. Food intake increases and then peaks between six to seven weeks of pregnancy. The second decline in food intake occurs during the last week of pregnancy prior to the birth of kittens’.

Lactation is the most energy-demanding stage of a cat’s life. Peak milk production typically occurs at three to four weeks of lactation and peak energy demand should occur concurrently. Kittens begin eating the queen’s food in increasing amounts from three weeks of age until weaning. Since queens that lose weight are prone to lactation failure, a marked increase in total intake is required to meet energy demands.

The use of dietary supplements is often highly debated. Everyone knows someone who claims that some “special additive” will help solve a given reproductive problem. It is very important to understand that dietary supplements are needed only when the diet fails to supply optimal levels of a nutrient. If a breeder is feeding a diet that requires elaborate supplementation, it is advisable to seek high-quality foods that meet the nutritional needs of the pregnant or lactating queen. Supplementation thereafter should serve only to enhance the diet, rather than replace foods that are not supplying adequate nourishment.

Protein
Protein demands in the queen are greatly increased during pregnancy. Protein quality and quantity are important to provide all the essential amino acids for growth and development of the fetuses. Meat and organs supply high quality biological and digestible protein. The amino acid taurine is required for normal reproduction and fetal development. Taurine deficiency in gestating queens may result in fetal death near the 25th day of gestation, abortions throughout gestation, fetal deformities, and delayed growth development. The taurine requirement for pregnant queens is similar to taurine requirements for other life stages.

Meat and organs supply protein. Whole prey rats supply approximately 61% protein, squirrel – 62%, vole – 64%, toad – 61% and mouse – 55%. Accordingly, the diet of domestic queens should meet this ideal.

Fats and Essential Fatty Acids
Fat is beneficial because of the increased energy demand during pregnancy. Fat delivers over twice the number of calories as the same amount of protein or carbohydrate and facilitates absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Studies comparing the fat content of reproductive diets concluded that higher fat levels increased the number of kittens per litter, decreased kitten mortality, and improved reproductive efficiency. Moderate to high-fat foods enhance lactation performance in queens.

Linoleic acid and arachidonic acid are required in diets for cats both of which are abundant in animal tissues, particularly fat surrounding organs and brain tissue. Linolenic acid is not considered “essential” as of yet, but will likely be regarded as a requirement in the near future. Long–term deficiency of arachidonic acid results in reproductive failure. In contrast to queens, male cats do not appear to require arachidonic acid for reproduction, possibly because testes convert linoleic acid to arachidonic acid. A dietary source of Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) should be included in the diet of pregnant and lactating queens for normal retinal and brain development in kittens. Raw fatty fish, brain, eyes, eggs, liver and supplemental cold water fish oil are all sources of essential fatty acids and specifically DHA. The queen’s milk supplies adequate DHA to her offspring if the queen herself eats foods rich in DHA. Whole prey rats supply approximately 32% fat, squirrel – 18%, vole – 16%, toad – 14% and mouse – 24%.

Carbohydrates
A true carbohydrate requirement for cats has not been demonstrated. Cats are strict carnivores that rely on nutrients in animal tissues to meet their specific and unique nutritional requirements. Cats in the wild reflect their preference for animal tissues. When ingesting prey, wild cats avoid consuming plant materials contained in the entrails. African lions have been observed to first empty the ingesta from the entrails with their tongue.

Cats lack salivary amylase, the enzyme responsible for initiating carbohydrate digestion. Additionally, cats have low activities of intestinal and pancreatic amylase and reduced activities of intestinal disaccharidases that break down carbohydrates in the small intestines. These digestive differences mean that carbohydrates in the diet may have problematic effects on cats throughout all life stages including pregnancy and lactation. In order to maintain energy and blood glucose levels, cats convert glucogenic acid and glycerol from non-carbohydrate sources into glucose through gluconeogenesis.

In most animals, maximal gluconeogenesis occurs between meals to maintain normal glucose levels when dietary carbohydrate is no longer available. However, cats maintain a constant state of gluconeogenesis in order to provide glucose for metabolism. This phenomenon allows the cat to efficiently use dietary amino acids (protein) for the maintenance of blood glucose, overcoming the body’s limited ability to conserve amino acids and the diet’s low carbohydrate content.

Research has shown that the activity of key gluconeogenic enzymes differs in the cat compared with other species. Overall, these differences allow the cat to use amino acids directly for glucose production and not energy production. The activity of these enzymes is always high, which allows the cat to rapidly convert excess dietary amino acids to glucose. Other enzymes also function to maintain blood glucose levels by limiting the uptake of glucose by specific cells. Kittens naturally ingest soluble carbohydrates (i.e., lactose or milk sugar) before weaning, however, as adults, they must rely primarily on gluconeogenesis from glucogenic amino acids, lactic acid, and glycerol for maintenance of blood glucose concentration. In cats, gluconeogenesis is maximal in the absorptive phase immediately after a meal. Providing queens with sufficient fat and protein in the diet throughout pregnancy and lactation negates the use of carbohydrates and ensures adequate energy needs are met.

Vitamins and Minerals
The primary vitamins are vitamin A, D, E, K, C, and B complex, all of which must be accounted for prior to, during pregnancy and throughout lactation. Of these, A, D, E, and K are the fat soluble vitamins. Vitamins C and B complex are water soluble. The fat soluble vitamins are commonly stored in special fat storage cells called lipocytes, whereas, the water-soluble vitamins are not stored within the body except in small amounts. Minerals are grouped into macro and micro categories. Macro-minerals are needed in greater amounts in the diet and are found in larger amounts in the body than micro-minerals. Macro-minerals include calcium and phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium and chloride. Micro-minerals include copper, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium and zinc.

Important Vitamins

Vitamin A
Vitamin A and pregnancy is a controversial topic. The main source of vitamin A is called carotene and is found in the yellow pigment of plants. When fed to dogs, carotene can be converted by the intestinal cells into usable vitamin A. However, this is not the case with cats as they have a reduced ability to convert plant pigment (Beta Carotene) to Vitamin A. Because of this, cats must be fed vitamin A already in the liver storage form as retinol.
Vitamin A is essential for normal cellular differentiation and in regulating organ development in the fetus. Long-term studies have shown that adequate amounts of vitamin A (retinol) are necessary to prevent deformities and provide for normal kitten development during lactation. (1. Rogers and Morris, 1985) This vital nutrient is needed for the growth and repair of body tissues; it helps protect mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, throat and lungs; it prompts the secretion of gastric juices necessary for proper digestion of protein; it helps to build strong bones and teeth and rich blood; it is essential for good eyesight; it aids in the production of RNA; and contributes to the health of the immune system. Vitamin A deficiency in pregnancy results in offspring with eye defects, displaced kidneys, harelip, cleft palate and abnormalities of the heart and larger blood vessels. Concerns about vitamin A overdose during pregnancy are overly exaggerated. Synthetic vitamin A can indeed be toxic but natural vitamin A found in foods like cod liver oil and liver do not cause problems except in excessive amounts (Seawright et al. 1967), and side effects from large doses of natural vitamin A promptly resolve when the dosage is reduced. Scott and Scott (1964) concluded that cats required 1,600 to 2,000IU/day. One scant teaspoon of regular dose cod liver oil provides about 5,000 IU vitamin A.

Vitamin E
Vitamin E helps to reduce the risk of oxidative stress, which may disturb fetal development. Vitamin E plays a vital role in the health of the immune system along with other antioxidants such as vitamin A, and the minerals zinc and selenium. Vitamin E helps prevent the destruction by free radicals, of vitamin A in the dog’s body. This group of nutrients must be present to ensure the healthy growth of all bodily systems in growing fetuses including the immune and skeletal system. Vitamin E is also involved in the formation of the genetic material - DNA – passed on by both the sperm and the egg. Animal studies have implicated a lack of vitamin E in early termination of pregnancy by resorption or abortion.

Vitamin D
Vitamin D works synergistically with vitamin A. It plays a role in absorbing and regulating calcium and phosphorous. This vitamin helps the body synthesize protein and helps build strong bones, teeth, and skin. It is vital to the health of the nervous system and kidneys. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is important to convert vitamin D precursors into the active D form. This conversion takes place in the outer skin layers. Cats have insufficient 7-dehydrocholesterol in the skin to meet the metabolic need for vitamin D photosynthesis; therefore, they require a dietary source of vitamin D. Vitamin D is acquired from animal organs such as liver, and egg yolk, fish or fish oils.

Folate, B12, and B6
During the early stages of pregnancy, folic acid (folate), cobalamin (B12) and Pyridoxine (B6) are important nutrients to promote cell division and early embryo development. Folic acid and vitamin B12 are closely related. They are necessary for the bone marrow to produce red blood cells, and a deficiency of either can lead to advanced anemia. In this type of anemia, the red cells are fewer in number but are larger than normal (macrocytic). The quantity of white blood cells may also be reduced. Vitamin B6 also helps cells to form and is used by the body in the utilization of amino acids. Folate, B6, and B12 are sensitive to heat, oxygen and ultraviolet light. Major dietary sources of these B vitamins include raw organ meats, especially liver, and muscle meat.

Vitamin C
Cats do not have an essential requirement for a dietary source of vitamin C. Under normal conditions, they synthesize vitamin C in their liver which produces the active enzyme L-gulonolactone oxidase, the last of the chain of four enzymes which synthesize ascorbic acid. There is no purpose in supplementing the queen’s diet unless there is a high metabolic need or inadequate synthesis. It is important to note that dietary vitamin C in natural foods has a distinct advantage over supplemental synthetic vitamin C, e.g. in supplemental form, since food sources also provide a number of other important micronutrients, bioflavonoids, carotenoids, and pectin. Vitamin C, in the form of ascorbic acid and dehydroascorbic acid, is widely available in foods of both plant and animal origin. Fruits, vegetables, and organ meats, e.g. liver, kidney, thymus, spleen and lungs, are generally the best sources.

Important Minerals
Adequate consumption of zinc and conditions for its optimum absorption are required in early pregnancy. The intelligence mineral, zinc is required for mental development, for healthy reproductive organs, for protein synthesis and collagen formation. Zinc is involved in the blood sugar control mechanism and is needed to maintain proper levels of vitamin E in the blood. Zinc deficiency during pregnancy can cause birth defects. It helps organize cells into healthy tissues and organs so the developing fetuses have what is needed when vital organs are being developed. Food sources include various organs and meat.

As its primary function, iron combines with copper and protein to form hemoglobin, the molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen. Iron also is necessary for certain enzymes in the body to function normally. Kittens can be born with lower than normal stores of iron if the queen did not receive adequate iron during pregnancy. Feeding supplemental iron to the queen while nursing can not make up for this lack of reserves since this treatment does not increase the iron content of the milk. Kittens with this condition often develop iron deficiency anemia during the nursing period. Iron values often decrease in the queen near the end of pregnancy. Iron is found in organs, meat and fish.

During the later stages of pregnancy, iron and calcium requirements significantly increase as the fetuses begin to draw more from the queen to meet their own demands. Calcium and phosphorus are required at levels greater than maintenance to support fetal skeletal development and lactation. Although eclampsia is uncommon in cats, it does occur pre- and postparteriently. One of the biggest mistakes made by breeders is to supplement with calcium in the hopes of preventing eclampsia. The time to add extra calcium to the diet, preferably through bones, is after the birth of the kittens, not before. Excessive prenatal calcium may down-regulate parathyroid gland secretion and impair normal mobilization of calcium from skeletal stores. As demand for calcium increases during late pregnancy and lactation, calcium homeostasis is no longer able to maintain critical levels. A diet containing sufficient digestible bone supplies calcium to phosphorus in a ratio of 2:1.

Selenium is essential for proper fetal growth and development and the requirement appears to increase during pregnancy. Selenium concentrations in the blood tend to be lower during pregnancy, particularly during the later stages. As selenium is a trace mineral, it is only required in small amounts.

During reproduction, water serves as a carrier of nutrients and wastes eliminated from the developing fetuses. Other important functions of dietary water during pregnancy and lactation are the regulation of body temperature and as an aid in milk production. Fresh water in a clean bowl should be available at all times. Keeping water bowls clean and changing water frequently tend to encourage water consumption.

Feeding for Pregnancy
With a few exceptions, the diet for the pregnant cat is not much different than the diet of any adult cat, providing it is optimal. A whole prey diet supplies fat and protein, and essential vitamins and minerals. It provides all the required nutrients for the queen to meet energy requirements and maintain most favorable health throughout pregnancy and lactation.

At the time of mating, the queen should be at her ideal weight. During the first half of the pregnancy, she does not require additional food. The kittens do not grow much during this time and it is important the queen does not become overweight. Since overweight queens have difficulty giving birth, they should be encouraged to take exercise through play but not to the extent that she becomes overtired or jumps and twists too vigorously.

During the last half of the pregnancy, the kittens do most of their growing. If the queen has not done so already, now is the time that she may demand more food. Meal size should be gradually reduced and numerous meals fed throughout the day rather than several larger meals. In general, highly digestible, nutritionally-dense foods are better suited at this time not only because nutrient needs increase as pregnancy progresses but increased abdominal fullness may impair the queen’s ability to ingest adequate amounts of nutrients.

By the ninth week, the kittens do not grow much more in weight but they do a lot of final developing. During this last week of pregnancy, as the queen comes closer to the delivery date, the total amount of food fed should be gradually reduced, so that a couple of days before she is due to give birth, she is receiving about half of the amount she was fed during the eighth week. At the same time, supplements should be gradually eliminated. Queens in the wild, towards the end of pregnancy, eat more of the organs from their prey rather than meat and bone material. In other words, they eat concentrated foods, rich in essential fatty acids, proteins, and vitamins. In the final days before giving birth, the queen may begin to go off her food and draw on many of the nutrients stored in her body. These reserves include among other things the calcium stores in her bones. She will continue to do this for the first three to four days after the kittens are born. That is why it is so important that she has been properly fed to this point.

Feeding for Lactation
A lactating queen, at peak condition, with a large litter of kittens, can be fed as much as she wants. It is imperative that top quality food is available to her. The only time food should be limited, is if the litter is very small – one or perhaps two kittens. The diet that meets the demands of lactation should include an adequate intake of fluids to make milk. Fresh water, but not milk, should be available at all times. The lactation diet must contain high levels of quality protein and a calcium-rich, balanced source of minerals. It must also provide a source of concentrated energy from fats and essential fatty acids along with adequate vitamins and minerals. The feeding principle throughout lactation is simply based on quality and quantity. If these requirements are met, then the kittens will thrive and the queen will maintain condition.

Feeding the Urban Carnivore

Whole Animal Carcass Patties
An assortment of whole animal carcass patties should ideally be rotated ensuring both white and red meat patties are offered. The carcass patties are the foundation of the pregnant and lactating queen’s diet. The Urban Carnivore offers a wide range of whole animal carcass patties including chicken, beef, lamb, bison, elk, duck and quail. Whole animal patties contain meat, organ systems, bones, cartilage, etc., as naturally found in a prey animal carcass. Queens that require more energy (calories), especially during lactation with larger litters should be maintained on mostly duck, chicken, and lamb, as these diets are higher in fat. Rabbit and quail and any of the red meat patties should also be included for variation.

Offal (Organ Meat)
A small amount (1/2-1 tsp) of the Urban Carnivore Offal can be mixed in with the whole animal patties or fed as a small separate meal each day. Organs offer a nutrient-dense source of nourishment for the queen and growing fetuses. Additional offal in the queen’s diet is in keeping with the feline natural feeding behavior where they often show a preference for entrails over other parts of the carcass, especially during the last weeks of pregnancy. If stools become loose, offal should be decreased to a level where normal stools are observed. Throughout lactation, approximately offal can be included in the diet, three or four times a week.

Raw Meaty Bones
Along with whole animal carcass patties, the queen can continue to eat suitably sized whole raw meaty bones such as chicken or duck necks for nutritional purposes and also to maintain teeth and gums. Raw meaty bones should be temporarily reduced during the last two weeks of pregnancy. Towards the end of pregnancy, it is important to feed less calcium rich foods so that the queen’s parathyroid glands get the signal that they need to start working. The parathyroid hormone takes the calcium out of the bones to keep the blood calcium levels normal. This means feeding less bone and more meat and offal. Prior to pregnancy, early in pregnancy and when the queen is lactating is when sufficient calcium is required. There is very little calcium deposited in the kittens’ bones before they are born compared to what they need and receive through the milk after they are born. Whole chicken or duck necks or ground Chicken Meaty Bone patties supply extra calcium during lactation.

Supplements
Supplementation with vitamins and minerals should serve only to enhance the diet, rather than replace foods that are not supplying adequate nourishment. Cold Water Fish Oil can be added in the diet daily or throughout the week. If the queen requires a high-fat diet throughout lactation, then additional supplementation with vitamin E can be beneficial. Raw egg yolk can be added to the whole animal carcass patties three or four times a week. Several meals of fatty fish can also be rotated in the weekly diet for variation.