Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Rescue Story: “My First Litter”, Part Two

tabby cat
Furson, several weeks after the kittens

You can read part one of this story at “My First Litter”, Part One. When we left off Zosia had been uneventfully installed in the spare bedroom with food and litter, and we were waiting for kittens…

. . . . . . .

No kittens were born that first night, though I was reluctant to go to bed, certain that I’d sleep through kitten birth. After all, she was shaped properly and lactating just  a bit, but even the book—no internet for me to reference in 1988—said it could still be up to three days or even more before the kittens were born. But when Bootsie, my first cat, had had kittens when I was about nine, I didn’t remember any sound at all, and I’m a heavy sleeper, so I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t sleep through it. I considered sleeping on the floor.

Zosia (pronounced “zosh-ya”), had turned out to be very affectionate, and probably thankful as well, so she laid down and I ran my hand over her huge belly, she purred, then I finally left the room.

Five cats were variously assembled in the upstairs hall outside the door, silently staring at the door when I opened it. Kublai made a break for the room, I put my foot in front of him, stepped out and closed the door. It was a move I’d be practicing several times each day for the next couple of months.

They looked at me, even gentle Moses, betrayed because I’d spent time behind a closed door with another cat.

“Get over it,” I said. “You’ve seen it before.”

I washed my hands and got ready for bed and off we all went.

I remembered as soon as I woke up the next morning and ran to check in Zosia’s room. She was so happy to see me.

“No kittens yet?”

No, but you have me.

That I did, as she rubbed her round little body against my shins. I planned working in that room that Sunday.

That spare bedroom was loosely my studio, but I was not really involved in my artwork yet; this was the time when I was, as I always say in my bio, “working at night after work” on my artwork, but I was still practicing, sketching in pencil from magazine photos, not really producing anything, not sure if I ever would—it’s hard to imagine my life without the art I’ve done for over two decades. But in addition to the pittance of pencils and sketch pads and calligraphy pens and ink I had at the time, I also had my sewing machine in that room, my yarns and crochet and knitting needles, basket willow and a lot of other craft items.

It’s funny to think of the spare bedroom now, and all the years in between, serving this dual purpose in that house and this—being my place for creativity and my place for spare cats. Moses had been the first in that room, when I would sit on the floor and quietly crochet as she studied me from under the bed, then eventually inched her way out, then sat and looked at me, came over and smelled me and relaxed. I could talk to her, but it was months before I could even move my hand in her direction without frightening her. But it was those quiet times with my art and craft and kitties that established the habits I still have today and my relationships with them as well. My cats have always liked me best when I’m at my creative thing because that’s when I’m the happiest, and I’ve no doubt it’s because the pattern was set as we spent quiet time getting to know each other in the spare bedroom/studio, and they associated their growing trust with my creative time.

So Zosia and I spent time that day and she was very pleased with her arrangement, but there were no kittens. I snuck out the door, washed up and went to bed; the work week began the next morning.

I left early and came home late, working at least ten hours each day, at that time of the year it was often nearly dark at both times. I told my friends at work about the pregnant cat I’d taken in and thought about her all day.

When I came home from work, to the horror of Kublai and Sally, Stanley and Allegro and Moses, I ran in the door and right past them with no thought of dinner. Still no kittens.

On Thursday evening when I had fed the regulars and gone upstairs to spend some time with Zosia I noticed she hadn’t eaten much and wasn’t quite as friendly as usual and I was concerned—first because it was almost a week since she’d shown up ready to give birth but hadn’t and now that she wasn’t eating I was sure something was very wrong. I had called the veterinary clinic I regularly went to who were also there after hours, and as they had reassured me as long as she was eating she was probably fine, now they told me she was probably ready to give birth. If she didn’t, or if she had problems, bring her in.

I had a flat box with blankets and sheets in it for her to use, but she began the tradition of females who turned their l little noses up at the human’s perceived birthing haven for a spot on something that was either difficult to clean or difficult to get to. I managed to convince her not to continue preparing the exact geographic center of the bed as her nest and to use any spot on a large blanket I’d spread on the floor.

blurry photo
The only photo I have of the kittens at all.

Glad my photo skills have improved; this dark and blurry photo is all I have of the night of the kittens or the whole family together.

Finally, all the waiting was done and at 11:50 PM she gave birth to a tiny smoky gray kitten with very little trouble, only what seemed a normal amount of time and effort. She cleaned the kitten and I decided it was black, not gray. I knew at some point in the first hour (I had the book right there) it should belly up to the milk bar. I remembered Bootsie giving birth one kitten after the other—seven all together, poor girl—and figured the others would soon follow. Now that birth was finally happening, I was so excited!

And surely enough, she seemed to begin the birth process again about 20 minutes later, but shortly into this birth I could tell things weren’t going well. She began to get up and pace in circles, then lie down again and lick herself, then began meowing, but no new kitten appeared.

The little black kitten was trying to get a chance to nurse, but she actually stepped on it a few times in her growing distress so I moved it a little bit away and nestled it in folds of the blanket rather than holding it in case I had to get up to help Zosia—though I had no idea what to do.

As she began to emit short shrieks and rolled even more waving her paws and grabbing at where I could see a kitten was finally beginning to protrude as if she was trying to pull it out, I was suddenly cold with fear and just thinking I’d get up to call the vet—there was a phone extension in that room—when she began howling and actually grabbed the black kitten in her paws and tried to bite it. I somehow managed to get the kitten from her and held it but I was afraid I’d break it though I didn’t know what to do; a quick check showed it was still breathing and I didn’t see any blood.

While I looked for a safe place for the kitten she flailed around on the floor with long loud shrieks of pain that made my hair stand on end and I could hear the cats outside the door hit the road down the steps, but I could also see the kitten continuing to emerge into the world, and head first, not backward or sideways or even a conjoined twin or any other horrible thing I’d imagined. Finally, the kitten was out, and she stopped all her yowling and rolling and began cleaning it as if nothing had happened.

I stood there holding the little black kitten cupped in my hands, my ears ringing and my heart beating as if I’d been the one to just have a difficult birth. The whole thing had probably taken three minutes but they were three of the most horrifying minutes of my life, not for what happened, but for what might have happened and I realized how totally unprepared I was.

It finally occurred to me to put the black kitten with her and the other kitten, which looked decidedly gray and was nearly twice the size of the first kitten. Could that have been the problem?

Things proceeded normally, with two clean, dry kittens who began nursing and everyone started purring and we were pretty much back to normal, or what seemed normal. Another 15 minutes, half hour, 45 minutes went by and nothing happened. I decided to call the vet and describe what had happened.

gray tom cat
The gray tom who was likely the father of at least two of the kittens, Boris and Natasha.

Sure, if a small and young cat had mated with a larger cat, the kitten could be fairly large, and she could have trouble giving birth especially with her first litter. She told me a number of other things that really frightened me, like the same thing could happen again but since she’d passed that kitten she’d probably also pass the next, and I decided I’d never sleep again, at least until I was absolutely certain she had no more kittens in there.

I tentatively left her to go get coffee and see how the rest of the house was doing. A bunch of really big eyes were out in the hallway, and no one tried to run into the room.

Around 2:00 AM she began to act birthy again and I was ready to grab those two sleeping kittens, but this was a normal birth again, and in about ten minutes there was another gray-looking kitten, a little larger than the first, but smaller than the second.

About 20 minutes after that she went through the same process but expelled just a dark lump of some sort that had no features. Another call to the vet. Well, that could have been a stillbirth, but since it wasn’t developed it could actually be a kitten that had died, in which case she was darned lucky she hadn’t developed an infection that could have killed all the kittens and her as well. It was hard to tell, but it was not afterbirth and there is nothing else a cat would expel from her womb.

The tech explained to me more about the Y-shape of a cat’s uterus, that kittens develop in a line in each side—I pictured sausage casing, an image that still stays with me today—and that the two sides take turns during birth, a kitten from one side, a kitten from the other. If that apparent lump of tissue had come from one side, it was doubtful there were any living kittens still in that side of the uterus, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t another that had died. I wrapped it in paper towels and later buried it out in my garden, near where I first saw her.

Three kittens were nursing and cuddling, she was nuzzling, everyone was purring except me, who was waiting for the next horrifying circumstance. I thought giving birth to kittens was easy! Cats did it all the time, everywhere! She had technically given birth to four, a typical litter, but I wasn’t taking chances, I was staying in the room. The tech had also told me that because all the kittens probably had different fathers and she had likely mated over the course of a few days, the kittens could be born hours apart; she had even seen kittens born the next day.

Oh, joy. It was now after 3:00 AM, I had to go to work the next day, but decided if I had to sleep I’d sleep on the floor. Zosia was back to being her affectionate self, got up and ate and used the litterbox and walked around. I took the time to remove the wet and bloody blankets and situate her kittens on a thickly-folded blanket with no box under the sewing machine cabinet, and she was fine with that. Around 4:30 I made coffee and took a shower and dressed for work, then came back in to visit again.

The three kittens were nursing and I looked at Zosia’s sweet face as she laid on her side, certain I saw her thanks to me, and I returned a thanks that she had asked me to help her. She shifted a bit and raised one hind leg—and one more kitten just slipped right out and hit me in the knee! I could swear Zosia had a mischievous twinkle in her eye as she sat up, despite the nursing kittens falling off her nipples, and leaned over to clean the new kitten.

I didn’t leave the house until 8:00 but that seemed to be the end of the kittens, and when I returned home from work all was pretty much as I’d left it, no more kittens, no disasters.

I kept an eye on Zosia, looking for any signs of infection just in case she hadn’t expelled all the kittens, not unusual with first litters especially with a suspected problem, but she showed no signs of any problems, and each of her kittens was healthy and active.

She she always gave a big greeting when I came in or when others did, but sat back kind of disappointed but good-natured when her kittens got more attention than her, but her patience would get its reward.

The kittens

I was busy naming kittens and cats after my ethnic heritage at that time, but I named the little black kitten Genghis Khan after my black cat, Kublai Khan. Why not? He kept that name all his life.

calico cat on calico couch
Where is Nikka?!

That big gray kitten quickly grew into a bigger gray kitten, and I knew the big gray tom who looked like a small grizzly bear and walked down the middle of the streets and dogs ran away from was his father. No wonder Zosia had had such trouble giving birth to a kitten with those genes. He was quite a large adult, but a real love bug.

The little grayish one just after apparently mixed her father’s gray and her mother’s calico, and became a wildly friendly and affectionate and very playful dilute tortie.

I named these two “Boris and Natasha” after the characters in the Bullwinkle cartoon, and kind of referring to both my ancestors and the Kublai and Genghis Khan connection. Whatever.

Natasha was adopted and named Nikka but in 1993 I took her back after her adopter’s life took a bad turn and she stayed with me from that time.

Genghis and Boris were adopted by the same friends who now have Lucy’s brothers Angus and Donal. I have no photos of the two—imagine that! But Genghis did look quite a bit like Kublai and Boris like the big gray tom, above.

    Waiting for Mom, pastel, 16" x 23", 1988 © B.E. Kazmarski
Waiting for Mom, pastel, 16″ x 23″, 1988 © B.E. Kazmarski

That last little kitten to be born was my Fawn, the “runt” of the litter but the first to do everything. At the time they were born, I was listening to the Iran-Contra hearings on public radio (you can look that up), and a certain secretary named Fawn Hall was charged with shredding truckloads of important documents, so when the little torbie kitten began shredding the newspapers around the litterbox I named her in somewhat sarcastic honor. Fawn loved the family of rescues she was born into and loved me best of all in the world. She was not adopted and ended up staying with me, and the very next year became the subject of my first pastel portrait, “Waiting for Mom”.

And while Genghis and Boris’s humans had wanted to adopt the two brothers, when they came to meet the kittens apparently Zosia brazenly showed off her spotted belly and won them over. Her name became Phurson.

Lessons learned

Get the worst over with first. That way you really are prepared for everything—I know I avoided many regrets in later situations because of what I learned that night.

That was one crash course in kitten births! I purchased a few more books and read about feline births as I sat in there with her, and subscribed to a few magazines as well. If I was going to be doing this, I wasn’t going to be caught off-guard again!

Looking back, Bootsie was only seven months old when she gave birth to her seven kittens, and I’m so glad she had no problems like Zosia. To this day I have carried much of what I learned in that first litter of my cat rescue life and never—never—take kitten births for granted.

Read more of my stories from decades of rescuing and fostering cats, with a few from other rescuers mixed in: Rescue Stories.

Browse some rescued cats and kittens!


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