How Many Kittens Can A Cat Have?
By Chyrle Bonk, DVM July 01, 2019
No doubt about it, we all love kittens. However, it turns out that there are too many kittens out there to count! Cats are naturally very prolific, and if left unchecked they can produce a family tree that looks more like a thick bush or shrub. You may have come across the number 420,000 as the number of, one unspayed female and her offspring can produce in seven years. While this number may seem a little out there and only be true under the most perfect of conditions, the number of kittens that one female cat can produce in a lifetime is still up there. Before you decide to let your cat have just one litter of kittens to enjoy the experience, take a look at some of the facts about a cat’s ability to reproduce.
How Many Kittens Can A Cat Have?
On average, a cat can have three litters of kittens per year with four kittens per litter. Female cats can reproduce basically throughout their entire life meaning they can have kittens for 12-15 years. That means one female cat could possibly have 180 kittens in a lifetime.
There are many factors that influence the number of kittens that a cat can have. To truly answer the question of how many kittens a cat can have, we need to look into each of those factors.
When Do Cats Become Able To Reproduce?
The quick answer to when cats become able to reproduce is six months of age. Now with that being said, there is much variation between individuals as well as between different breeds. Some breeds, like the Siamese, will reach reproductive maturity at four months while the Persian might wait until 10 months. Females tend to be a month or two sooner than males. Reproductive maturity may be reached sooner if the kitten is in the presence of other intact cats. Just because a kitten is able to reproduce doesn’t mean they should. If cats are being intentionally bred, it’s best to wait until they’re at least one year old to ensure they are big enough to handle having a litter of kittens.
How Many Kittens Are There Per Litter?
The number of kittens per litter is greatly influenced by internal and external factors. Cats are induced ovulators, meaning that they don’t release eggs until they are bred. So, the more breedings a female has per heat cycle, the more kittens are produced. Kittens in a litter can have different fathers for this reason.
Litter numbers are also influenced by a female’s age and breed. Younger maiden cats tend to produce smaller litters as well as cats in their older years of production. Cats 3 to 4 years old produce larger litters overall. Just as with the age of reproductive maturity, Siamese cats tend to produce larger litters and Persians produce smaller numbers as a whole.
Outside factors that have an impact on the number of kittens per litter include nutrition and disease. Mothers that are well fed will have larger litters, while mothers that are struggling to survive will produce smaller litters. This number is affected due to a decrease in the number of eggs released as well as an increase in fetal abortion. Diseases like feline infectious peritonitis and feline distemper will also increase the rate of fetal abortions leading to a smaller litter size.
Why Are Cat Litters So Big?
Cats produce multiple kittens per litter because it’s a harsh cruel world out there filled with danger. Feral cats, especially, are faced with many perils that can decrease the number of kittens that survive. Disease, malnutrition, predators, and traumatic accidents make it hard for a kitten to thrive. We all want to pass a little bit of ourselves onto the next generation, so the best way for a cat to do that is by having a large number of kittens per litter to increase the odds.
Kitten Survival Rates
A shocking statistic from a study published in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association showed a kitten survival rate of 25% in a group of free-roaming domestic cats. Yikes! That means 75% of kittens died or disappeared before six months of age. While this number doesn’t hold true for a litter of kittens born indoors, survival rates are variable.
The number of kittens that survive out of a litter can vary based on whether the kittens are feral, domestic, purebred, or mixed. Naturally, feral kittens experience a higher mortality rate than domestic cats and mixed breed cats experience a higher survival rate due to a smaller genetic disease component. Orphaned kittens, even under a human’s care are also subject to lower survival rates.
About 5% of kitten deaths occur before birth. The fetuses may be resorbed by the mother or stillborn. Inadequate nutrition in the mother, disease, or genetic defects are to blame for death in these young babies.
After that, the first week of life shows the highest mortality. At this age, causes such as hypothermia, dehydration, and low blood sugar due to malnutrition account for the mortalities. Newborn kittens need warmth and sustenance, so an inexperienced or unwilling mother can increase the mortality rate significantly.
Once kittens make it through those first three weeks of life, the next hardest hit stage is weaning. While a kitten is surviving on a mother’s breast milk, it is receiving immune-building antibodies that help fight off disease. At weaning those kittens have to then drastically develop their own immune system, so infectious disease can be a huge detriment at this age. This is why vaccinations are so important. Weaning is also the time that a kitten ventures out on their own and trauma-related deaths drastically increase.
When Do Cats Stop Reproducing?
Female cats can reproduce almost throughout their entire life. While they don’t go through menopause like people do, other physical factors may decrease the likelihood of giving birth to live kittens. Age related ailments such as arthritis can make it difficult to breed. Moreover, producing litter after litter of kittens can leave the uterus fatigued and less hospitable. So even though a 15 year old female cat may still release the eggs necessary to get pregnant, the rest of her body wants a break.
Similarly, male cats are capable of breeding until a ripe old age. Again, physical factors such as arthritis may make it more difficult. Also, spermatic defects can increase with age decreasing the likelihood of conception.
To Spay Or Neuter Your Cat - The Big Question
If you’re not looking to raise kittens as a profession, then it’s always best to spay or neuter your feline friends. There are many benefits to having this procedure performed. The most obvious reason would be no unwanted or surprise litters, meaning fewer kittens to rehome. Millions of cats are sitting in animal shelters across the country waiting for that forever home that they may never find. Allowing just one litter of kittens can increase the burden on existing shelters and reduce the chances of existing shelter cats being adopted.
Another great reason for spaying and neutering is that it nearly erases a cat’s chances of developing breast cancer and prostate troubles and completely obliterates ovarian, uterine, and testicular cancer. Spaying also cuts out the chance of a cat developing life-threatening uterine infections.
If that weren’t enough, spaying and neutering removes a cat’s drive to reproduce which can equal less wandering and fighting. You also won’t have to deal with the nearly incessant yowling and writhing that comes with a female cat in heat. Neutered males are less likely to spray and their urine doesn’t smell as foul. If a cat isn’t focused on passing on their bloodlines, they can be more focused on you.
Spaying and neutering procedures can be scary to some pet parents, so they may opt to prevent pregnancy in other ways. While this may seem like an easy task, remember that females come into heat multiple times per year and stay that way for about a week. Male cats are determined to breed when around females in heat, so keeping your kitties inside may become difficult to do. Keeping cats separated to prevent pregnancy doesn’t give any of the cancer prevention or behavioral benefits that spaying and neutering does either.
Cats are very prolific producers if left unchecked. Just because a cat is capable of having 12 or more kittens per year doesn’t mean that she should. Practice responsible breeding habits or have your feline friend spayed or neutered. Every kitty deserves a well-cared for life with responsible pet parents.