What to do with an unexpected litter

Beware - keeping an unneutered pet could get you and your furry friend into a serious tangle, says Justine Hankins. From the PetPeople magazine archive

The image of many tiny paws padding about the house is an enticing one, but, as any breeder will confirm, raising a healthy, happy litter of youngsters' is an expensive and time-consuming endeavour requiring commitment, patience and expertise.

Responsible pet owners will make sure that their pets have all the necessary health checks before breeding and that their own circumstances fit the bill. However, the unexpected can happen to anyone. In cats and dogs the instinct to reproduce is strong, and the only really sure way to avoid an unplanned pregnancy is to have your pet neutered at the appropriate time. Cats can be spayed as young as four months old, and dogs before their first season, although you should consult your local vet for guidance on when your pet is ready. Left to their own devices, cats can have up to three litters a year and dogs two, so keeping an unneutered pet could mean you've got several 'special deliveries' waiting to happen. Unneutered female cats, for example, begin 'calling' when they become sexually mature and will do this about every two weeks for much of the year if they don't become pregnant. Calling queens and bitches in season will also attract every entire male in the neighbourhood, which can be a nuisance.

Of course, you may have an unneutered pet for a number of reasons - maybe because you haven't got around to it yet, or because you plan to breed from them in the future. Whatever the case, if you suspect your pet has mated, it's vital to visit your vet, who should be able to tell you whether this is the case and explain your options. They will be able to confirm a pregnancy around 14 days after mating in cats, and 28 days in dogs.

Before deciding to go ahead with a pet's pregnancy, you should ponder carefully if it is in the animal's best interest. Is your dog or cat fit and well enough for pregnancy and birth? Is she the right age to become a mother? Given that female cats and dogs usually have their first season at around six months of age, for example, they could become pregnant before they reach full maturity - far too young, both physically and emotionally, for a dog or cat to have a litter. And if a female dog has mated with a larger male, continuing with the pregnancy could prove extremely dangerous for her.

Financial considerations should also be taken into account. Pet insurance policies typically exclude the cost of treatment to do with breeding, pregnancy or birth, so you should assess whether or not you can afford these bills, not to mention food costs and vets' fees after the birth. And do you have the time to care for a litter, plus somewhere for your pet to give birth and raise its young?

Mum's the word

If, after careful consideration, you decide to proceed with the pregnancy, remember that your pet will need a good-quality diet (specially formulated foods are available) which should be gradually increased to reflect her changing nutritional needs. Healthy animals generally cope very well with pregnancy, but it's important to stay in touch with your vet for advice on preparing for the birth and caring for your puppies or kittens. For example, you'll need to keep your pet clean and free from parasites - your vet will advise on which treatments are safe to use during pregnancy.

You can start looking for new homes for the kittens or puppies as soon as you know a litter is on the way. Begin by asking family and friends if they're thinking of getting a pet and, if you end up homing your puppies or kittens with strangers, make sure you ask the right questions (see opposite page) before you send them on their way. As the birth approaches, you'll need to provide your pet with a whelping or kittening box, which should be kept in a quiet spot. You can buy these ready-made or even make one out of a strong cardboard box. A kittening box should have a closed-off section to create a nest. You will also need some old towels (which should be disposed of after the birth) and some warm bedding.

When a cat is ready to give birth, she will begin nest-making and her breathing will increase. A dog will often become restless and pant or whimper. Your pet will probably not need veterinary supervision during the birth, but make sure you have your vet's phone number handy and that you know the arrangements for out-of-hours care. It's also a good idea to find out as much as you can about potential complications beforehand, just to make sure you'll be in the best possible position to spot any signs of trouble.

Early days of life

You should stay with your pet during the birth and be prepared to be near the litter during their first few days and weeks, providing food and water and a safe, peaceful environment for the mother, as well as being close to hand in case anything goes wrong.

In most cases, the mother will know instinctively how to look after her young, and it's best not to interfere unless there are concerns for the welfare of any of the litter. From three to four weeks, puppies and kittens can be given liquid or semi-solid foods in addition to their mother's milk. Kittens can then move on to solid food at four to five weeks, and puppies at five to six weeks.

As the animals get older, they'll become much more active and playful. Make sure that they're confined to a safe space - a spare room or utility room, for instance - without access to anything that could harm them. Puppies and kittens should ideally stay with their mother until they are at least eight weeks old.

With dogs, in particular, you have a responsibility to socialise the youngsters so they grow up to be happy, well-adjusted family pets. The new arrivals should be left in peace and quiet for the first three weeks, but at that stage you should be introducing them to new experiences such as visitors, grooming and handling. Whatever your circumstances may be, breeding cats and dogs is not something to be entered into lightly but, while it is generally a lot better for your pet if their pregnancy is a planned one, even an accidental breeder can be a highly responsible and successful one.

Breeding like rabbits

Before you let them go:

You'll want to be sure your puppies or kittens are going to good homes. Here are some questions to ask potential new owners:

Help is at hand

Download our helpful advice pack at www.petplan.co.uk/newparent