How often can a cat give birth in a year?

Domestic cats give birth 2-3 times per year. As for the wild cats, it is normally once per year. However, surprisingly, I have seen a range of answers to the question in the title. A well-known website states that the female domestic cat can give birth 5 times in one year. Dr. Desmond Morris in his book CATWATCHING says that the domestic cat has 3 litters per year. Mel and Fiona Sunquist in their book Wild Cats of the World perhaps provide the best answer so I will focus on it.

Litter of ginger tabby and white kittens
Litter of ginger tabby and white kittens. Photo: Pixabay.
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The domestic cat is polyoestrous. During the breeding season females typically have a series of oestrous cycles at 15-day intervals unless conception occurs. The period of receptivity lasts 1-4 days. “Females may be inseminated by more than one father. In most areas domestic cats commonly have 2 litters a year. In Sweden, for example, 60% of older females bred twice a year and 7% bred 3 times” (reference: O. Liberg 1983 Courtship behaviour and sexual selection in the domestic cat)

Five litters per year seems to be technically or theoretically possible but in practice it is more likely to be 2-3 litters per year. Therefore, the domestic cat can give birth 2-3 times a year, to answer the question in the title.

Wild cats

But the question does not refer to domestic cats. Dr. Desmond Morris says that the European wild cats have a single litter each year. Therefore, they give birth once a year. Mel and Fiona Sunquist say that they have two litters in a single year.

Bobcat kittens
Four bobcat kittens. Photo: National Park Service — Ana Beatriz Cholo/National Park Service via AP

To take another well-known wild cat species, the sand cat. In Pakistan, this small and attractive wild cat species “may have 2 litters per year” (Mel and Fiona Sunquist).

With respect to the bobcat, the Sunquists say that “In Florida, one semi-tame female produced 2 litters in one year, but this appears to be unusual”. I expect one litter per year to be more usual.

Kittens drinking their mother's colostrum
Kittens drinking their mother’s colostrum. Photo: Pixabay.

With respect to the lion, the Sunquists don’t spell out how often a lioness can give birth in year but they do say this. “When a lioness loses her young, she becomes sexually receptive almost immediately, and can conceive as soon as 2 weeks after the death of her previous litter, although the interval is usually much longer. On average, females conceive again 134 days after the loss of their cubs, whereas females with surviving young will not mate again until the young are more than 18 months old.”

This supports the reason why incoming male lions who take over a pride kill young lions. It is because they make the lioness sexually receptive almost immediately so they have his cubs. But if the pride is not taken over, you can see that a female may give birth once every 18 months based upon what the Sunquists have written in their book Wild Cats of the World.

Siberian tiger cub septuplets born in captivity
Siberian tiger cub septuplets born in captivity. Photo in public domain.

The conclusion that I can bring to this article is that you can’t give a one size fits all answer to the question in the title. And if people want to work out how many kittens can be produced by one female cat over the cat’s lifetime you can produce 2 kinds of figures. The theoretical answer and the practical answer.

Theoretically, if a female domestic cat has 3 litters per year and a total of 14 kittens in those 3 litters, in 5 years’ time there will be a total of 65,536 cats! But this assumes that all survive and that males and females are born equal numbers and that they start breeding when they are 12 months old. In reality this doesn’t work out but clearly an unsterilised female cat is very productive which is why it is so important to sterilise both females and males to reduce the number of unwanted cats on the planet.

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