During mammalian preimplantation development, two successive differentiation events lead to the establishment of three committed lineages with separate fates: the trophectoderm, the primitive endoderm and the pluripotent epiblast. In the mouse embryo, the molecular mechanisms underlying these two cell fate decisions have been studied extensively, leading to the identification of lineage-specific transcription factors. Species-specific differences in expression patterns of key regulatory genes have been reported, raising questions regarding their role in different species. The aim of the present study was to characterise the gene expression patterns of pluripotency (OCT4, SOX2, NANOG) and differentiation (CDX2, GATA6)-related markers during feline early development using reverse transcription-quantitative polymerase chain reaction. In addition, we assessed the impact of in vitro development on gene expression by comparing transcript levels of the genes investigated between in vitro and in vivo blastocysts. To normalise quantitative data within different preimplantation embryo stages, we first validated a set of stable reference genes. Transcript levels of all genes investigated were present and changed over the course of preimplantation development; a highly significant embryo-stage effect on gene expression was observed. Transcript levels of OCT4 were significantly reduced in in vitro blastocysts compared with their in vivo counterparts. None of the other genes investigated showed altered expression under in vitro conditions. The different gene expression patterns of OCT4, SOX2, CDX2 and GATA6 in cat embryos resembled those described in mouse embryos, indicative of a preserved role for these genes during early segregation. However, because of the absence of any upregulation of NANOG transcription levels after embryonic genome activation, it is unlikely that NANOG is a key regular of lineage segregation. Such results support the hypothesis that the behaviour of early lineage markers can be species specific. The present study also revealed a pool of maternal NANOG mRNA transcripts, the role of which remains to be elucidated. Comparing transcription levels of these genes between in vivo and in vitro blastocysts revealed low levels of OCT4 mRNA in the latter, which may contribute to the reduced developmental competence of embryos under suboptimal conditions.