SEX & THE SINGLE CAT
Love is in the air. As a result, countless cats will celebrate Mother’s Day this year—and their unwanted offspring will be lucky to escape with their lives.
“Most veterinarians spay and neuter cats at six months of age,” says Dr. Jerold S. Bell, Associate Professor of Genetics at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “But this may not prevent female cats from coming into heat, which can begin any time after four months of age especially in the spring.”
Population control tops the list of benefits for spaying and neutering. Leaving cats intact and then locking them in the house to prevent mating might seem like a good alternative, but it wreaks havoc on feline health.
“Nature designed an amazingly efficient feline reproduction system. Having kittens is natural, not having kittens is not,” says Dr. Susan Little, a feline reproduction specialist and president of the Winn Feline Foundation. “The male cat’s will and the libido is there, but nature doesn’t care so much if that equipment isn’t frequently used. But the female’s reproductive tract either needs to be used as nature intended or it needs to be removed.”
During cat breeding season (January to October), amorous girl kitties go into heat every two weeks until they become pregnant, and can produce a litter of kittens about every 65 days. Coming into heat repeatedly yet not getting pregnant can result in life-threatening uterine infections, and uterine and ovarian cancers, says Dr. Little. Besides that, she notes that intact males and females do not make the best roommates.
Intact tomcats can become aggressive to owners and other animals. They get into frequent fights, which can prompt abscesses and exposure to infectious diseases such as feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia virus. Intact male and female cats tend to spray pungent urine to mark their territory.
The literature shows that the earlier you neuter cats, the less behavior problems will develop. The key is to spay/neuter before sexual maturity, which may occur in female cats between four and 21 months of age and in male cats between eight and ten months of age.
“Due to the protective effect against breast cancer, four months of age may be a better recommendation for females,” says Dr. Bell.
Dr. Autumn Davidson, clinical professor at the University of California, Davis, says that there is not an ideal age for the surgery. “Waiting until immunization is complete is best, EXCEPT in shelter situations where compliance with adoptive owners is problematic,” she says.
Early spay/neuter can be defined as surgical sterilization procedures performed on animals who are less than the traditional six months of age. Generally, “early” implies that animals are between 6-16 weeks of age. The terms “juvenile” or “pediatric” are preferred, since “early” may suggest that the surgery is being performed before a recommended time, which is not the case, says Dr. Julie D. Dinnage, co-founder and Executive Director of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV).
“In the shelter setting, spay and neuter before adoption is a critical component in reducing the birth of unwanted animals, and pediatric surgeries are an essential part of this,” says Dr. Miranda Spindel, president of ASV and director of Veterinary Outreach with the ASPCA.
The procedure is the same whether performed on pediatric or adult cats. The surgical incision for male cats is made in the scrotal sac, and the testicles removed. Female uterus and ovaries are removed through an abdominal incision.
Objections to pediatric sterilization have included concerns about effects on growth, increased femoral (leg bone) fracture risk, obesity, behavioral changes, increased disease risk, and safety of anesthesia and surgery in pediatric patients.
The risk of fracture would be the same for cats altered at any age prior to sexual maturity, notes Dr. Bell, so juvenile sterilization does not increase the risk for this rare occurrence. He says subtle differences occur in bone maturation between cats that have been altered at an earlier age versus over one year of age, but the differences do not outweigh the health benefits of early altering.
“Altered cats have a lower metabolic rate and can become obese, but this does not differ based on the age of altering,” says Dr. Bell. “Owners need to be counseled on the nutritional and exercise needs of their cats so that they do not become obese.”
Dr. Little says that studies show altered male and female cats are friendlier to people than intact cats. And rather than increase, sterilization lowers the disease risk. Neutered male cats have less lower urinary tract disease, less asthma, and less gingivitis. Spaying females lowers their risk of mammary cancer.
“The risk of early-age sterilization surgery is not the surgery itself, but the anesthesia,” says Dr. Bell. “With new anesthetic agents, and recognition of the support and monitoring needs of young kittens, the risks are significantly diminished.”
Compared to adults, kittens have a much greater surface-to-body area, have less body fat, and have a reduce ability to shiver, so they can be at higher risk for hypothermia--low body temperature. Surgeons must also watch for a slow heart rate, as well as low blood sugar levels. Withholding food prior to surgery and feeding after surgery is different for young kittens than adults.
Kittens altered at less than 12 weeks had lower postoperative complication rates than those altered at over 23 weeks of age in one study. Surgeons reported the kittens suffered less bleeding, required less surgery times and had more rapid recoveries. The organs also were more easily seen.
Pediatric surgery is still not a procedure taught in every veterinary college, says Dr. Spindell. As a result, some veterinarians are uncomfortable with the technical aspect of the surgery or the anesthesia. Many believe that pediatric surgery has an important place in population control for animal shelters, but don’t believe the same to hold true in a practice setting.
“The surgery itself is less technically challenging and can be performed rapidly with fewer perioperative complications in young animals,” says Dr. Spindell. “Young animals recover rapidly from anesthesia and the surgery. On a broader level, veterinarians, whether they work in a shelter or in a private clinic, have an ethical responsibility to be engaged in reducing animal homelessness.”
Single cats have no need of sex--and they won’t miss it. Show your fur-kids how much you really love them. This spring, reduce health risks and improve their purr-potential by spaying and neutering your cats--the earlier, the better.
While pediatric spay and neuter might be closely associated with shelter kittens, many professional breeders also embrace the concept. When a request for comments was posted to a popular cat health list, more than thirty breeders from around the world responded, all with remarkably similar replies.
Deborah Hudson of British Columbia, Canada breeds Himalayans and silver Persians, and has done pediatric sterilization on her 12-week-old kittens since 2002. “The boys come home the same day and act like nothing happened, and are playful,” she says. “Even the girls act like they have not had major surgery.”
Laura Hannah did juvenile neuters for ten years in rescue cats before taking it to her Oriental Shorthair cats about three years ago. “Behavioral problems are stopped before they can start,” she says, noting it’s one less worry the new kitten owner must deal with.
Maureen Stepanoff’s Raggeleda Cattery of Perth, Western Australia boasts Ragdolls, British shorthair and Scottish Fold cats, and has performed the surgery for nine years. “Within a couple of hours, they play, climb, race around, smooch and eat normally,” she says. “I have never had a kitten chew or split open her stitches like older females sometimes do.”
Terri Reindl breeds Sphynx cats in Murrieta, CA. She has only done the surgery for two years, and believes kittens suffer less trauma. Susanna Downer, Azuremist Birmans also is relatively new to the procedure. She says the older boys usually recovered in two days while older females seemed “off” for up to five days after the surgery. “When speutered at eleven weeks, they bounce back almost immediately.”
Linn Currie of Raglin Ragdolls in South Africa agrees that the stress levels are reduced dramatically, and has performed the surgery for eight years. “It can be scary to see how well these little ones cope with everything. And there is never the fear of your kitten being bred indiscriminately. Your kitten will not add to the cat population.”
Research into nonsurgical sterilization techniques for cats has met with modest success. The Alliance for Contraception in Dogs and Cats is a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding a solution to nonsurgical pet population control. A product that is safe, 100 percent effective, permanent and easy to administer in one application would have tremendous positive impact on animal welfare. But it likely would not be useful for pet cat populations.
“We’re very excited about all the potential applications. But right now they’re just not a reality for us,” says Dr. Dinnage. “It’s really kind of a shelter-specific thing and I don’t think it’s going to be a one-size-fits-all.”
The application for these products is large populations, stray and feral cats, says Dr. Little. “Some of the approaches target hormones that are high up in the hierarchy of what drives reproductive behaviors in cats. The higher up in the cascade that you can target a product, the more likely you will remove behavioral aspects of reproduction,” she says. “That is one of the goals because people get annoyed not only by stray cats having litters of kittens, but by the yowling and the fighting.”
© 2008 Amy D. Shojai
Amy D. Shojai, CABC is a nationally known pet care specialist certified with the IAABC, and author of more than a dozen pet books, including "PETiQuette: Solving Behavior Problems in Your Multipet Household."
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