by David F. Kramer
Spaying or neutering your pet is one of the cornerstones of pet ownership in the United States. ASPCA statistics place the U.S. pet cat population at anywhere between 74 and 96 million – and there may be as many as 70 million strays fending for themselves. Unfortunately, the ASPCA also estimates that 41 percent of cats who enter shelters (most of who come in as strays) cannot find a home and end up being euthanized. Breeders, shelters and rescue groups team up with vets and their staff to stem the tide of cat overpopulation – but it’s bound to be a continuing battle for the foreseeable future.
If you find yourself with a new kitten in your household, spaying or neutering is something you’ll need to be thinking about soon. But at what age is it appropriate to spay or neuter a cat? More importantly, why should you consider having the procedure done at all?
When to Spay or Neuter Your Cat
There is debate among veterinarians about the time to spay/neuter your cat, says Dr. Adam Denish of Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Elkins Park, PA. There are three general options: Early or pediatric spay/neuter is done at six to eight weeks of age. Standard spay and neuter at five to six months. Finally, waiting until after the first heat, somewhere between eight to twelve months of age, he says.
“As a vet who has done thousands of spays and neuters, I still perform them at five months of age. The pets are a good size, the owners have already trained and accepted them, and the anesthesia and surgery are usually safe,” says Dr. Denish. “The concerns over early spay/neuter are mostly due to the prevailing opinion that new owners may not do the procedure, and the pet is free to breed. The additional offspring contributes to the overpopulation of cats in the wild, as well as the burden of euthanizing unwanted and ill cats at shelters.”
Whatever the age of your cat when they’re spayed or neutered, there are definite health benefits for cats of either sex to have the procedure.
Benefits of Spaying or Neutering Your Cat
According to Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinary advisor with petMD, spaying a female cat before her first heat cycle “virtually eliminates” the risk of mammary (breast) cancer. She says that this condition is especially serious in cats since “feline mammary cancers tend to be very aggressive in comparison to other species.”
Spayed female cats also cannot develop ovarian and uterine cancers or a potentially fatal uterine infection called a pyometra, Coates adds. Other health-related issues related to spaying include negating the possibility of the complications that can occur with pregnancy and birthing.
For male cats, Coates says that the benefits of neutering are primarily behavioral, although the procedure does eliminate the possibility that a cat will develop testicular cancer as he ages.
“Anyone who as ever tried living with an intact male cat will tell you that the vocalizations, escape attempts, roaming, fighting and urine spraying associated with normal tom cat behavior can get old really quick,” she says.
Feline AIDS and leukemia can both be spread between cats through bites, often spurred on by sexual competition, says Coates. So, reducing the urge to mate (as well as the urge to fight about it) also reduces the likelihood that your cat will contract one of these oftentimes fatal infections.
“Every study has shown spaying/neutering to be beneficial in regards to behavior and preventing disease. Behaviorally, cats are less likely to mark inappropriately in the house, less likely to roam outside, and less likely to engage in fighting with other cats. Medically, they are less likely to get certain cancers and infections,” adds Denish.
Why Spay/Neuter is So Important for Cats
While there might be some differing opinions about the proper age to spay or neuter your cat, there’s no disputing that it’s one of the most responsible things a pet owner can do, not only for the life of a pet, but also to reduce pet overpopulation. Too often, we view spaying and neutering through our own eyes, and how it might affect us, and assume that our pets would look at it the same way. As Coates puts it, “physiologically and behaviorally speaking, cats are made to reproduce as frequently as possible. Obviously, we have to put a stop to that. I think it is more humane to surgically eliminate the desire to mate than to block mating but leave the urge intact.”
Of course no medical or surgical procedure is without risk, she adds. “For instance, neutered male cats are at higher risk for developing urinary blockages, and cats who have been spayed or neutered do have a tendency to gain weight if their diets aren’t adjusted accordingly. Owners should always talk to their own veterinarian about what is best for their particular pet, but the benefits of spay/neuter almost always outweigh the risks.”
It is our responsibility to take care of our pets to the best of our ability, Denish says. “They live in our world, our homes and interact with our family and other pets. That means that if spaying/neutering is beneficial, it should be done at any safe time.”
Learn more about the costs associated with spaying or neutering your cat here.