By Elizabeth Xu
If you have a cat or are considering getting a furry friend, chances are you’ve heard about spaying and neutering. It’s a common procedure and while the basics are fairly straightforward, there’s still a lot you should learn before your cat is spayed or neutered, including the risks, benefits, and how to best help your cat after the procedure.
Just remember that although it can be difficult to see your pet in pain, chances are your cat will be back to being him or herself in a short time.
Why Should You Spay or Neuter Your Cat?
There are numerous reasons to spay or neuter your cat, including community, behavior, and health reasons. Cats are able to have four litters a year, which rapidly leads to overpopulation and, consequently, millions of euthanized cats yearly, says Dr. Meghann Kruck, D.V.M., of Kindest Cut, a low cost spay and neuter clinic in Minnesota.
Sarah Humlie, executive director of the Pensacola Humane Society in Florida, agrees that overpopulation is a problem and explains that getting cats spayed and neutered is one of the Society’s missions.
“Coming from the shelter side of it, we see spaying and neutering as a humane and pro-active way of trying to reduce the number of animals who are going to come into the shelters and possibly have their lives threatened or ended because of overcrowding,” says Humlie.
Spaying and neutering can also prevent unwanted behavioral issues, says Dr. Adam Corbett, V.M.D., and Director of Shelter Operations and Surgery at the Pennsylvania SPCA. He says unaltered male cats tend to spray urine in the house and try to get outside more, which could lead to injury due to fighting with other cats or getting hit by a car. Unaltered female cats also have behavioral issues, such as yowling when they’re in heat and also trying to go outside to find a mate, he said.
Even if your own cat never goes outside, you should consider spaying or neutering because it could benefit your cat’s health. Spaying and neutering can help prevent several health issues, says Corbett, including several forms of cancer, such as testicular, ovarian, and mammary cancers. He says it can also prevent other fatal health issues like uterus infections.
Spay vs. Neuter: What’s the Difference?
Female cats are spayed and male cats are neutered, and while both have the same result (no kittens), the two procedures are handled differently due to anatomy.
“Neutering involves removal of the testicles, which in a normal cat are external.” Kruck says. “The procedure itself, in the hands of an experienced veterinarian, is rather short.”
On the other hand, “Spaying involves an abdominal surgery to remove the ovaries and typically the uterus as well. This procedure is internal and therefore more invasive, and takes somewhat longer, though it is still not a terribly long procedure.”
In fact, neutering a cat can take just 30-60 seconds (not counting the time for anesthesia and prep), while spaying takes about 5-10 minutes to be completed, Corbett says. He notes that those numbers are more accurate for high-volume clinics though, and that private veterinarians can take 20-40 minutes for these procedures.
Overall, it’s important for pet owners to understand what actually goes on and that, in the end, the pet won’t be able to reproduce, said Corbett. He says that some male pet owners can struggle with neutering a male animal on the assumption that it will affect the animal’s masculinity. Corbett cautions that animals are different from humans. “I don’t really think that animals look at masculinity the same way we do.”
Should Female Cats Have a Litter of Kittens Before Being Spayed?
People used to think that female cats should have a litter of kittens before being spayed, but Corbett says there’s no good reason for that. And if you’re on the fence about spaying because you’d like your children to experience kittens, he has an answer for that, too: become a foster family.
“There are a lot of shelters that help moms and kittens and are able to provide that experience of raising kittens,” Corbett says. “But instead of adding more kittens to the world that need to find homes, you’re helping homeless kittens.”
How Much Does It Cost to Spay a Cat?
The cost for spaying a cat varies depending on location and type of clinic performing the procedure. Private veterinarians generally charge more and there can be a range of prices for spaying a cat, even from vets in the same city. A random sampling of veterinarians found prices of $219 in Kansas, $250 in California and $590 in Illinois.
There are specialized clinics and shelters across the country focused on making the procedure affordable; some even price the procedure based on income. Spaying a cat at some of these places can cost around $50-70.
How Much Does It Cost to Neuter a Cat?
Although the cost to neuter a cat varies, neutering usually costs a little less than a spay surgery. A random sampling of veterinarians showed the following prices: $122 in Ohio, $169 in West Virginia and $340 in Illinois.
As with spaying, neutering can also take place at a low-cost clinic or shelter and will usually cost less, around $30-50.
Keep in mind that there can be other costs associated with these procedures as well, from the cost of vaccinations beforehand to pre-surgery bloodwork to make sure your cat is in optimal health.
How Old Does a Cat Have to be for a Spay or Neuter Procedure? Can You Spay a Cat in Heat?
According to the ASPCA, cats can be spayed or neutered as young as eight weeks old. They recommend scheduling the procedure before your cat is five months old to avoid urine spraying behavior and eliminate the chance of pregnancy.
The ASPCA also states that female cats can be spayed while in heat. Of course, it is always advised to speak with your vet to figure out when it would be best to spay or neuter your cat.
Recovery Time for Spay and Neuter Procedures
After you bring your cat home you’ll likely want to make sure it’s as comfortable as possible while it recovers. Humlie recommends keeping your cat separate from other house pets, if possible, and offering your cat a quiet room to relax. Corbett notes that jumping could be painful, and suggests lifting your cat instead of, for example, letting it jump up onto the bed.
You’ll need to keep an eye on your cat’s incision and make sure it’s not being bothered with (e.g., scratching, licking). Corbett recommends examining the surgical area before even taking your cat home from the vet so you can get an idea of what it looks like and you’ll notice if the area gets swollen or looks worse, which could mean it’s not healing properly or has become infected.
Recovery time depends on a few things, like age and general health, so it’ll be different for each cat. Corbett says the anesthesia will stay in your cat’s system for 12-48 hours, which could affect energy level and appetite, and the healing of the actual incision itself takes one to two weeks, depending on the type of stitches used.
One of the most difficult parts of the recovery period might be convincing cats to rest when they think they’re already fine.
“The incisions are usually quite small and the patients usually feel nearly normal after one to three days,” Kruck says. “Because of this, they tend to want to be as active as they normally would.” She cautions, however, that normal activity could lead to swelling, pain, or a premature breakdown of stitches—all reasons to keep your cat as calm as possible while its healing.
Most importantly, you should follow your veterinarian’s instructions for post-operative care, Kruck says.
Are There Spay and Neuter Risks?
Complications for spaying and neutering are rare, but there are risks, Corbett says. “The risks reflect any type of anesthesia or surgery, so you always have to say that death is a risk. There are a very, very small percentage of animals who can respond poorly to anesthesia, so that’s the number one worry.”
Kruck says that similar to how humans can react differently to anesthesia, so can animals. The actual surgery, however, is less worrisome.
“The risks from the surgery are few because the procedures are very routine,” says Kruck. “Possible surgical risks include ligatures slipping, contamination of the surgical field, abnormal bleeding due to a clotting disorder, bruising, and pain.”
Though it’s not necessarily a risk, it’s important to know that sometimes spayed cats will still go into heat. In some cases, part of an ovary is missed during surgery because it was hidden in the abdomen, so the procedure has to be done twice, Corbett says.
Overall, the risks are real, but they are rare.
If you’re still nervous heading into the procedure, keep Humlie’s words in mind: “Every pet owner is probably nervous about a surgery, even though it’s very, very routine surgery most of the time. At our clinic, our doctor has literally done thousands and thousands of them.”