Responsible cat guardianship means caring for your cat’s health and welfare, but also understanding the bigger picture of stray and unwanted cats. Indeed shelters are full to overflowing with cats desperately longing for their fur-ever home, so it’s essential to play your part by ensuring your cat doesn’t add to the problem and get them desexed.
Put Your Cat First
Is anyone unsure if desexing is right for their cat?
Perhaps you feel your first, main, or only responsibility is to do the best thing by your cat. Indeed, some people feel that it’s not necessary, unkind or even against nature to desex their cat.
It’s perfectly fine to put your cat’s needs first. But if this is truly your wish know that from a medical and behavioural point of view, desexing is best.
The reasons for this are:
- Less Wanderlust: Desexing makes cats less likely to wander in search of territory or a mate. This means less chance of being involved in a road traffic accident or fights.
- Less Fighting: Entire (or intact) cats are more territorial, making them more likely to fight. Avoid painful bite wounds, abscesses, and vet bills, by desexing in the first instance.
- Lower Risk of Disease: Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is spread by close contact such as mating or bites. By reducing the urge to do either, your protect your cat from FIV.
- Protect Wildlife: Entire cats, especially females with kittens, are more likely to hunt. This means a greater negative impact on native wildlife which might otherwise be prevented.
“But I have an indoor cat.”
Fair enough, but there are still strong benefits to desexing.
- Pyometra: Female cats with a womb are at risk of pus in the womb (or pyometra). This life-threatening condition causes blood poisoning and requires urgent life-saving surgery on an already sick cat. Much better to eliminate the risk by spaying her at a young age.
- Breast Cancer: The repeated stimulation of hormones on mammary tissue makes breast cancer more likely. Again, early desexing greatly reduces this risk.
- Spraying: Entire male cats feel angsty about their territory and like to amplify their sense of security by spraying. Not only is this unpleasant, but stinky tom cat urine is hard to ignore.
- Less Aggression: Studies looking at the effect of age on desexing and health, coincidentally noticed that entire male cats were less friendly before neutering than after.
PS. It’s also an old wives’ tale that a female cat should be allowed to have one litter before being desexed. There is no evidence that this is of benefit to her health or psychologically, and instead actually exposes her to unnecessary risk during pregnancy and kittening.
What is “Early” Desexing?
Actually, there’s a lot of confusion over the terms used. The “traditional” age for desexing is six months, which is largely an arbitrary decision based on when queens have their first litter.
However, studies show a better age is four months, which is therefore described as “early” desexing. But to confuse things further, rescues commonly desex at 10 – 12 weeks, known as “earliest” desexing.
- Traditional: 6 months plus
- Early: 4 months
- Earliest: 10 – 12 weeks
What are the Benefits of Early Desexing?
How does it benefit your cat?
Vets traditionally desex at six months, but veterinary bodies such as the International Society for Feline Medicine (ISFM), International Cat Care (ICC), and the Cat Group, now recommend four months as the optimal age.
They reached this decision after carefully weighing up the evidence. Firstly, they checked that early desexing did no harm (more of this later) and then looked at the advantages.
Early desexing greatly reduces the risk of early pregnancy and antisocial habits occurring such as spraying. This can happen because our pet cats are so well looked after that they mature earlier and their well-nourished bodies are better able to father a litter or support a pregnancy.
Thus Mother Nature takes the brakes off and there’s a chance of cats falling pregnant as young as 18 weeks of age. However, this is equivalent to a child at primary school having a baby. This means a greater risk of complications to the mother when she gives birth (pain and distress for the cat, and the cost of a caesarean. . . and then there’s finding a home for the kittens.)
Looking at the bigger picture, if more cats were desexed young, this would have a fantastic impact on the numbers of unwanted kittens and cats now filling shelters.
But Isn’t Early Desexing a Bad Thing?
Have you heard things such as:
- early desexing increases the risk of urinary problems in later life
- it can stunt growth
- the anaesthetic is less safe
- it can change the cat’s behaviour
- it’s too much stress on a young cat.
These are some of the problems anecdotally linked to early desexing. But scientific groups such as the ISFM and ICC decided to check out the facts. They analysed data from numerous scientific papers looking at the effect age of desexing on cats, and reached the following conclusions.
- Urinary Problems: The diameter of the urethra (the tube through which urine passes) in mature adult cats was exactly the same regardless of what age desexing took place. Thus there is no physical reason for urinary blockages to happen more often if a cat in neutered early.
- Stunted Growth: Again, no evidence for this. In fact, just the opposite. It seems that bone growth plates may stay open slightly longer and may lead to marginally larger cats.
- Anaesthetic: The risk of low blood sugar and hypothermia under anaesthesia for smaller cats is well recognized. This means the surgeon can take action to avoid the problem and eliminate this risk. In addition, modern anaesthetics are highly sophisticated and are mild acting with little residual accumulation in the organs or body tissue, making them safe for young animals.
- Behaviour: The only effects on behaviour were found to be beneficial, such as less aggression in males and more settled, loving behaviour in females.
- Stress: This can be kept to a minimum by keeping surgery separate from other events such as rehoming or vaccination.
So there we have the arguments for and against early age desexing. However, the take home message remains not “Should” I get my cat desexed but “When” should I go ahead? Please be a responsible cat guardian and desex your cats.
Dr Pippa Elliott BVMS MRCVS is a veterinarian with 27-years’ experience in practice and a special interest in feline medicine and behaviour. Pippa is housekeeping staff to four highly individual cats that conspire to keep her busy opening doors on demand.
References / Further Reading
Hawn R (1999) The debate over early-age neutering. Feline Practice Feb/March, 9-13.
Johnston SD (1987) Questions and answers on the effects of surgically neutering dogs and cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 198, 1206-1214.
Lieberman LL (1988) The optimum time for neutering surgery of dogs and cats. Veterinary Record 122, 369.
Spain CV, Scarlett JM & Houpt KA (2004) Long-term risks and benefits of early-age gonadectomy in cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 224, 372-379.