As a cat owner, you have some important decisions to make regarding your pet’s reproductive capabilities. Unless you are planning for kittens, veterinary experts recommend spaying or neutering (also known as gonadectomizing) your feline friend—but when? For owners of shelter animals, the decision is easy, since most adopted animals are surgically altered prior to leaving the facility. For others, the choice comes after you’ve brought your furry friend home—and that decision is ultimately up to you.
The past decades have seen numerous changes concerning the recommended age for spaying or neutering domestic cats. At one point, it was advised to allow female cats to birth one litter before spaying and later, to allow one heat cycle to complete before surgery. Now, most veterinarians recommend gonadectomizing cats around 6 months of age, as a general rule of thumb. Still, shelters and other high-volume facilities may sterilize as early as 8 weeks or when the patient weighs at least 2 pounds. This begs the question, “when is the best time to spay or neuter?”
As with most aspects of veterinary medicine, spay and neuter recommendations evolve with time and research. In an effort to provide more concrete advice regarding this important decision, the Veterinary Task Force on Feline Sterilization for Age of Spay and Neuter Surgery was created and their campaign, Feline Fix by Five (FFF), was born. According to FFF, “cats can be reproductively active by 4 to 5 months of age,” and that “simply by changing the recommended age for spay/neuter of cats from 6 months to between 4 and 5 months could reduce the numbers of shelter intakes….[consequently ending] the overpopulation of cats by this one simple change.”
In 2017, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)—along with several other reputable veterinary organizations—fully endorsed FFF’s recommendations, giving both veterinarians and cat owners a reliable spay/neuter guideline. But, while the FFF’s recommendation may address the feline overpopulation problem, is spaying or neutering by 4 months of age safe? Despite previous claims that early gonadectomy may lead to potential health problems in cats, current research says otherwise. According to numerous studies conducted between 1996 and 2014:
- Spaying/neutering kittens before 12 weeks of age did not pose more surgical or anesthetic complications than those that underwent surgery after 12 weeks or 24 weeks of age. In fact, the older kittens in the study suffered more minor complications than the younger group.
- There is no evidence that neutering increases the incidence of urinary obstruction in male cats.
- The age of spay/neuter does not appear to have an effect on the occurrence of certain undesirable behaviors in cats.
Additionally, it is important to note that the ongoing research regarding the age of gonadectomy and orthopedic problems in dogs should not be extrapolated to cats. Currently, no research suggests a relationship between spay/neuter and similar orthopedic conditions in domestic cats.
It’s clear that the FFF’s recommendation to spay and neuter domestic cats by 5 months of age is backed by solid research. Not only can early gonadectomy help virtually eliminate the feline overpopulation problem, but the evidence for its safety is apparent. And, while safety is of the utmost importance when it comes to surgically altering our pets, what about the benefits to early altering? Here are five additional reasons why early spay and neuter should be considered for our feline friends:
- It reduces the risk of mammary cancer and eliminates the possibility of testicular cancer.
- It removes the potential for dangerous conditions such as pyometra (uterine infection) and dystocia.
- It eliminates the possibility of unintended pregnancies.
- It may decrease the development of hormonal-related behaviors such as spraying in male cats.
- Gonadectomy surgery tends to be shorter in duration and easier to perform in younger cats. Younger cats may also recover more quickly from the anesthesia.
Now that you have the tools you need to make an educated decision regarding your cat’s reproductive health, work with your veterinarian to schedule and prepare for his surgery. Here are a few tips to make the process simple and stress-free for all involved:
- Choose a day for surgery that aligns with your schedule. Most veterinary clinics will require you to drop your kitten off in the morning and pick them up later that afternoon or evening. Ideally, you’ll be home to monitor your cat in the days following the surgery.
- Ensure your cat has a safe, quiet space to rest postoperatively. If you have other pets at home, you may need to confine him to a separate bedroom or bathroom to allow adequate healing.
- Do not encourage rambunctious behavior. While we know it can be difficult to keep a young cat calm, providing a safe, confined space may dissuade excitable behavior.
- Your pet will likely be sent home with an Elizabethan (cone) collar to discourage licking and chewing the incision site. Follow your veterinarian’s guidance on the proper use of this device.
- Check your kitten’s incision site at least once a day. While slight swelling and redness are normal, there should not be any excessive bulging, bleeding, or discharge.
- If your kitten develops a fever, lethargy, or inappetence in the postoperative period, contact your veterinarian immediately.
As a beloved cat owner, you have the immense responsibility of making medical decisions for their care—including when to spay or neuter. While current recommendations suggest “fixing” by five months of age, work with your trusted veterinarian to decide what timing is best for your individual kitten.