February is National Spay/Neuter Month and the importance of spay/neuter as a safe and humane means of preventing pregnancy and reducing cat overpopulation is being championed by cat advocates nationwide, and with good reason. According to the ASPCA, there are upward of 70 million homeless cats in the United States and approximately 5 to 7 million cats and dogs that enter shelters every year, with 70% of the cats needlessly euthanized because the number of these cats far exceeds the number of adopters. When you consider that cats can reproduce at an alarming rate – an unspayed/neutered cat pair can lead up to 5,000 cats in 7 years, it is quickly evident that spay/neuter is essential to ensure that these numbers will not continue to escalate.
But spay/neuter is so much more than a method of birth control – the overall health, emotional, and behavioral benefits to a cat from spay/neuter are significant and can actually result in less cats ending up on the streets and in shelters in the first place by having the procedure done. Negative behavioral issues that are typically the by-product of an unaltered cat (territory marking and spraying, aggressive fighting, loud yowling, and roaming) are often the reason a cat is brought to a shelter or dumped on the streets by a frustrated and desperate pet guardian.
These cats then become part of an ugly and tragic cycle – outdoor cats are persecuted by community citizens frustrated by the annoying behavioral problems they can exhibit and unfortunately, rather than embrace TNR (Trap, Neuter, Return) practices that can reduce these symptoms, often they are trapped and euthanized as the solution. Cats in shelters, older ones in particular that have not already been altered, may come with a host of behavioral problems that result in them being overlooked for adoptions, or worse, tragically euthanized.
When it comes to a pet in our home, these symptoms can cause a myriad of problems – stress on personal relationships when perhaps one partner wants to keep the cat, the other wants to get rid of it, stress with other pets if you live in a multi-pet household who are bothered by the erratic behavior of the unaltered cat, irrevocable damage to furniture and walls from urine marking, and even an unintentional resentment of a beloved pet because it is now so difficult to be around and not what you bargained for when you first adopted it. All of these behavioral problems can be virtually eliminated with early spay/neuter (a “pre-pubertal” spay/neuter is now recommended by veterinarians and is safe with kittens as soon as they weigh at least 2 pounds, which is ideally between 8 and 12 weeks) and the truth is, until your cat is altered, it is instinctual for them to try to find a mate and most attempts at training, bribing with treats, or scolding to change the negative behavior are for naught.
Until a female is spayed, she will typically go into heat four to five days every three weeks during breeding season which is based on daylight hours. Calling for her mate, she will loudly vocalize through the duration of her heat and will urinate more frequently, often uncontrollably, throughout the house. She can be emotional, uncomfortable, and just generally difficult to be around. Her heat cycle is based on a hormone called melatonin, which is secreted by a gland in her brain. This hormone decreases with the arrival of more daylight, which triggers the heat cycle.
Because it is not unusual for an indoor cat to be exposed to artificial light year-round, she may experience almost constant hormonal activity and many more periods of heat. Since a kitten can go into heat as early as 4 months, it is just best to have her spayed at a young age. It is not necessary for her to experience her first heat before you spay her and she will be much happier and healthier in the long run for having the procedure done.
An unaltered male cat can demonstrate equally detrimental behavioral habits that are all but impossible to correct if he is not neutered at a young age. He can be extremely aggressive and territorial, marking the house by spraying walls and furniture with strong smelling urine. By having him neutered, not only will these tendencies be greatly reduced or eliminated, he will also be less likely to want to roam, which might result in an injury to him in traffic, a fatality, or finding a fertile female to impregnate.
The other significant benefit of spay/neuter is that it greatly improves the health and longevity of a cat’s life. Spaying a female prior to her first heat nearly eliminates the risk of mammary cancer, uterine infections, and uterine cancer, which is fatal to approximately 90% of cats according to the American Humane Association, and neutering a male before he is 6 months of age prevents testicular and prostate cancer. No one wants to see a beloved pet suffer these tragic types of illnesses, so having the procedure done is the best gift you can give your cat.
Clearly the benefits of spay/neuter are significant and far reaching – from reducing cat overpopulation to ensuring your cat has a happier and healthier life. But having a happy and healthy cat also benefits society at large. Studies have proven that our feline friends improve the quality of our human lives. A cat can decrease our depression, stress and anxiety. They can also lower our blood pressure and decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke. They are used in rehabilitation facilities, senior citizen homes, hospitals, and even to help returning soldiers to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. Having a pet cat in a family with children helps in their emotional development and encourages responsibility and compassion.
Proper diet, veterinary care, exercise, stimulating toys, scratching posts, comfortable bedding, and a clean litter box are all important to the well-being of our cat. By adding spay/neuter to the list, we are ensuring that our cat will live a long, happy, healthy life.
Deborah Barnes resides in the tropical paradise of South Florida with her fiancé and feline family of seven. She is the author of the 5-star rated books, The Chronicles of Zee & Zoey – A Journey of the Extraordinarily Ordinary and Purr Prints of the Heart – A Cat’s Tale of Life, Death, and Beyond, as well as the award winning blog, Zee & Zoey’s Cat Chronicles that continues to cover the everyday journey she shares with her cats along with topics from the humorous behaviors of cats to very serious subjects on pet responsibility. Deborah was awarded 2013 “Writer of the Year” by Friskies Purina on behalf of the Cat Writers’ Association and she is also the Secretary of the nonprofit, Pawsitively Humane, Inc. of Miami, Florida, whose mission is to create public awareness and reduce the numbers of animals on the streets and in shelters through an extensive educational campaign.