Yes, cats should be spay/neutered. Likely 99.9 percent of all veterinarians agree. However, ask about when to do – and now you’ve asked a trick question.
The recommendations for when to spay/neuter cats are all over the map, and are often unspecific.
For example, one clinic website reads, “Cats should be spayed or neutered sometime under a year, preferably under six to eight months.”
“No wonder clients are often confused, or simply put spay/neuter off,” says Dr. Glenn Olah, president of the Winn Feline Foundation, the non-profit funder of cat health studies. “If we’re the experts, we should offer a clear direction to cat owners.”
Esther Mechler, of Brunswick, ME, is the founder and president of Marian’s Dream, a non-profit that began 30-years ago with a focus on putting an end to pet overpopulation.
She said that last year a light bulb went off in her head. “I thought, what a difference it will make if we get veterinary consensus on when to spay or neuter cats; it seems so simple doesn’t it?”
That light bulb went on after several visits to animal shelters. According to the ASPCA, about 1.4 million cats are euthanized annually in American shelters. There are many reasons, of course, over-population is a big one.
“Births do continue to outstrip homes,” Mechler adds.
Dr. Julie Levy, professor in Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, Gainesville says, “We’re getting close to saving all the healthy and treatable dogs, at least in more parts of the country than ever before, but we’re clearly not there with cats.”
Mechler partnered with Joan Miller, San Deigo, CA-based chair of outreach and education with the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) to recruit various volunteer experts to participate what would be called the Task Force on Feline Sterilization. The group (which I was a part of) met in Orlando this past January, just prior to the North American Veterinary Conference.
Miller, a legend in the cat world for her countless contributions over many decades, says, “I believed that if we could, as a group, manage to create a specific recommendation on when to spay/neuter cats – lives will be saved. It was also important that our decisions were based on science.”
To that end Dr. Kirk Breuninger, veterinary research associate for Banfield Pet Hospital, Vancouver, WA presented results of a literature review on gonadectomy in domestic cats:
*There’s evidence to determine that spaying before the first heat cycle has protective affects against mammary cancer occurring later in life. Obviously, this is important, particularly since about 90 percent of mammary cancer is malignant.
*There’s no evidence to suggest pediatric gonadectomy up to five months is linked to any increased risk of disease.
*There’s a general lack of well-designed studies in cats to inform regarding all likely potential outcomes later in life of gonadectomy by five months. But we do know spay/neuter before the first heat has many benefits; obviously there is no first litter; there can be no pyometra (uterine infections), uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, testicular cancer or problem births.
Breuninger adds, “Like with so many other areas, the review evidence is far more robust in dogs.”
And that’s actually a part of the problem explains Olah, who practices in Albuquerque, NM. “For many reasons many veterinarians defer to dog guidelines, because the studies in cats haven’t been done and just because there are still veterinarians who in some ways assume if it works for dogs it will work for cats. Maybe some veterinarians are just being lazy – I don’t know.”
“There are legitimate concerns about long-term health affects regarding spay/neuter in dogs which are now being studied,” says Levy. “At this point, there’s no evidence to indicate similar concerns in cats.”
So, here’s what’s happening now. Without a definitive recommendation when to spay or neuter, some cat owners just don’t follow through and spay neuter doesn’t happen until after the first heat.
“Most cat owners just don’t know that a female can even get pregnant at four months, and certainly at five months, leading to unwanted litters” Miller says.
Also, depending on the practitioner’s recommendation, there’s a gap between the last vaccine and the suggestion to spay/neuter several months later. And in that gap time – ooops – the cat winds up pregnant.
Olah adds, “When cats go into heat they’re not always ideal pets.”
Cats in heat (particularly males) are more likely to spray, inter-cat aggression may more likely occur, there may be overnight vocalizing, and certainly indoor cats in heat want to get out to find a “hook up.” If they don’t get out, they may be anxious which can lead to a wide assortment of behavior problems. If they do “escape,” they become prone to being hit by cars, and unvaccinated, feline leukemia and the feline immunodeficiency virus become a risk. These cats may also not be protected from parasites.
While there’s no robust study to support the notion that behavior of in-tact cats is an issue, members of the task force agreed it’s likely the case. And when behavior problems occur, the human-animal bond may fracture; subsequently those intact young cats may more likely be relinquished to shelters, or put outdoors forever.
The accumulated evidence supports the notion to Fix by Five (as in five months), which all task force members supported.
“Everyone in the room believed that consistent messaging to pet owners currently doesn’t occur, and would be beneficial, and that unwanted pregnancies do occur which contributes to the cat overpopulation problem,” says Olah. “There doesn’t appear to be a downside to spay/neuter for kittens by five months.”
Also, the Fix by Five plan may encourage more veterinary visits because there’s new data which points out how many kittens just appear – and are taken in by compassionate cat lovers. If the kitten seems healthy, they may not run to the veterinarian for an exam, and might not realize know how early cats might get pregnant. Many of these kittens may remain indoors/outdoors, and they don’t keep a feline version of Harmony.com to meet a match.
Levy adds further support. “Most shelters are already doing this (pediatric spay/neuter), and also veterinary students are being trained in shelters, so they’re doing this. It all makes perfect sense.”
Levy says she is hopeful that organized veterinary medicine signs on to the recommendation to Fix by Five, which can easily be a part of existing kitten care packages.
The Task Force created a document, with the hope of organized veterinary medicine supporting (which has begun to happen). The final paragraph of that document reads;
“Given the known benefits of sterilization and the lack of evidence for harm related to age at which the procedure is performed, the Veterinary Taskforce on Feline Sterilization calls for veterinary practitioners and professional associations to recommend sterilization of cats by five months of age. This provides veterinary practitioners with a consistent message that may increase veterinary visits and spay/neuter compliance while reducing the risk of pet relinquishment and unwanted offspring.”
Mechler is pleased with the work of the Task Force, “Veterinarians and related professionals have led the way. I’m confident the public will pay attention – cat lives will be saved.”