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Is It Always the Right Thing to Spay or Neuter a Cat?

This procedure is an article of faith for most cat people, but among vets? Not so much.

 |  Apr 9th 2013  |   17 Contributions


Most veterinarians believe cats should be neutered or spayed. And most vets (and, since 1993, the American Veterinary Medical Association) also support the concept of early spaying and neutering, at eight to 16 weeks of age.

However, there is a significant element of paternalism in the drive for early spays and neuters in cats. Shelters are hesitant to let intact kittens out of their facilities, lest the new owners neglect to return for spaying and neutering. Vets everywhere are tempted to believe that felines should be "fixed" at any possible opportunity. Each chance to spay a cat might turn out to be the only chance.

Sadly, this paternalism is not unfounded. I am sure you are aware that the world has no shortage irresponsible people -- people who are too lazy or stupid to take their cats to a shelter for a free or low-cost spay or neuter, people who then dump the inevitable batch of kittens at a shelter, etc. I'm not fond of these people, and I'm sure you're not, either. Let us talk of them no more.

Instead, let's talk about you. The stewardship of your cat's health no doubt is a priority. You surely will do whatever is best for your cat.

So, is early spaying or neutering best for your cat? I'm not convinced that it is -- especially if your cat is a male. And there is a growing contingent of veterinarians (especially endocrinologists and orthopedic surgeons) who question not only when cats should be altered, but whether they should be at all.

The early-spay/neuter movement's head of steam really seemed to get going after the publication of a study titled, "Long-term outcome of gonadectomy performed at an early age or traditional age in cats." The study tracked three-year outcomes for cats who had been spayed or neutered before or after six months of age. It concluded that the outcomes were essentially the same.

The authors did not claim that the study was without limitations; they went out of their way not to make any conclusions that would apply for longer than three years. Critiquing this study is an exercise in armchair quarterbacking.

However, I do not believe that this study provides a definitive answer to the early spay/neuter question.

Let's delve into this thorny subject by starting with the matter of feline overpopulation. No reasonable person can deny the existence of this phenomenon. Millions of sweet, loveable, adoptable cats are euthanized at shelters every year, simply because there are no homes for them. Millions of other cats live brief, miserable lives as ferals, constantly struggling against hunger, exposure, and parasites until they meet untimely and gruesome ends due to predation, cars, disease, and starvation.

But will spaying your cat at two months of age -- or any age -- prevent cat overpopulation? Forgive the heresy of what I am about to say. The answer is no.

Older man holding a cat by Shutterstock.

I love the following statistic (which, as Mark Twain would say, fits somewhere beyond a lie and a damned lie): One pair of cats and their descendants can produce 420,000 kittens in seven years. Or you can watch this YouTube video, in which one cat, producing two litters of 2.8 surviving kittens each (I'm not sure of the basis for these assumptions) per year, results in a staggering 11,600,000 cats in nine years.

Take these calculations out a few extra years and they would show a world whose entire surface was covered by ten feet of cats. If you take a basic biology course, you'll realize that ecosystem carrying capacities are what ultimately dictate feline populations. As long as there is a niche, a cat (or several) will show up to fill it.

This unpleasant fact is especially true in the realm of male cats. One intact male cat can readily impregnate 1,000 females in a year. Unless every male cat in a population is neutered, there will always be a tom somewhere who will pick up the slack. Sorry, folks, but neutering your male cat will do nothing whatsoever to prevent feline overpopulation.

And the bad news doesn't end there. I recently spoke with a professor of orthopedic surgery who believes that early spaying and neutering place cats at significantly increased risk of broken bones later in life.

Cat on a sofa by Shutterstock.

Also, there is a notorious link between neutering, spaying, and obesity. Many studies, such as this one, show that cats immediately and rapidly gain weight after they are altered, unless calories are dramatically restricted. This weight gain puts cats at increased risk of a myriad of obesity-linked health problems such as diabetes, urinary problems, kidney disease, and heart disease. And some vets suspect that early neutering may put males at increased risk of urinary obstruction due to impaired development of the external genitalia.

All of this is starting to make neutering and spaying sound pretty bad. And it may make me seem like I'm opposed to spaying and neutering, but I am not. There are benefits to the procedures, and for most cats, those benefits markedly outweigh the risks. I believe there is significant evidence that altering your cat will improve his or her life, and your life as well. But I'm not convinced that you should do it early.

Let's start with behavior. Cats are fecund. That means they reproduce, and they're legendarily good at it.

Female cats are induced ovulators. This means that they release eggs in response to coitus. An unspayed female cat will come back into heat incessantly until she mates (or until her body thinks she has mated). Owners of unspayed female cats have four choices: Spay her, suffer continuous heats, breed her (accidentally or intentionally), or lure her body into psuedopregnancy.

Man and a cat by Shutterstock.

The last option may sound attractive, but don't jump too fast: The recommended method is to moisten a Q-tip and use it to stimulate the cat's vulva until she ovulates. If you're lucky that will buy you two months of heat-free time. Unspayed female cats also make difficult pets, and they also have a remarkable knack for getting pregnant despite owners' best efforts.

Although spaying your cat might not have a significant impact on world feline overpopulation, it will have a dramatic impact on feline overpopulation in your house

How about intact males? Alas, they are not good pets either. Tomcats produce markedly pungent urine, and they deposit it everywhere. They also suffer from wanderlust. Intact males are traumatized by cars, dogs, wildlife, and other cats at extraordinary rates. They contract FIV/feline AIDS with startling frequency.

How about other health aspects? Unspayed female cats suffer from breast tumors at relatively high rates, and feline breast tumors are most often malignant. Unspayed females also may experience life threatening infections of the uterus. They are at risk of uterine and ovarian cancer. And they get pregnant. Trust me, they get pregnant.

I believe that cats should be spayed or neutered. The question comes down to the timing, and there is no definitive answer. For those frustratingly common irresponsible owners, I think it's best to stick with early altering.

For responsible Catster types, it's most likely best to try to time the surgery just before the first heat in females (which could be easier said than done). Males may experience some physical benefits from actually going through puberty before they are neutered, but, objectively, most people will not enjoy this process. For most people, it's probably best to neuter their males when they are as close as possible to being fully grown but not sexually mature.

I also recommend that cat owners seek a good veterinarian's advice on the matter of spaying and neutering. Here is how you can tell whether a veterinarian is good: She will acknowledge that the matter of spaying and neutering is complicated. You can expect such a vet to engage in a meaningful, heartfelt conversation on the subject, even if she can't provide a clear-cut answer.

Simply put, a clear-cut answer may not exist.

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

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