The symptoms of cats in heat can try the patience of even the most loving pet owners, which is why veterinarians recommend having female cats spayed before the first heat cycle occurs. Cats in heat have entered the phase of the feline reproduction cycle that’s characterized by her receptiveness to males and to mating. This phase is also known as estrus. In the world of cat breeding, unspayed females are known as “queens.”
Cat estrus begins as animals reach sexual maturity, usually at about six months of age, although some cats will go into heat as early as four months and others as late as 10 to 12 months.
Cats are considered to be polyestrous, meaning they have several heat cycles a year (in contrast to dogs, which are diestrous and typically have two heat cycles a year). This means that breeding cats can produce a litter at any time of the year, even though springtime is often considered to be “kitten season.”
Even if you’ve never been around cats in heat before, you’re very likely to know something is going on with your pet — the behaviors she uses to get the attention of a potential mate will no doubt get your attention as well. The signs of cats in heat or cats experiencing estrus can mimic signs of pain or distress in your cat, and include the following:
If you don’t want kittens, keep cats in heat indoors. If cats in heat do get out, they’re more at risk for contracting infectious diseases, such as feline leukemia, from any infected male cats that they attempt to breed with.
Remember that responsible cat breeders carefully screen and select the male cats they breed with their queens, not only to ensure a purebred pedigree, but also to prevent such transmission of disease.
So, how long are cats in heat? Typically, the estrous phase will last between a week and 10 days. However, if your cat isn’t able to mate and become pregnant, she’ll very likely go into heat again sometime within the next three weeks. Some cats who aren’t allowed to breed may seem to be more or less constantly in heat.
The only way to prevent the heat cycle from repeating over and over again, along with the distress it causes both you and your pet, is to have your female cat spayed. It is a myth that cats should be allowed to go through one heat cycle or even to have one litter before spaying. Early spaying is widely regarded as the most ethical course for pet owners to take, in light of the millions of animals who are euthanized at pet shelters each year. It’s simply irresponsible to bring another litter of kittens into the world when there are already too few homes for existing animals.
Spaying is considered major surgery because it involves entering the abdomen to remove both ovaries and the uterus, yet the procedure is safe and routine when performed by a qualified vet. And although it’s possible to perform the surgery at any time of the estrous cycle, most veterinarians decline to spay cats in heat because the engorged blood vessels in the reproductive organs create an increased risk of heavy bleeding.
Thumbnail: Photography by karamysh / Shutterstock.
This piece was originally published in 2012.