When exactly does a kitten become a cat? Much too quickly for us in the business of rescuing unwanted kittens. Full physical adulthood for a cat is reached at one year. Yet sexual maturity in cats normally occurs at about seven months. As we’ll see below, it can occur much earlier.
Cats are prolific breeders and can reproduce until death. Randi Fairbrother, president and founder of Catalyst for Cats Inc. in Santa Barbara, states, “I once trapped a female nursing a teenage litter, [and] a younger litter about six to eight weeks old, obviously pregnant with a third.”
CAT The Complete Guide by Claire Bessant notes some scary record-breaking female felines. The oldest cat known to give birth was 30 years old, and it was her 218th kitten. Another long-lived and prolific mother in Texas produced 420 kittens. Another dropped a litter of 19 kittens, 15 of which survived.
With that in mind — and the new mating season about to commence — I coined the term “cat math” to illustrate the population explosion that happens each year.
For example, the equation 1 x 3 = 20 can be illustrated by the following.
One January, I trapped three feral teenage cat mothers-to-be and their intact brother. Between them, the females were carrying 16 kittens. Had those kittens been born, there would have been 20 cats in the park in a matter of weeks rather than just four. It was a very early and sobering start to the breeding season.
A month later, I encountered 1 x 1 = 4. Another young queen delivered in a cold carport. We learned that the momma, a pet, was allowed into the house, but the three surviving kittens were not. They were 3 to 4 weeks old and covered with fleas when we got them. The irresponsible owners wanted the cat and one kitten back after we had fixed and vaccinated everyone, of course at our expense.
It didn’t take long to realize that the queen was inexperienced. She wasn’t always interested in answering the hungry meows of her babies, and I even saw her hiss, spit, and swat when one approached her looking to suckle. I estimated her to be 7 to 9 months old. This was obviously her first litter. She finally was spayed and sent home before the optimum eight weeks of nursing her kittens was ended. All of her kittens were eventually adopted out.
Another 7-month-old and her three came along soon after that. These kittens were also about 4 weeks old, so that means mom was impregnated when she was 4 months old. She weighed only 5 1/2 pounds, whereas an average adult cat weighs closer to 10. The kittens and mom were being given away free on the radio, even though the kittens were not yet weaned.
This mother also showed signs of irritation and aggression toward her kittens. I caught her flirting with one of my (neutered) male cats. With these early signs of going back into heat, I had her spayed. She came back calmer and still able to nurse her litter, but she found my nursery too restricting. She was put up for adoption a week later, even though the kittens should still have nursed another month.
Last summer, Catalyst for Cats fielded a call revealing a 1 x 1 = 19 situation. The caller was a woman whose cat had given birth to 11 kittens, the cat’s second pregnancy of the season. The size of the first litter had been seven — larger than the usual four to five — which had been given away at a swap meet. That was 18 kittens just from one mother and her mate. Had she not been spayed, it’s anyone’s guess how many more she might have had by season’s end.
These three mothers were intact pets, let outside where they attracted tomcats. Sometimes pets, male or female, mate with feral cats, and often those litters are dropped under bushes or in sheds where about half the kittens die from exposure, flea anemia, starvation or predation. None is wanted and, if they survive, their medical expenses and care fall to those of us in the business of rescuing.
With statistics like these and the tales above, is it any wonder that we advocate spaying or neutering cats before they reach 6 months? It’s safe, and it’s the responsible thing to do, even for indoor kitties.
1. Spayed/neutered cats are less likely to run away from home. An intact male in search of a mate will do just about anything to get to one, even wandering miles.
2. They are less likely to fight with other animals, avoiding injury to themselves and exposure to infectious diseases, thus avoiding high veterinary bills for their owners.
3. They are easier to train because they are less distracted by sexual instincts.
4. Spaying makes female cats less bothersome. Females in heat yowl and exhibit anxious behavior. They typically go into heat four to five days every three weeks during breeding season.
5. Neutering and spaying reduces or eliminates the problem of spray-marking. Male cats spray inside and outside the house, a most unpleasant and unmistakable odor. Females also spray.
6. A spayed female cat won’t attract noisy, fighting, and bothersome males.
7. Spayed females are less likely to develop breast cancer or pyometra, a common uterine infection.
8. Neutered males are less likely to suffer infections or disorders in the prepuce or prostate glands.
9. It results in lower food costs. Pregnant and nursing females are always hungry, and with no new kittens, there are no new kittens to feed.
10. Spaying and neutering eliminates thousands of unwanted kittens. Approximately every four seconds, one animal is killed for lack of a home.
If you still need a kitten fix, volunteer to foster for a local cat rescue group or shelter. This lets you and your children watch newborn kittens grow into healthy, happy pets, and it teaches kids that animals have value and should not just be given away or tossed outside.
Unless you are a reputable breeder of pedigreed animals, there is simply no excuse for allowing pets to breed. Make your appointment now before the season starts.