If you’re a cat parent (or any pet parent for that matter!) you’ll no doubt have heard about the importance of spaying and neutering. It prevents unwanted kittens and even has health benefits for your kitty, including a lower risk of developing certain cancers.
But what does desexing involve? And what about potential downsides? Are there any less-invasive alternatives? Here’s everything you need to know in one article.
The difference between neutering and spaying
Neutering and spaying are terms that often cause confusion since they are used interchangeably to describe the surgical sterilization of an animal. But there is a distinct difference between the two:
Neutering: The removal of the testicles in a male animal (also known as castration).
Spaying: The removal of the uterus and ovaries in a female animal, also known as an ovariohysterectomy.
Both procedures are performed while the animal is under anaesthetic. However, spaying has a longer recovery time due to the invasive nature of the surgery.
Benefits of desexing
Putting your cat through surgery sounds like a very scary ordeal, but the reasons for doing so are plentiful. Most veterinarians will highly recommend the procedure to any owner who’s not breeding.
Here’s an overview of the many benefits to spaying and neutering:
- Decreases the risk of catching Feline Immunodeficiency Virus – This is a fatal disease that’ similar to HIV in humans. It’s usually transferred through bite wounds during fights.
- Reduces their urge to roam – Unneutered males can become frustrated in confined spaces. They are more likely to try to find escape routes and roam long distances in search of females. This can increase the risk of car accidents and fights between neighbouring cats.
- Lowers the risk of developing testicular cancer – The neutering procedure removes the area where this cancer originates. So, neutered males are much less likely to develop testicular cancer.
- Controls dominant behaviors and aggression – Entire males (unneutered) are more ‘wild’ in the sense that they are more likely to fight for territory and females. Neutered males have less testosterone which tends to make them calmer and more affectionate.
- Reduces the frequency of urine spraying – Male cats release a pungent urine spray to mark their territories and to attract females. Neutered males have less testosterone so their desire to do this is reduced.
- Eliminates unwanted pregnancies – This is an obvious but very important benefit to spaying. On average, un-spayed female cats can give birth to three litters a year. Each containing 4-8 kittens. Pregnancy and giving birth can also cause dangerous complications for the mother cat, including endometritis and the retention of fetal membranes.
- Reduces the risk of developing breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer – Spayed females release less of the hormones responsible for mammary tumor growth, therefore reducing the risk. In fact, studies have shown that females neutered before the age of six months are 91% less likely to develop mammary carcinomas.
- Reduces in-heat calling – Female cats will yowl excessively during the heat cycle to attract a mate. They may also urine mark or attempt to escape the house in search of a male. These symptoms can last for a few days and up to two weeks. Spayed cats don’t have a heat cycle so they are much calmer all year round.
- Lowers the risk of Pyometra (infection of the womb) – Female cats that continue to cycle without being mated are at an increased risk of cystic ovarian disease and a thickening of the womb lining. This can lead to pyometra which causes debilitating health issues for your feline and requires surgery to treat.
When to spay or neuter your cat?
This has changed somewhat over the years. Several recent studies have shown multiple benefits for neutering/spaying a cat before the age of five months, which is the approximate time that most cats will reach puberty (sexual maturity).
In previous years it was thought that spaying a female AFTER her first heat cycle was best. This has led to some confusion with many people believing that neutering/spaying should not be performed until their cat is around 6-9 months old.
In reality, late spaying (after the first heat cycle) can increase the risk of many of the health issues we mentioned above, including cancer and pyometra. Late neutering for males has also been shown to increase the risk of testicular cancer.
Furthermore, spaying and neutering procedures are generally quicker and carry less post-surgery risks in cats under five months old. According to the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), its generally considered safe to spay or neuter kittens between eight weeks and five months old.
Risks of spaying & neutering – Myth or truth?
There are unfortunately many myths floating around about the supposed risks of spaying and neutering. Let us set the record straight:
1. The operation can be painful – Myth
A veterinarian will always perform spay/neutering operations under anaesthesia so your cat will not feel a thing. However, they will be in a bit of discomfort during the recovery period which differs between males and females. After every operation, your vet will provide you with short-term pain relief medication and give you advice on how to help your cat recover over the following few weeks.
2. Neutering will cause behavioral changes – Truth
This one is actually true, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unneutered males are more likely to fight and roam long distances. Un-spayed females will become stressed if they are not mated with. Such stress can lead to detrimental health conditions in the long run. Neutered and spayed cats tend to me more placid, loving, and relaxed – what’s bad about that?
3. My cat needs to have one litter before being spayed – Myth
There is absolutely no benefit of a female cat having a litter of kittens before she is spayed. In fact, this could put your cat at risk of pregnancy complications and mammary cancer.
Now that we’ve debunked some of these common myths about spaying and neutering, let’s look at potential risks to the procedure itself.
4. It’s a risky procedure – Partial truth
Spaying and neutering operations involve putting your cat under anaesthesia, which does carry inherent risks. Any type of surgery also carries risks such as haematoma and wound infections. Most vets will ask about your cats medical history and try to identify any potential risks prior to performing the procedure. However, if you’re worried, it’s best to express your concerns to the vet so they can reassure you.
There is evidence to suggest that some spayed females are more likely to develop urinary tract infections (UTI’s) after surgery. UTI’s also seem to be more common in certain breeds such as Abyssinians and Persians. Symptoms to watch out for include straining to urinate, vocalizing while urinating, and blood in the urine. These conditions are fairly easy to treat as long as they are picked up early.
5. Desexed cats get fat – Partial truth
Both spaying and neutering reduce a cats daily energy requirements by 24-33%. If not accounted for, this can increase the risk of obesity later in life. Luckily the effects can be easily countered by keeping portion sizes under control and making sure your cat is on a high-quality diet that is tailored to their unique needs.
Alternatives to spaying and neutering
There are a variety of alternatives to spaying and neutering, with more being tested and developed. These include both surgical and non-surgical options.
Surgical alternatives to spaying/neutering include:
Hysterectomy – Both the uterus and part of the fallopian tubes are removed in female cats. This prevents them from getting pregnant. However, the ovaries are left intact so behavioural changes associated with ovulation will still remain.
Vasectomy – The sperm duct is removed in male cats, which is responsible for sperm production. In this procedure, the testes are not removed, so testosterone will still be produced.
Ovariectomy – Only the ovaries are removed from a female cat, while the uterus remains. Again, this prevents pregnancy and also prevents breeding instinct behaviors.
There are currently not many approved non-surgical alternatives to spaying. However, there are many potential options that are currently being tested, including an innovative gene transfer procedure and immunocontraceptives.
However, there are some contraceptive options available but they should be considered as short-term solutions only. These include:
Megestrol Acetate – This is a contraceptive drug that’s used as a form of emergency contraception for female cats. It works by blocking estrus production for up to seven months with a weekly dose in capsule or liquid form. Megestrol acetate can only be prescribed by a vet and should not be administered for any longer than 30 weeks.
Calcium Chloride Dihydrate Solution – This is a chemical sterilant for male cats and dogs. It’s administered via an intratesticular injection.
If you are unsure of the best sterilization technique for your cat, it’s best to discuss the options with your vet. NEVER purchase a sterilant online and administer it to your pet yourself. This can lead to a whole host of complications and potential health issues.
If you are worried about the costs of desexing your cat, many charities now run low-cost neutering programs across America including the ASPCA and the North Shore Animal League America. Some animal shelters also offer financial support to get your cat spayed or neutered. So, it’s always worth doing your research to see what’s available in your area!
Aftercare: How to care for a cat after spaying or neutering
Your vet will probably recommend that you keep your cat indoors for a few days after surgery, to prevent the wound from being damaged or torn. They may also need to wear an Elizabethan collar to prevent them from biting or scratching at the surgical site. Check the wound daily and make sure you notify your vet if you see any abnormal discharge or bleeding.
The best thing to do after spaying and neutering surgery is to set up a bed, water, and a litter tray in a quiet, warm room. Low-lighting will also be beneficial. Your cat may be feeling nauseous and stressed after the surgery, which will increase the likelihood of feline aggression and anxiety.
Allow your cat to recover on their on for the first 24 hours but make sure to observe them for any adverse side effects to the surgery or medication. After this period, you can also start feeding your cat as normal again. However, remember that sterilized cats require less food than unneutered cats.
Male cats recover quicker than female cats after neutering because the surgery is much less invasive. Female cats will have stitches that need to be kept clean until they can be removed (or dissolve) after 10-14 days. Your cat will also be given pain-relief medication for a few days after surgery. These need to be given regularly until the complete course is finished, even if your cat appears to be healing well.
Female cats, in particular, should not be handled for at least a week after surgery. You will also want to prevent them from jumping up on high surfaces as this can cause the stitches to rupture.