Did you know that kittens as young as 16 weeks old can become pregnant? A questionnaire survey completed by over 3000 households in the UK found that more than 80% of those responding thought that female cats had to be at least five months old.
More than 25% thought that cats under one year of age could not conceive.
In an email interview with Philippa Welsh, BVSc, MRCVS, the lead author on the study, Decoded Science learned that getting correct information out to the cat owning public is an important component of reducing cat overpopulation, as many of the households who held these beliefs and other misconceptions also reported having at least one unplanned litter.
Cat Overpopulation Problem: Misconceptions Complicate Matters
In addition to the lack of awareness of onset of puberty in cats, another misconception likely contributes to the problem – the belief that related cats will not mate. Thus, people adopting littermates did not understand that they ran the risk of an unplanned litter if kittens of opposite sex were not neutered before puberty.
There is also an old belief that cats should have at least one litter before being spayed. Nearly half the respondents to the survey either held that belief or were not sure. If all of those households allowed their cats to have one litter, that would be more than 1,000 litters, with an average size of 4-6 kittens each. And that’s just from the households in the UK who responded to the survey.
To date, there is no data to indicate any health or welfare benefits to cats having a litter before being spayed. On the contrary, the growing pet overpopulation problem would indicate that fewer litters being born would result in better welfare for cats in general.
Uninformed Owners More Likely to Have an Unplanned Litter of Kittens
Of the 128 litters reported in the survey, 80% were listed as unplanned. It is not clear however, what owners defined as unplanned, whether it meant that the owners did not actively seek out breeding opportunities or whether they were actually not planning any litter at all.
Owners who felt that a queen should have a litter before being spayed were more likely to have reported an unplanned litter.
Multi-cat households and those who rented rather than owned their home were also more likely to have unplanned litters. In the UK, as in the US there are many animal welfare organizations offering free or low-cost neutering, thus even if lower income could be tied to renting rather than owning a home, it is not likely that cost is an important factor.
Dr. Welsh told Decoded Science that many animal charities in the UK are moving toward spaying and neutering both cats and dogs before they are placed. Newer and safer anesthetics and awareness of pre- and post-anesthetic management of young patients has helped increase the safety and thus the acceptance of early neutering.
Jane Murray, BSc (Econ), MSc, PhD., co-author on the study, said that further work is now in the planning stage. She explained,
“It is becoming increasingly apparent that qualitative studies are needed to explore reasons behind beliefs that are held, in order that further efforts to change behaviour can be targeted effectively.”
At What Age Should a Pet Cat Be Spayed or Neutered?
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) came out in favor of neutering at or before four months of age in 1998, citing a series of studies that confirmed the information above. Caveats included following protocols that address the slightly increased risk of hypothermia (low body temperature) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
In the UK, the Cat Group, a collection of professional organizations dedicated to feline welfare, also recommends early spaying to avoid unwanted litters. Early concerns about the safety of surgery at that age have been proven unfounded. Cats being spayed at this age had lower complication rates, the surgeries took less time and recovery from anesthesia was quicker than for cats neutered at six months or older.
People getting a kitten from other sources have choices about the timing of the surgery, however, the potential for unwanted litters is still there unless the cat will be the only cat or be part of a household with other neutered cats and be kept indoors.