Desexing Cats and Kittens

It is the duty of responsible cat owners to do what’s best for their pet. While there is huge pressure on owners to desex their pets, it’s fair to query if this is truly in their best interests.

This article explains the benefits of neutering or spaying a cat, when to go ahead, the procedure itself, and busts a common myth.

Before we start, let’s clear up confusion over what to call the procedure.

  • Desexing cats: This is a one-size-fits-all term for removing the reproductive parts of male or female cats
  • Neutering: In some countries neutering interchangeable with ‘desexing’, but in others its widely understood to mean male cat desexing
  • Spay: This is a specific term for desexing female cats
  • Castration: This is a specific term for desexing male cats.
Cat and kittens in a line

Benefits of Desexing Cats

That adorable fluff-ball kitten depends on you for their health and happiness. You would never deliberately harm them so putting them through surgery takes some thinking about. To get things straight, let’s look at why desexing improves a pet’s life.

Female Cats

An entire female (one with her womb and ovaries intact) is a kitten-making machine. Mother Nature has a trick up her sleeve to make this happen, in that the female comes into heat roughly every three weeks.

The thing with heat (or oestrous) in the queen (female cat) is that she isn’t quiet about it. It’s not unusual for unsuspecting owners to call their veterinarian in a panic because their beloved girl-cat suddenly seems in agony.

Typical signs of a female cat in heat include:

  • Yowling, screaming or increased vocalisation
  • Commando crawling across the floor
  • Rolling or thrashing around as if in pain
  • Changes in behaviour such as trying to escape or being exceptionally needy
  • Spraying urine to advertise she’s in heat

All of this is Mother Nature’s way of attracting a whole pose of boyfriends, so no wonder it looks alarming to an owner.

For the female being in heat is like taking a thrill-seeking roller-coaster ride. Those hormones jangle around and change her behaviour, as if she’s got out of control PMT. And this repeats for three to five days every three weeks!

Desexing eliminates these distressing episodes and allows her to settle down to a contented life. And that’s without taking the health benefits into account!

Male Cats

An entire tom (male cat) is likely to develop some pretty unpleasant habits. Topping the list of anti-social behaviour is spraying.

Spraying is the cat equivalent of posting an update on Twitter or Instagram. It’s his way of reminding everyone that he’s the boss of this patch and sends out subtle messages to other felines. However, to us humans the smell is downright offensive. Indeed, spraying is a common reason for rehoming and even euthanasia, if an owner just can’t take it any more.

Another issue with entire males is roaming. High testosterone levels drive a boy to wander for miles, both exploring new territory and seeking a mate. This is bad news when it comes to his health (see below)

The Vet Perspective on Desexing Cats

Vets in Australia are strongly in favour of desexing cats. This is because of the health benefit to the individual pet. Let look at what these are:

Benefits for Female Cats

  • Mammary Cancer

Breast cancer is rare in cats, but it’s serious when it happens with 80-90% being highly aggressive. Spaying before six months of age greatly reduce the risk of developing mammary cancer by 91%.

  • Pregnancy

Pregnancy is a drain on the mother, repeated pregnancies even more so. It stresses her immune system, which makes her more vulnerable to infection and strains her organ function. Then there is the risk of pregnancy complications, giving birth, and nursing kittens, which make have a litter anything but a stroll in the park. It may be harder to find suitable pet parents for your kittens.

  • Pyometra (Womb Infection)

Coming into heat is associated with high levels of oestrogen. Over the months and years, oestrogen weakens the womb lining making it vulnerable to infection. The end result in an entire female is a condition called pyometra where the womb fills with pus. In worst case scenario the patient may suffer blood poisoning, organ failure, and death. Treatment requires urgent surgery to remove the infected womb at a time when she is already unwell.

Benefits for Male Cats

The health risk to male cats is largely down to their desire to roam. Indeed, one study by a leading insurance company concluded the biggest single action any cat owner could take to extend the life of a male cat was to get them neutered. The reason being a roaming male cat is at greater risk of a road traffic accident or catching Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)

  • Traffic Accidents

Roaming at night, a male concentrating on tracking down a female in heat isn’t thinking about road safety. This carries a high risk of being struck by a vehicle with all that this implies. From life-changing injuries to death.

  • FIV

High levels of testosterone make entire male cats highly focussed on defending their territory. This leads to fights which spread Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV). This creates a vicious circle, whereby infected fighting toms bite other cats, further spreading infection.

FIV attacks the immune system making the patient less able to fight off simple infections. Whilst some cats can live for years with the condition, they do need regular health checks and prompt treatment at the first sign of illness. Plus, after diagnosis they must live indoors or risk posing a threat to all the neighbourhood cats.

Other Benefits of Cat Desexing

  • Population Control

Entire cats have the potential to breed like… rabbits! With shelters full to bursting with kittens and cats in desperate need of loving homes, it’s is undesirable to add to this population. With not enough homes to go around, it doesn’t make sense to swell the numbers of those in need.

  • Protecting Wildlife in Australia

The larger the cat population, the more cats there are to predate on native wildlife. The statistics for how many birds and small mammals are lost to cat predation is distressing. Again, desexing helps control both the feral cat population (who depend on hunting to survive) and the roaming pet that is a hobby hunter.

  • Reduced registration fee with the local council

If your cat has not been desexed there may be an increased registration fee when you register your cat with the local council, also in some councils it is  compulsory desexing cats. These increased prices and restrictions may not be applied to a registered / recognised breeder, moreover your pet insurance premium would be more affordable.

What’s the Best Age to Desex a Cat?

Many rescues now undertake desexing before twelve or even eight weeks of age. This practice has been researched and no significant long term health drawbacks found. Indeed, the post-op complication rate (which is already low) was even lower with kitten neutering compared to adult cats.

But if you have a kitten at home and are wondering about kitten desexing age and when to go ahead, then between four to six months is ideal. This is because cats start to go through puberty around this time, so desexing a kitten before five months of age vastly reduces the risk of unwanted pregnancy. Plus, for the boys it reduces the risks of them starting to spray.

What do you Need to Do before surgery?

Once the cat is booked in for surgery, the clinic will talk you through the preparation required. Most important is that the kitten or cat has an empty stomach ahead of the anaesthetic. This usually involves not feeding after bedtime the night before. Then taking the cat is a safe carrier to the vet surgery the following morning.

What Happens on the Day

The veterinarian will check the kitten or cat over to ensure they are healthy and decide on the safest anaesthetic protocol for that patient. The cat is then bedded down in their own pen until it’s time for their anaesthetic.

A full general anaesthetic is required for desexing surgery. Once the cat is asleep, fur is clipped (either on the flank or belly for the girls, or just under the tail for boys) so that the area can be made surgically sterile.

The procedure takes place under sterile condition with the vet scrubbed and using sterilized surgical equipment. The boys don’t usually require any sutures, but the girls will either have a few skin sutures or stitches placed within the skin so that nothing shows on the outside.

Taking your Cat Home

Most clinics talk you through what to expect when the cat goes home. Most important is that they are kept indoors and have a warm, quiet place to rest up after desexed. It’s helpful if their first meal is light and easy to digest, such as cooked chicken, since the anaesthetic sometimes makes their stomach queasy.

Cats are sometimes quiet and sleepy for 24 hours after an anaesthetic, but if you are in the least concerned about your cat’s behaviour or any strange symptoms, always call your vet for advice.

Post-operative care

Post-operative care is all about encouraging the cat to chill and take things easy. This means keeping them indoors so they don’t jump around too much or damage the wound. Some cats try to lick their wound, but this must be prevented. If the cat licks, the clinic can supply a cone-of-shame to stop them getting to the op site.

Full healing takes around 7 – 10 days, after which the cat can go back into their normal routine provided there are no complications.

Cat in a shame cone

Possible complications

Serious complications are extremely rare and less likely with desexing surgery. If problems do happen they tend to be as a result of licking at the wound. This can introduce infection and requires a short course of antibiotic. If the cat takes her own stitches out early on, the surgical wound may need to be restitched.

A small number of cats develop a ‘suture reaction.’ This is a local swelling where the body has recognized there is foreign material (the absorbable suture material) in the muscle layers and works overtime to get rid of it. Most suture reactions go away without treatment, however a small number do require antibiotic.

As with any medical issues, if you aren’t sure always check in with your veterinarian .

Cost of Desexing a Cat

Desexing is a relatively inexpensive procedure, most veterinarians perform desexing at cost price, because of the animal welfare benefits. Female cat desexing cost is around $300 and average cost for Desexing a male cat is $120. Struggling to meet these costs? there are many charitable/ non profit organisations that provide vouchers – you may be eligible for cheap cat desexing through National Desexing Network (NDN) – and the average cost would be around $100, or some councils may provide free cat desexing. Speak to your vet who can advise you further about these options that are available.

Myths about Desexing Cats

It is a myth that desexing will change your cat’s paws-onality for the worse. In truth, the opposite is true. Desexing tends to amplify their cuddly side whilst ironing out their wilder urges such as spraying, roaming, and fighting.

Well done for asking questions and seeking to be better informed. But rest assured that desexing is definitely in your pet’s best interests and makes them a more settled, loving, and generally happier cat to have around.