Spaying or Neutering Your Cat
One of the decisions you'll want to make soon after welcoming your new cat is home is whether to spay or neuter, and at what age. If you don't already know what you want to do, talk to your veterinarian. Most veterinarians agree that sterilizing your cat is a good idea.
Having a litter entails some risk to the mother, with a chance of difficult labor as well as uterine and mammary gland infections. The kittens, too, can have health problems, which can be expensive and heartbreaking. With the overabundance of both cats and kittens, chances are you'll end up keeping them all, or worse, surrendering them to uncertain futures.
Unlike dogs, cats don't just come in heat (estrus) twice a year. If a female cat in heat isn't mated, she'll come back into heat every two to three weeks until she is mated. Her heats last for three to 16 days, during which time she will try to find male cats, even escaping from your home. She may yowl, roll around, rub on you, and spray urine in your home. Male cats may surround your home, waiting for their big chance. If you have an intact male cat, life will be miserable for all of you. Even if you just have a female, it's stressful for both you and your cat.
Spaying (ovariohysterectomy) your cat actually has some health advantages for her beyond ensuring she doesn't get pregnant. Spayed cats have about a significantly lower risk of developing mammary cancer compared to intact female cats. Mammary cancer is the third most common cancer in cats, and is malignant almost 90 percent of the time. Spaying also does away with the chance of pyometra, a potentially fatal infection of the uterus. Because the uterus is removed in spaying, that infection cannot happen. Treatment for pyometra in most cases is an emergency spay, but even so, not all cats survive. Although rare, tumors of the reproductive system sometimes occur in intact females; this risk is also negated with spaying.
For male cats, neutering (castration) removes the risk of testicular cancer (although rare in cats), and reduces the chance of prostate problems. It prevents the large jowls seen in intact male cats. It decreases the urge to roam and fight. This in turn reduces the risk of contagious viruses such as feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus that are transmitted mostly by saliva. He will also develop fewer wounds from fighting, and have less risk of being hit by a car, attacked by a dog, or harmed by a neighbor tired of his fighting and yowling. Castration generally makes for a more affectionate pet. It has about a 90 percent chance of reducing urine spraying, but may not do away with it altogether. Castration reduces the pungent tomcat smell of the urine.
Spaying and neutering does increase the risk of obesity, so you may have to feed your cat slightly less food or urge him to exercise more. In addition, castration may increase the risk of feline lower urinary tract diseases (FLUTD)---also called feline urological syndrome (FUS). It's thought that neutering results in a narrower urethra, increasing the chance that crystals can become lodged in it, possibly blocking urination. Most affected cats can be treated with diet and medication.
Both surgeries are very safe, although as with any surgery, some slight risk is involved. Spaying is more invasive. The veterinarian will place a small incision in the abdomen, and remove the ovaries and uterus through it. In castration, the veterinarian will remove the testicles, leaving the scrotal sack, which will shrink and disappear. If the cat has one or both testicles undescended, the veterinarian will have to place an incision in the abdomen and remove them that way.
Most cats in the United States are spayed between 5 and 8 months of age, but in many shelters cats are altered as early as 2 months of age. Studies have shown that in comparison to cats spayed or neutered at a later age, early altering does not cause stunted growth, does not cause behavioral problems, and does not cause increased obesity. In fact, one study showed early neutered cats were actually healthier than later neutered ones. Especially in male cats, early neutering resulted in decreased rates of aggression and urine spraying.
For almost all cat owners, spaying and neutering is the best choice for their pet. Your life will be easier, and your cat's life will be simpler---and probably longer and healthier.