It’s a simple client question without a simple answer. “When do I spay or neuter my kitten?”
Organized veterinary medicine offers numerous answers to the question. Individual veterinarians are all over the map, too, and often their answers are vague, leaving cat owners dizzy.
For example, one clinic website reads, “Cats should be spayed or neutered sometime under a year, preferably under 6 to 8 months.”
“No wonder clients are often confused, or simply put spay/neuter off,” says Glenn Olah, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ABVP, the president of Winn Feline Foundation. “If we’re the experts, we should offer a clear direction to cat owners.”
Striving for Agreement
Esther Mechler is the founder and president of Marian’s Dream, a Brunswick, Maine, nonprofit group that began 30 years ago with a focus on putting an end to pet overpopulation. A light bulb went off in her head last year.
“I thought, ‘What a difference it will make if we get veterinary consensus on when to spay or neuter cats.’ It seems so simple, doesn’t it?”
The switch on her light bulb went on after several visits to animal shelters. According to ASPCA, about 1.4 million cats are euthanized annually in U.S. shelters. There are many reasons for this, of course, but overpopulation is a big one.
“Births continue to outstrip homes,” Mechler says.
She partnered with Joan Miller, chairwoman of outreach and education at the Cat Fanciers’ Association, to recruit volunteer experts to participate in what became the Veterinary Task Force on Feline Sterilization. The group, which I was a part of, met in Orlando, Fla., this past January.
Miller, a legend in the cat world for her countless contributions over many decades, says: “I believed that if we could, as a group, manage to create a specific recommendation on when to spay/ neuter cats, lives would be saved. It was also important that our decisions were based on science.”
What Researchers Have Found
To that end, Kirk Breuninger, VMD, MPH, a veterinary research associate at Banfield Pet Hospital and a task force member, presented the results of a literature review on gonadectomy in domestic cats:
- Evidence shows that spaying before the first heat cycle has protective affects against mammary cancer occurring later in life. Obviously, this is important, particularly since about 90 percent of mammary cancer is malignant.
- There’s no evidence to suggest that pediatric gonadectomy by 5 months old is linked to any increased risk of disease.
- Well-designed feline studies of all potential long-term outcomes from early gonadectomy are generally lacking. However, we do know that spay/ neuter before the first heat has many obvious benefits—no first litter, no uterine infections or uterine cancer, no ovarian cancer, no testicular cancer and no problem births.
Dr. Breuninger notes, “Like with so many other areas, the review evidence is far more robust in dogs.”
Mixing Cats and Dogs
And that’s part of the problem, says Dr. Olah, who practices in Albuquerque, N.M.
“For many reasons, many veterinarians defer to dog guidelines because the studies in cats haven’t been done and because there are still veterinarians who in some ways assume if it works for dogs it will work for cats,” he says.
Julie Levy, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVIM, a professor in the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, says current studies have raised “legitimate concerns” about the long-term health effects of canine spay/neuter.
“At this point there’s no evidence to indicate similar concerns in cats,” Dr. Levy said.
So, here’s what’s happening now.
Without a definitive recommendation of when to spay or neuter, some cat owners wait until after the first heat. Also, depending on the practitioner’s recommendation, a gap exists between the last vaccine administered and the suggestion to spay/neuter several months later.
“Most cat owners just don’t know that a female can get pregnant at 4 months, and certainly at 5 months, leading to unwanted litters,” Miller says.
Olah adds, “When cats go into heat, they’re not always ideal pets.”
Female cats in heat and aroused males are more likely to spray, and intercat aggression is more likely to occur. There may be overnight vocalizing, and don’t forget that indoor cats in heat want to get outside, where unforeseen risks include predators, vehicle traffic and retrovirus infections.
The Answer Is …
Looking at the evidence, all 11 task force members supported the notion to Fix by Five Months, the name given to the Marian’s Dream program.
“Everyone in the room believed that consistent messaging to pet owners doesn’t occur and would be beneficial and that unwanted pregnancies do occur, which contributes to the cat overpopulation problem,” Olah says. “There doesn’t appear to be a downside to spay/neuter for kittens by 5 months.”
Levy adds further support.
“The reality is that the consistency in care may help to retain clients, and obviously keeping cats in homes retains clients,” she says. “Most shelters are already doing [pediatric spay/neuter], and veterinary students being trained in shelters are doing this. It all makes perfect sense.” Levy is hopeful that organized veterinary medicine signs on to the recommendation to Fix by Five, which can easily be made a part of kitten care packages.
The task force created a document—found here —in the hope of gaining the support of organized veterinary medicine. The final paragraph reads:
“Given the known benefits of sterilization and the lack of evidence for harm related to age at which the procedure is performed, the Veterinary Task Force on Feline Sterilization calls for veterinary practitioners and professional associations to recommend sterilization of cats by 5 months of age. This provides veterinary practitioners with a consistent message that may increase veterinary visits and spay/neuter compliance while reducing the risk of pet relinquishment and unwanted offspring.”
Mechler is positively giddy.
“Veterinarians and related professionals have led the way,” she says. “I’m confident the public will pay attention. Cat lives will be saved.”
Originally published in the September 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today!
Steve Dale writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a certified animal behavior consultant, hosts two national radio shows, writes newspaper columns, and speaks at animal welfare and veterinary conferences. His blog is at www.stevedale.tv.