Kitten Season is Here

Is that not an awesome poster?! I must say I was pretty pleased with my work on that. In all seriousness, though, kitten season is hitting the shelters hard this year so I thought this would be a good time to do a post on pet overpopulation and the importance of spaying and neutering.

Let’s start by examining the problem of pet overpopulation. Why are there so many pets looking for homes? First and foremost, and most importantly, there are too many animals being born. Each year, about 25 million puppies and kittens are born in the U.S. Humans domesticated cats and dogs tens of thousands of years ago by taking them out of their natural habitat and selectively breeding them. As a result, their reproduction goes relatively unchecked by natural predators or environmental conditions. At the same time, their breeding frequency and litter sizes have remained the same as they were millions of years ago. For instance, a single female cat can have three litters a year with an average of five kittens per litter. In only seven years, she and her offspring could potentially produce 420,000 cats.

It is estimated that between six and eight million cats and dogs enter animal shelters every year in the U.S. Sometimes people let their dogs and cats have litters and then can't find homes for all of them, sometimes homeless animals wandering the streets have litters, sometimes pets get lost and they don't have proper identification (like a collar with an ID tag or microchip) so they can't be returned home, and sometimes pets are surrendered or given up to animal shelters because their guardians can no longer care for them. Every year, commercial breeders purposefully bring millions of animals into an already overpopulated world to sell them for profit and yet, roughly one-quarter of the dogs in shelters are purebreds who were originally purchased. One out of every five pets becomes lost at some point in their lives but only 16% of dogs and 2% of cats are ever recovered. Over 30% of the animals who wind up in shelters are surrendered by their guardians. People’s readiness to dispose of animals reflects the way animals are defined legally, as property. As a result, nationwide, more than 2.7 million healthy, adoptable animals are euthanized in shelters every year.

So how can you help the pet overpopulation problem? Spay and neuter! What does it mean to spay or neuter? The word spay refers to the sterilization of female pets. The word neuter, while usually used to refer to the sterilization of male pets, can actually be used to describe the sterilization of either female or male pets. In the typical spay, or ovariohysterectomy, the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus are removed from the female. This makes her unable to reproduce and eliminates her heat cycle and breeding instinct related behavior. In the typical neuter, or orchiectomy, the testes are removed from the male. The makes him unable to reproduce and reduces or eliminates breeding behaviors. Once an animal has been spayed or neutered you might also hear them referred to as fixed or altered.

Both surgeries are major surgical procedures, but they are also the most common surgeries performed by veterinarians on cats and dogs. Like any surgical procedure the surgeries are associated with some anesthetic and surgical risk, but the overall incidence of complications is very low. The veterinarian will make sure the animal is healthy enough for surgery beforehand. For cats, it is generally considered safe for kittens as young as eight weeks old with a weight of two pounds or more to be spayed or neutered. In fact, research shows that kittens spayed or neutered before 12 weeks of age have fewer complications from surgery than those six months or older. Also, kittens rebound much faster after surgery and with less stress. Not to mention the fact that cats can go into heat as early as five months of age.

How does being fixed affect the health of an animal? Early spaying of female dogs and cats before their first heat can help protect them from serious health problems later in life like pyrometra (a fatal uterine infection), uterine cancer, or mammary cancer. In males, neutering eliminates the chances of getting testicular cancer and reduces the risk of prostate cancer or benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlarged prostate gland). From there the health benefits start to blend with the behavioral benefits. In response to their natural breeding instincts, animals are very likely to escape and roam increasing their risk for fights, being hit by a car, or just getting lost. Behaviorally, spaying and neutering brings even more benefits. It reduces or eliminates spraying, yowling, fighting with other pets, and (for females) menstrual bleeding. Take note, though, that learned behaviors will not be affected by surgery.

Now let’s tackle some misconceptions. Your pet will not miss having a litter. Both biologically and psychologically, animals are programmed to produce as many offspring as possible so their species can survive. As we discussed, millions of animals are euthanized every year because there are no homes for them. Additionally, animals only care for their young for a few months until they are weaned and seldom have anything further to do with them. Having a litter will not affect the pet’s temperament and pets do not have any concept of sexual identity or ego so there is no kind of emotional reaction or identity crisis from being neutered. As for the idea of purebred, large numbers of purebred animals are euthanized in shelters every year so there is no need to breed more. Lastly, when you factor in the long-term costs potentially incurred by a non-altered pet, the savings afforded by spaying and neutering are obvious. Especially with so many low cost options available. Plus, many counties have spay and neuter laws that require pets to be sterilized or require people with unaltered pets to pay higher license renewal fees.

Unfortunately, all of these statistics and facts about pet overpopulation and spaying and neutering don’t always help. For ten years, Alley Cat Allies founded, funded, and operated a subsidized spay and neuter clinic in Northern Virginia for feral cats in the region - Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Here is some data they compiled over those ten years.

Slightly more female cats came through the clinic than male cats. Of the 6,482 cats whose gender was recorded, 54% were female, while approximately 46% were male.

Nearly one in five female cats was pregnant. Over the course of the entire ten year period, 19% of all female cats brought into the clinic were pregnant. The average number of pregnant queens varied depending on the season, peaking in March each year. Over ten years, more than half of all female cats brought to the clinic in March were pregnant (56%). This monthly average dropped down to less than one percent in October, November, and December each year. The pattern observed—a single peak in earlier spring followed by a lesser peak in the summer—is very similar to statistics from other spay/neuter clinics.

Very few cats were already spayed or neutered. Of 6,512 total cats, only 2% were found to be already spayed or neutered when they arrived at the clinic. The remaining cats were almost all spayed or neutered at the clinic (97%). Only one percent was not neutered due to a medical condition or other reason.

In conclusion, spay and neuter your pets! Help with Trap-Neuter-Return programs in your area, donate to your local shelter or rescue groups, foster or adopt from your local shelter or rescue groups, and share what you learn with others! Pet overpopulation is a big problem to tackle and it will take time to correct the situation, but if we all work together and do our part maybe one day shelters will be forced to close their doors because they have no animals.