One simple change can have profound results
by Philip A. Bushby, DVM, MS, DACVS
The Veterinary Task Force on Feline Sterilization for Age of Spay and Neuter Surgery was convened in January 2016 to review issues surrounding the overpopulation of cats and the standard recommendation that ovariohysterectomy and castration of cats be delayed until cats are six months old or older. Resulting from the work of that task force was a document that recommended cats be sterilized before five months of age (1).
Fixing the mismatch
The principal basis for this simple change from six months of age or older to five months of age or younger is that female cats can be pregnant as early as four and a half to five months of age.
The result of this mismatch between the age at which cats can become pregnant and the traditional recommended age of sterilization is the birth of unplanned and unwanted litters of kittens. Unfortunately, many of those unwanted kittens end up in animal shelters, and far too many are euthanized due to lack of adopting homes.
The American Veterinary Medical Association in June 2017 formally endorsed the consensus document put forth by the Veterinary Task Force on Feline Sterilization for Age of Spay and Neuter Surgery.
This joined endorsements from other veterinary medical and humane associations including the American Association of Feline Practitioners, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, the American Animal Hospital Association, the Winn Feline Foundation, Catalyst Council, Cat Fancier’s Association, the International Cat Association, PetSmart Charities, and the Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project, of Lynnwood, Washington.
The Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project, having sterilized more than 117,000 feral cats and kittens since 1997, actually recommends fixing feral cats before four months of age, if possible.
Feline Fix by Five (FFF) is a campaign promoted by the nonprofit Marian’s Dream to share the fix-by-five-months-of-age recommendation that has garnered such broad professional and humane support.
The goal of the FFF campaign is to reach a point where the number of kittens born each year is equal to the number of homes looking to adopt a kitten. Reaching this goal is achievable by simply sterilizing cats before they can reproduce.
“A stitch in time saves nine”
Animal shelters are often overrun with kittens, the vast majority of which are the result of unplanned and unexpected pregnancies of young cats. But this is not necessarily because the cats’ owners are neglecting sterilization.
As far back as 1992 a survey of cat owners in Massachusetts found that while conventional belief is that cat overpopulation results from the fecundity of cats who are left intact for their entire lives, the opposite appeared to be true. Cats who were eventually spayed accounted for 87% of all litters born (2).
The problem was not that that cat owners refused to spay or neuter their pets; it was that they simply did not have sterilization performed in time.
One simple change
Esther Mechler of the Marian’s Dream Foundation, who initiated the FFF campaign, has stated that “The number of births prevented simply by changing the recommended age for spay/neuter of cats from six months to between four and five months could reduce shelter intakes enough to balance the number of potential adopters with the number of available cats and kittens. We could end the overpopulation of cats by this one simple change.” (3)
Just this one simple change could have profound results.
No reason to wait
What many people don’t realize is that there is no scientifically sound basis for waiting until six months of age or older to sterilize cats, and there are no contraindications for spay/neuter at four to five months of age.
Anesthetic concerns about juvenile surgery voiced in the 1960s and 1970s are no longer valid. Anesthetic drugs available today are perfectly safe in kittens as young as six to eight weeks of age.
Old fears that castration of juvenile male cats would predispose to urinary obstruction were disproven in the 1990s. (4)
There are numerous known health benefits for spay/neuter in cats, in addition to the population management benefits, and there is “no evidence to suggest that sterilization by 5 months of age is linked to any increased risk of disease.” (5)
Easier, faster, fewer complications
A survey conducted in 2000 of veterinarians who were, at that time, spaying and neutering cats under 5 months of age, confirmed that the surgeries were easier, faster, and had fewer complications than spay/neuter of cats at 6 months of age or older. (6)
So, what should the owner of a kitten do? Ask your veterinarian to perform the spay or neuter at the end of the routine kitten vaccination series (generally around 4 ½ months of age). And if your veterinarian is concerned, show him or her this article.
For more information on Feline Fix by Five go to http://www.felinefixbyfive.org.
- Veterinary Task Force on Feline Sterilization Recommendations for Age of Spay and Neuter Surgery,
- Manning MM & Rowan AN, Companion animal demographics and sterilization status: Results from a survey in four Massachusetts towns. Anthrozoos 5 (3).
- Esther Mechler, personal communication, October 25, 2017.
- Stubbs WP, Scrugges SL, et al. Prepubertal gonadectomy in the domestic feline: Effects on skeletal, physical and behavioral development. Vet Surg. 1993;22.
Dale S. When to Spay/Neuter Cats? Vet Consensus Says Fix by Five Months. Vet Pract News. 2016.
- Land T, Wall S. Survey of the Coalition of Spay/Neuter Veterinarians. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000;216(5).