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).
Jamaka Petzak says
Sharing far and wide, with hope and Prayers. Many vets recommend four months as the time to spay/neuter.
Tamara De Sanchez says
This is a fantastic article! I love the initiative Feline Fix by Five.
Janet W. says
Great piece and so important! The best way to end companion animal suffering is through aggressive s/n.
Dr. Dena says
Great article – I would like to send a “shout-out” and thank you to Dr. Marvin Mackie who is the guru of early age spay/neuter (staring at 8 weeks ofage) in the City of Los Angeles during my tenure as Chief Veterinarian for animal control during the late 1990s. Not only did he perform tens of thousands of these surgeries, but he was so gracious, donating his time to train vets in his surgical techniques and support us at animal control. This was responsible for the current lowered pet population in the City. We all endured criticism from rescue groups, other vets in the area, and some adopters, but we held fast and didn’t allow a single healthy adoption to leave the shelter unless it was spayed or neutered as early as 8 weeks of age. We made a difference, as I know this program will as well. Believe in what you do and make a difference – it may not be obvious immediately, but be patient: positive change will follow!!
Ruth Steinberger says
Great article with a catchy title that draws attention to this urgent issue.
The fact is that cats are not the same as dogs–and while very few dogs will go into estrus before six months, cats routinely do so. As Esther Mechler has pointed out, cats do not get the same medications or food that dogs get. Yet an important piece of information that may well predicate if the cat will have an unwanted litter is routinely whittled down to a generic piece of information intended to fit both cats and dogs; that information leaves cats out in the cold.
Spaying a cat at five months costs the same as getting her spayed months or years later. The simple change in timeline can save millions of lives for not a penny more. It’s time to engage the facts.
Feline Fix is a great way!
jeffrey young dvm says
Thanks ANIMALS 24-7… Thanks ESTHER MECHLER…One person can and has made a difference on overpopulation…Hell, nothing has ever changed without individuals showing a better way…Esther is an amazing person and has done more to help animals than any vet i have ever met..this is long overdue..I have been doing prepubes since about 1990 and have never looked back..it is about time the vet profession starts addressing over population issues and comes into the 21st century…great article…
in the end it is about money for a lot of groups..how do you prove something did not happen…clearly the numbers go down if spay/neuter is the big push, but people don’t see that, they do see the starving or broken animal that groups like to fund-raise with.. in the end, demanding that every humane groups has a spay/neuter facility and helps low income people will have a greater impact than anything else in animal welfare..in America at least 20 million less animals are being put to sleep and that has more to do with spay/neuter and a more informed public than anything else..
Dave Pauli says
This is an excellent (but long overdue) endorsement by the AVMA. Pioneers like Marvin Mackie, Eric Davis, and Jeff Young have been practicing and teaching pre-pubescent surgery for decades. The value to the individual cat and to society are maximized when the cat is four to five months old. Hooray! that the establishment has finally agreed. Kudos to Esther Mechler for continuing to push for positive change.
G. Robert Weedon, DVM, MPH says
“Just this one simple change could have profound results….” How very true!
Louise Holton says
Thanks for a great and timely article. It’s so important to fix by five or four —Alley Cat Rescue has been spaying kittens weighing 2 lbs for 25 years —I would prefer to wait a little longer but these are kittens we place in homes and we cannot allow them out of our hands without being sterilized—Love all the work Esther has done over the years to bring attention to cat overpopulation and Alley Cat Rescue certainly endorses her work and the work you do, Merritt & Beth, to bring attention to this issue. So again great article!
Mike Winikoff says
I think this is a great idea. I’m not a vet, but I support fixing all cats and dogs as early as the vet says it’s safe. In fact I’d go way further than just suggesting it. I think it should be mandatory and would support legislation mandating early age spay/neuter and encouraging that by charging much higher license fees for unfixed animals.
Hiro Yamasaki says
The shelters have to justify their existence so therefore there has to be animals to adopt…this is what Dr.Jeff said on June 2nd at Dr.Jeff’s Japan Tour 2018 Tokyo presentation.
Not a single shelter that I have known for the past two decades has never ever diminished in size and its adoption volume.
Far from it, they are all expanding in size and lowering their sheltering quality.
Having met Dr.Mackie in 1998, then Esther Mechler in 2005 at the CHAMP, I made up my mind to aggresively promote early-age S/N for my 5-year clinic project, actually ran 6 years, my city Kobe pound’s kitten intake dropped over 65%.
Think I met right specialists, Dr.Mackie, Dr.Jeff, Esther Mechler and Animals 24-7!
Esther Mechler says
Just a note to say that the headline was not suggested by me. In fact I requested that Dr. Bushby’s article be published just as he contributed it – that was my understanding. I have, in the past, quipped about the number of Fs in the name of the campaign but because of Dr. Bushby’s suggestion that readers bring a copy of the article to their veterinarians would never have said to put that in the guest editorial. I apologize to Dr. Bushby, but he understands that it was done without my knowledge or approval. E. Mechler
Jamaka Petzak says
Love cats? FIX BY FIVE. Don’t like cats? STILL, FIX BY FIVE. Or better still, over 2 lbs. EVERYONE should be able to agree on this. Because no one wants cats on the streets, living dangerous and tough lives. And adding my voice to the shout-outs for Dr. Marvin Mackie, pioneer and hero. His caring has made a difference in my life and the lives of cats I care about. But I care for all cats, beyond that.