In recent years, the fact that the single most important procedure individuals can do to ensure a healthy and manageable companion animal population is to spay and neuter all pets has become widely accepted. The number of animals competing for safe, loving and responsible homes is staggering, especially when one considers that, on average, female cats and their offspring can produce hundreds of kittens in just a few short years. Of course, it takes two, and intact males also have a role in overpopulation.
February has been designated Spay and Neuter Month, and culminates in Humane Society International's annual World Spay Day on the last Tuesday of February (which is the 26th in 2013).
According to the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA, in any given year between six and eight million animals are brought to shelters across the country. Because of the lack of homes for them, approximately three to four million of these are euthanized – that is one animal every eight seconds, of every day, of every year. People could stop this from occurring in the future by altering our animals today. If more people would spay and neuter pets and adopt from shelters or only responsible breeders (thereby eliminating the market for pet retailers and kitten mills), we could make the animal sheltering system as we know it obsolete.
The most common reasons given for not altering an animal are procrastination and/or lack of education. Many people do not know that a female cat can go into her first estrus (heat) cycle as early as 5 months of age, with males maturing around the same time. Feline heat cycles last 10-14 days and their frequency is determined largely by the number of hours of daylight and temperature. This is why March through September is known as "Kitten Season" in upstate New York. Often, owners think that they can keep unaltered males and females separated, unfortunately the determination of unaltered animals to breed is stronger than any door or fence, with a great many escaping their homes or confinement within their homes in order to mate.
It is not uncommon for people to want their cat to have to have a litter, thinking that it will be fun to see the kittens grow, and then give them away when they are 2-3 months old. These people generally do not count on such possibilities as a difficult pregnancy, miscarriage, difficult deliveries, stillbirth or failure of kittens to thrive. Unfortunately, these threats are very real and can lead to expensive veterinary bills and trauma for both the cat and the humans. It is important to understand that a female does not have logical or emotional issues to reproduce like humans do. Nor do males have any sense of masculinity tied to reproduction; males are not aroused unless the sense a female in heat. Feline reproduction is solely rooted in the instinct to insure species survival.
Not only can a female bring an unwanted litter into a home, but any companion animal that roams - for mating or otherwise – runs a much higher risk of bringing diseases such as rabies and parasites such as fleas into the home, putting the humans and any other pets in the home at risk.
Sterilized cats tend to be healthier than their intact counterparts. Unspayed females can develop ovarian cysts, uterine infections and breast cancer. Intact males are prone to infections of the penis and testicles, tend to spray to mark territory and can be aggressive.
Spaying and neutering will not effect a cat's hunting instinct and will not cause a cat to gain weight. A spayed or neutered cat does not have the caloric needs of an intact one, so their food intake should be reduced by 1/4 or 1/5 for the duration of their lives after surgery.
Veterinarians well trained in pediatric spay and neuter may be willing to perform these procedures on kittens as young as 3 months old. Other veterinarians go by the "4 months or 4 pounds" rule of thumb. The most widely-accepted youngest age is 6-7 months, even though females can begin estrus at 5 months. Adults can also be safely spayed or neutered, although the attending veterinarian may require blood work prior to surgery for older cats.
Spay and neuter surgeries are relatively affordable (for example, at CNY Veterinary Medical Services in Westmoreland, feline spays and neuters cost less than $200), but there are programs locally and nationwide that can assist individuals with financial need. For each pet altered, the one-time veterinary fee can save hundreds of animals.
For those who would really like to help raise kittens, there are many opportunities to foster in the greater Utica area. By spaying and neutering owned cats and then fostering for organizations such as Spring Farm CARES, HALO and R-CATS, individuals can not only prevent unwanted litters by their own cats but they can also help raise healthy, socialized kittens that will be sterilized before being adopted into loving homes. Spaying and neutering and pet adoptions are two of the cornerstones of the ever-growing No Kill movement, which is being implemented in cities such as Austin, Texas and by organizations such as Austin Pets Alive, Pets Alive and Best Friends Animal Society.
It is inarguable that spaying and neutering companion animals is the first step on the journey to become a truly humane nation and drastically reducing the number of homeless or unwanted pets. Designating February as Spay and Neuter Month is a great way to open up discussion and create educational opportunities on the subject, but it is a year-round endeavor that will only benefit our cats and all companion animals.