How old do cats have to be to get fixed?
You’ve just gotten a kitten and you want to do everything right. I know exactly how you feel. A little life is in your hands.
“Fixing” your kitten – more properly known as spaying and neutering – is one of the most responsible things you can do for the tiny life you’ve brought home. You’ve brought a cat into your world, to live in your home, and amongst your family and other pets. Spaying or neutering is an important part of improving the life of your new cat as a household pet, while also making a difference to all of catkind.
You may have heard conflicting information about the right time to spay or neuter your kitten. But there is no serious difference of opinion on the matter: the right time to spay or neuter your kitten is when she is at least six to eight weeks old, but before she reaches five months of age. Let’s get into the details.
What does “fixing” your cat mean?
Spaying and neutering, or “fixing,” are terms used to describe surgeries that prevent cats from reproducing. Spaying is the name of the surgery to remove the uterus and ovaries from a female cat, although the technical term is ovariohysterectomy. Neutering is the name of the surgery to remove the testicles from a male cat, and is also called castration.
Most kittens can be spayed as early as six to eight weeks old
Kittens can be spayed or neutered as young as six to eight weeks of age and ideally before they reach five months of age.
All the scientific information that is available to us shows that it is not only safe to spay or neuter a kitten that young, but better. A 2000 study surveyed 85 veterinarians who, altogether, had performed 200,000 spays and neuters on cats and dogs, and they unanimously agreed that spaying and neutering young animals is safer, faster, and easier than performing the same surgeries on dogs and cats who were six months or older.
This kind of recommendation is not something that veterinarians make lightly. A task force, called the Veterinary Task Force on Feline Sterilization, was assembled to look deeply into the question of the best age to spay and neuter cats. The task force looked at all of the scientific research that was available on this topic. They considered all the risks and benefits of spaying and neutering at various ages before coming up with their recommendation.
The conclusion of the task force was a campaign called “Feline Fix by Five Months,” that was endorsed by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association, the American Association of Feline Practitioners, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, The WINN Feline Foundation, the Catalyst Council, The International Cat Association, The Cat Fanciers Association, and several state veterinary associations.
That impressive list of organizations should tell you something: if you decide to spay or neuter your new kitten before he or she turns five months old, you should know that the most knowledgeable veterinarians, scientists, researchers, and cat people in the world think you are doing the right thing.
If I have a choice, is it better to wait until my kitten is fully five months old?
Many shelters will spay and neuter at six to eight weeks of age to ensure that no kitten is adopted out of the shelter with their reproductive organs intact (more on that in a minute).
But If you find a stray kitten, or if you get a kitten from a breeder or shelter that does not spay or neuter, you will have to choose the timing of the surgery yourself. Should you rush to get the surgery in as early as possible, or wait the full five months?
Your veterinarian may suggest waiting to schedule the surgery until after your kitten has finished his vaccinations, because your baby will be exposed to other animals at the hospital. All kitten vaccinations should be completed by four months old, so you would still be within the five-months-of-age recommendation.
Is there an age limit for spaying and neutering? Can I spay or neuter an older cat?
In an ideal world, all kittens who will not eventually be used for breeding, would be spayed or neutered by five months. But these surgeries can still be performed at any time during a cat’s life. An older cat should have pre-surgical blood work done to check liver and kidney function and to make sure that he or she is healthy enough to undergo anesthesia.
Spaying and neutering can prevent the tragedy of cat overpopulation
Cat overpopulation is a serious and tragic problem. More cats are born each year than there are homes for them, and far too many end up being euthanized.
It’s enormously heartbreaking. The ASPCA estimates that there are as many as 70 million cats in the United States roaming the streets, fending for themselves. 71% of cats who enter shelters cannot find a home and end up being put to sleep.
If you love cats, you must, must, must not allow yourself to be part of this problem.
Did you know that unwanted pregnancies can occur as early as four months of age for cats? If you didn’t, you’re in good company. In one study, 59% of cat owners who said their cat had had a litter, said it was “accidental.”
There is only one way to prevent accidental litters: spay and neuter your cat, and do so before your kitten turns five months old.
But what if my cat is just going to be an indoor cat?
Even indoor cats should be spayed and neutered. The risk of an indoor cat escaping and contributing to cat overpopulation is very, very real. But even if your cat never goes roaming, there are significant health and behavioral advantages to spaying and neutering. Spaying and neutering will make your cat healthier and happier to be living with you. More on that below.
Spaying can save the life of your female cat
While spaying and neutering is good for all catkind because it helps reduce the number of unwanted kittens in the world, did you know that it can also save your female cat’s life?
If you spay your cat before she goes into her first heat, you will reduce her risk of mammary (breast) cancer later in life.
Why is this so important? When dogs get mammary tumors, 50% of them are cancerous. But when cats get mammary tumors, 90% are cancerous, and feline mammary cancers tend to be very aggressive. The median survival time for cats who get mammary cancer is less than 1 year.
Cats who were spayed before they turned six months of age had a 91% reduction in mammary cancer. That is amazing!
Spaying will probably mean a longer life for your female cat. A 2013 Banfield State of Pet Health Report that studied 460,000 cats, showed that spayed cats had an average lifespan of 13.1 years, versus only 9.5 years for cats who had not been spayed.
Neutering may extend the life of your male cat
The Banfield State of Pet Health report showed that neutering seems to be associated with a longer life for male cats, too. Neutered males had a life expectancy of 11.8 years, versus only 7.5 years for intact males.
How does neutering extend the life of male cats? For one, it eliminates the risk testicular cancer and reduces the risk for prostate cancer.
It also reduces aggression in male cats, and with it, the desire to roam and fight. If your intact male cat is allowed outdoors, or escapes, he’s more likely to be injured in a fight, or even in traffic, as his mind is only on one thing.
Feline AIDS and leukemia are spread between cats through bites, and these bites can be the result of sexual competition.
So, neutering reduces both the urge to mate and the urge to fight about it, and reduces the likelihood that your cat will contract one of these often-fatal infections.
Spaying and neutering make your cat easier to live with, and more content living with you, too
Facts first: one-third of cat relinquishments to shelters are related to the sexual behaviors of intact cats. We already know that cats in shelters don’t have good odds. Can you imagine the likelihood of a cat with behavioral problems getting adopted?
The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association states that spaying and neutering reduces the likelihood that cat will be given up to a shelter for behavioral reasons. Even if there were no other reasons to spay and neuter your cat, that should be enough.
If you’ve ever lived with a tom cat, you can skip ahead to the next section. I don’t have to convince you that living with intact cats can be a nightmare.
What do intact cats do? They are very creative about finding ways to escape the house, for one. Males fight, and both sexes spray urine. Intact cats vocalize – a lot! Females go into heat for four to five days every three weeks during breeding season and during this time they yowl and urinate frequently, sometimes all over the house.
One of the advantages of “Feline Fix by Five Months” is that you prevent your cat from ever reaching sexual maturity and developing the habit of urine spraying. Once a cat starts spraying urine, it can be a very difficult behavior to change, even if you decide to spay her then.
For more information about urine spraying, read this post, “Why do cats spray or mark with urine?”
Spaying and neutering is very, very safe
Any loving pet owner is right to be concerned about putting their beloved cat – especially a very young kitten – through an elective surgery. What are the risks?
Science is as concerned with this question as you are. One study followed 263 cats who were over three years, comparing cats who spayed at less than six months of age to those who were “fixed” when they were six months or older. The study concluded that there was no increase in infections or behavior problems in cats who were spayed or neutered when they were younger.
Another study looked at complication rates from the surgery. It compared cats who were spayed or neutered at 12 weeks, at 12-23 weeks, and at 24 weeks. The rate of major complications was the same in all three groups. The oldest group had more minor complications (things that didn’t require treatment). The youngest group had the fewest complications.
You might be concerned about the use of anesthesia with a young kitten. But you should know that anesthetic drugs are safe for use in kittens as young as six to 14 weeks old.
There are steps your vet can take to minimize the surgical risk to very young kittens. While it is customary for food to be withheld from a cat for a number of hours prior to any surgery, your vet might recommend that food is withheld for a very minimal amount of time from a young kitten to prevent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Careful vets may also limit the amount of hair that is clipped from a tiny kitten, and use warm scrub solutions with no alcohol in them to reduce the risk of hypothermia (low body temperature). Many will use a heating pad during and after surgery to help keep a young kitten’s body temperature up. Ask your vet about these procedures if you are concerned.
Neutering does not lead to urinary problems in male cats
You may have read that neutering can cause male cats to have narrower urethras (the tube that takes urine out of the body) and thus be predisposed to blockages as adult cats.
One study confirmed that the narrow urethra claim is a myth. In this study they compared urethra diameter in cats who were neutered at seven weeks old to those neutered at seven months old, and those left intact. There was no difference in urethra diameter between the groups.
Spaying and neutering does not have to lead to weight gain in cats
It’s not clear whether spaying and neutering slows a cat’s metabolism. The studies on this topic don’t necessarily agree.
But even if a cat’s energy needs decrease after this important surgery, it doesn’t mean your cat is doomed to gain weight. As cat guardians we are responsible for portion control to keep our cats at a healthy weight. It’s that simple: if you don’t overfeed your cats, they will not be overweight.
(If you already have an overweight cat, read this post, “How to help a cat lose weight.”)
What happens during the spay or neuter surgery?
Both surgeries are conducted under general anesthesia so that your kitten is pain free during the procedure.
Your kitten will first be given a shot of medication to make her sleepy and to help with pain when she awakens.
A female kitten will then be intubated, meaning that she will have a breathing tube put into her throat to ensure that her airway remains open. The surgery for a male kitten is so quick that just a face mask is used to administer general anesthesia.
Your kitten’s oxygen level and heart rate will be monitored with a machine throughout the surgery.
To help maintain your female kitten’s body temperature during surgery, she will likely be placed on a heating blanket. Males are placed on a heating blanket after surgery because the procedure itself is so quick.
On a female kitten, your veterinarian will make an incision below her belly button, into her abdomen. Her ovaries and uterus will be removed through this incision, which will be closed with two layers of dissolvable stitches under her skin. The skin itself will be closed with skin glue, skin staples, or stitches.
On a male kitten, your veterinarian will make an incision into the skin of the scrotum, which is the sac that contains the testicles. Both testicles will be removed through this incision. The incision is not usually sealed, but will close, in time, on its own.
The neuter procedure can be done in under 2 minutes. The spay procedure can take 15-20 minutes.
Veterinarians will use a reversal shot so that your kitten recovers quickly from anesthesia. Within 10-20 minutes, kittens are usually awake enough to walk around.
Your male cat will likely be ready to go home the day of surgery. Sometimes a female kitten will be held overnight because the surgery involves a bigger incision. Your vet may want to keep her for observation or to give her more time for quiet healing.
Most kittens remain drowsy after surgery for a few hours but are usually themselves by the next day.
Keep your kitten as quiet as you can for at least a day or two and up to two weeks (depending on doctor’s orders) to allow internal wounds time to heal. That means no excessive playing, running, or jumping. Try explaining that to your kitten!
Keep your kitten indoors, and consider keeping your baby in a kitten-proof room away from other cats for a few days. You can read about setting up a kitten room in this post about bringing home a new kitten.
Use the recovery cone, if your veterinarian recommends one, no matter how much your kitten hates it. Avoid bathing your kitten for at least 10 days. Check the incision site every day for redness, swelling, heat, bleeding, or discharge. Call your vet if you have any concerns.
When to worry
Contact your vet if:
- Your kitten seems unusually quiet or lethargic (more than 12 hours after surgery).
- Your kitten is scratching or licking the wound excessively.
- If your kitten is vomiting or has diarrhea.
- If your kitten’s appetite is poor (after the first day).
- There is redness, swelling, or heat around the incision site, or bleeding or discharge from the incision site.
- Your kitten is walking with her back hunched (after a day).
What if I can’t afford to spay or neuter my kitten?
Spaying and neutering can be expensive procedures. Luckily, there are low-cost spay/neuter programs out there to help you provide this critical service to your cat.
Neighborhoodcats.org does an unusually good job of aggregating affordable spay/neuter clinics and keeping the list frequently updated. It puts all the national and state-level databases on one page. This link goes right to the proper page:
But you may be able to find some additional listings by simply Googling “low-cost spay/neuter” or by calling a local shelter or rescue group in your area for a recommendation.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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