When you take your new pet kitten or cat for its first medical visit, the vet will probably bring up sterilization, if you don’t mention it first.
This isn’t done with cats used for breeding, obviously, but it is always recommended otherwise. Males are neutered by removing their testicles, while females are spayed either by removing their uterus and ovaries or just the ovaries and attached structures. Tubal ligation is also an option.
It’s true that sterilization is an individual extinction, unless the cat has already passed on its genes, but desexing has its benefits for pets and their owners:
- Cats live longer and are more people oriented.
- They are at less risk for certain diseases (including breast cancer and reproductive tract disorders in females and prostatic hypertrophy/testicular cancer in males).
- The procedure eliminates breeding instinct-related behavior like spraying, calling, and trying to get out of the house.
There are also some disadvantages to spaying or neutering your pet, in addition to the usual surgical and anesthetic potential complications. (See details in the paper by Root Kustritz, listed under Sources below.)
In some places, elective sterilization for human convenience is considered unethical. However, overpopulation is the usual reason vets recommend either sterilization or, where available, contraception.
It’s not unethical to feel bad that millions of healthy cats and kittens each year must either be killed (in most shelters) or serve a life sentence in ever more crowded, stressful conditions (in a no-kill shelter) simply because no one adopted them.
And many of us have seen rough-looking feral or farm cats clustering around dumpsters or dockyards, looking for food.
It’s heartbreaking. Since domestic cats reproduce so quickly, sterilization seems like a logical way to at least limit the all-around suffering.
It probably does work, somewhat, but still we are knee-deep in domestic cats all over the world. The same study that estimated a world-wide total of 600 million owned cats also reported another 600 million unowned animals! (Driscoll and others)
Of course, domestic cats don’t like to be counted; there is actually quite a range of population estimates among various studies. The 600/600 million number is the highest reliable estimate I found.
Other information is difficult to come by, too. As Root Kustritz, who reviewed the scientific literature on cat sterilization, writes:
There is also great variability in number of studies supporting some of the findings described, and veterinarians are encouraged to be aware of the amount of evidence to support any given claim.
That’s not a warning you often see in science papers.
By all accounts, none of humanity’s efforts to control the domestic cat population are very effective.
Because, again, cats reproduce very quickly. They also can adapt to almost any situation.
If just one tomcat escapes the local feral-cat roundup, he could go on to sire a thousand cats. A single queen (unaltered female cat) can have multiple litters of up to ten or more kittens each every year.
Unfortunately, irresponsible people also dump unwanted cats, especially when they see a colony or other place for outdoor cats to get food.
The only proven way to reduce the number of cats out there is the natural way, through loss of their ecological niche, and that’s not going to happen.
Whether we like it or not, the legacy of our long association with them is that domestic cats are the major small predator in any human-dominated environment. When that niche empties, another cat will move in.
Such an ecosystem is finely balanced, by the way. Even if it were possible, the consequences of reducing the number feline small predators might, depending on local circumstances, result in the awful disruption known as a mesopredator release.
An extreme example of this recently happened on subantarctic Macquarie Island.
So managing the cat population is a headache for conservationists as well as animal care specialists and cat owners.
A growing number of veterinarians and cat lovers recognize the complexities of feline population control. (Barchas) Probably the ultimate solution to the problem of too many domestic cats will work out as the sum of many individual decisions, including your own.
You can make a difference. All it takes is a little thought and some discussion with the vet before checking/not checking that box on the form next to the “spay or neuter” option.
The more thought each owners gives to their cat(s), the closer we are to a world where every kitten and cat is wanted and loved forever.
Featured image: US Air Force, Staff Sgt. E’Lysia Wray. http://www.holloman.af.mil/News/Photos/igphoto/2001570155/ Public domain.
American Veterinary Medical Association. 2017. New recommendations for feline spay/neuter surgery. https://atwork.avma.org/2017/07/10/new-recommendations-for-feline-spayneuter-surgery/ Last accessed March 13, 2018.
—. 2018. Spaying and neutering. https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/spay-neuter.aspx Last accessed March 13, 2018.
Barchas, E. 2017. Is it always the right thing to spay or neuter a cat? Catster. http://www.catster.com/lifestyle/spay-neuter-cats-debate Last accessed March 13, 2018.
Breuninger, K. J., and Demos, L. E. 2016. Veterinary Task Force on Feline Sterilization Recommendations for Age of Spay and Neuter Surgery. Focus version. http://www.winnfelinefoundation.org/search-results?indexCatalogue=site-search&searchQuery=veterinary task force for feline sterilization&wordsMode=0 Last accessed March 14, 2018.
Driscoll, C.; Yamaguchi, N.; O’Brien, S. J.; and Macdonald, D. W. 2011. A suite of genetic markers useful in assessing wildcat (Felis silvestris ssp.) – domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) admixture. Journal of Heredity. 102(SI):S87-S90.
Gehrt, S. D.; Wilson, E. C.; Brown, J. L.; and Anchor, C. 2013. Population ecology of free-roaming cats and interference competition by coyotes in urban parks. PLoS One. 8(9): e75718.
Hughes, K. L.; Slater, M. R.; and Haller, L. 2002. The effects of implementing a feral cat spay/neuter program in a Florida county animal control service. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 5(4): 285-298.
Humane Society of Charlotte. 2018. Spay/neuter myths and truths. humanesocietyofcharlotte.org/education/spayneuter-myths-truths/ Last accessed March 13, 2018.
Kelley, J. A. 2015. And now, 6 boneheaded myths about early spay and neuter. Catster. http://www.catster.com/lifestyle/cat-health-bust-6-myths-pediatric-early-spay-neuter-cats Last accessed March 13, 2018.
McKenzie, B. 2010. Evaluating the benefits and risks of neutering dogs and cats. CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources. 5(45):1-18.
Ordeñana, M. A.; Crooks, K. R.; Boydston, E. E.; Fisher, R. N.; and others. 2010. Effects of urbanization on carnivore species distribution and richness. Journal of Mammalogy. 91(6): 1322-1331.
Plantinga, E. A.; Bosch, G.; and Hendriks, W. H. 2011. Estimation of the dietary nutrient profile of free-roaming feral cats: possible implications for nutrition of domestic cats. British Journal of Nutrition. 106(S1): S35-S48.
Ritchie, E. G., and Johnson, C. N. (2009). Predator interactions, mesopredator release and biodiversity conservation. Ecology Letters. 12(9): 982-998.
Robertson, S. 2008. A review of feral cat control. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 10:366-375.
Root Kustritz, M. V. 2012. Effects of surgical sterilization on canine and feline health and on society. Reproduction in Domestic Animals. 47(s4): 214-222.
Sontas, B. H., Kaysigiz, F., & Ekicia, H. 2012. Methods of oestrus prevention in dogs and cats: a survey of Turkish veterinarians’ practices and beliefs. Archivos de Medicina Veterinaria. 44(2). http://www.redalyc.org/comocitar.oa?id=173023986009 Last accessed March 14, 2018.
Wright, M., and Walters, S. 1980. The Book of the Cat New York: Summit Books.