Early Spay & Neuter


Sally Dockstader


If you're wondering whether one time is better than another to spay or neuter your cat, you're not alone. Vic Spain, DVM, a PhD candidate in epidemology at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, wants to know, too.

As part of the Cornell Cat Health and Behavior Study, Dr Spain is surveying owners in New York State who have adopted cats from animal shelters. The purpose is to find out how often cats get problem behaviors, how often they get cancer and other diseases, and how long people keep cats after they're adopted. As part of the study, Spain is looking at the spaying and neutering practices for cats to determine whether the time a cat is neutered (for the purpose of this discussion the word neuter refers to both female and male cats) has any effect on long-term health.

The surgical act of neutering involves the removal of the reproductive organs in female cats and the removal of the male cats' testicles. The process is performed while the cat is under anesthesia, and most of the time he or she will go home the same day.

Benefits may outweigh negatives. "Most of the issues that arise over early neutering can be grouped into four general questions," Spain says. He wants to know whether the anesthesia and surgery are safe for young kittens; if neutering early affects the physical development of cats; whether neutering early leads to any health problems or benefits; and if early neutering leads to any behavior problems or benefits.

While it's too early to report on the findings of the study, Spain says that research conducted by Texas A&M University, early age is actually the safest time with regard to anesthesia and surgery.

Veterinarians, who recommended owners have their cats neutered between four and twelve months of age, did so because they thought there would be many health problems in cats neutered any earlier. One erroneous theory is that the early surgery and associated stress and the lack of hormones would impair immune system development. Others proven false include the idea that behavioral problems would intensify, and problems with other body systems would rise.

In fact behavioral benefits of early neutering, especially neutering before puberty. Male cats neutered early, for example, tend to be less aggressive and less likely to spray or exhibit other territorial behaviors. Female cats that are neutered early, avoid behavior normally exhibited while they are in heat (crying and yelling, and nervous behavior), avert the chances of accidental pregnancies early in life, and may have less incidence of mammary cancer. In addition, hormones activated during puberty tell the long bones of the body to stop growing so bones in both male and female cats neutered early grow a little longer with no adverse impact on over­all health.

Early surgery requires special skills.

Healthwise there do not appear to be any problems with early neutering. The disadvantage, if there is any says Spain, is that some veterinarians are not comfortable with neutering a young kitten. "There are different surgical techniques and tools required for early neutering," he explains. Young kittens do not have to be fasted before surgery, different anesthesia is required to operate, and special surgical instruments are sometimes needed, depending on the skill of the veterinarian and the technique used. Young kittens, too, are more prone to hypothermia. Thus, the veterinarian must make extra effort to keep the cat warm to ensure he or she does not become overly chilled. Often, warm water bottles are used.

Other good reasons to spay or neuter:

It may be that neutered cats live longer, healthier lives. As Spain's study progresses, the theories - for example, that early-spayed female cats have reduced risks of breast cancers and that male cats have reduced risks of urinary blockage -will be proven or not. While most veterinarians agree that behavior problems are avoided with early neutering, the longer cats are followed the more that will be confirmed.

There are other good reasons to neuter is that the healthier pet means less costly veterinary bills. Pet overpopulation is a problem, too. According to the Humane Society of the United States, in just seven years, one female cat and her young can produce 420,000 kittens. Every day, tens of thousands of kittens are born; compared to the 11,000 human births each day it's easy to see how there can never be enough homes for all these pets. Shelters can ensure adopted cats are neutered, and breeders can ensure the integrity of their purebred cats is maintained.

Once you've decided to have your cat neutered, consult with your veterinarian about having the procedure performed.

Dr Andre Charlebois does all our pediatric spay and neuters...read more!