By Jean Hofve, DVM

More than a million “excess” dogs and cats will be killed in shelters this year. This is down from some 12 million in 2000, but it’s still far too many. By being a responsible caregiver and sterilizing your companion animals, you avoid contributing to the terrible problem of pet overpopulation.

Kittens can be sterilized as early as 8 weeks of age; in fact, many shelters do this routinely. Female cats can come into heat as early as 4 months old.

Unsterilized (intact) cats will usually find a way to get out and breed. Then, even if you could find good homes for the entire litter, each of your babies would displace another kitten that will then have to die. If you take your litter to a typical, overcrowded shelter, it is likely that the entire litter of kittens or puppies will go straight from your hands to the killing room—they must be euthanized immediately, due to lack of cage space. (And don’t think you can avoid the fatal consequences by taking them to a “no-kill” shelter—it may not have space; and your litter will still displace other kittens that could have found a spot there.)

Neutered cats have a much lower risk of contracting Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) (also called “Feline AIDS”) because they are much less likely to engage in fighting, which spreads this disease. Decreased roaming and territorial behavior also lowers the risk of bite-wound abscesses. (Of course, we recommend keeping cats indoors or in a safe outdoor enclosure, but sometimes even housemates will get into a tussle, especially if they’re not neutered.)

Neutering male cats stops spraying or urine marking in more than 90% of cats. Spaying also solves this problem in females, who often will begin spraying when they go “into heat.” Spaying eliminates the “heat” cycle, which causes crying, pacing, and erratic behavior. A cat in heat can attract persistent and often obnoxiously loud “suitors” from all over the neighborhood, even if she’s kept indoors. And her boyfriends are likely to spray your house and yard while they’re at it! There’s nothing quite like going out your front door on a beautiful morning and being whalloped with the stink of tomcat urine!

Spayed females won’t get life-threatening conditions like pyometra (uterine infection) and reproductive tract cancers, mastitis, ovarian cysts, miscarriages or delivery complications that are common in unspayed cats. All these can be expensive to treat, and dangerous to your cat’s health. One 7-year old cat came in with a massive pyometra that filled her entire abdomen. Spaying at a young age also significantly decreases the risk of developing malignant breast cancer for both cats and dogs.

Some people worry about their furry friends getting fat after being sterilized; and it’s true that a spayed or neutered pet requires fewer calories for maintenance than an intact one. Experts recommend cutting the amount you feed by 25-30% for 4 to 6 weeks post-operatively to “reset” their appetite signals.

Also, since 24/7 access to dry food is a major contributor to weight gain, feed primarily or only wet food (canned, raw, homemade, etc.), and consider going to a timed-meal feeding schedule (30-60 minute meal periods, 2-4 times per day) once your cat is about 6 months old. It is not necessary to feed kitten food after about 6 months of age. Kitten food is much higher in calories; any “all life stages” food is fine. (For Dr. Jean’s brand recommendations, see What Cats Should Eat.)

Also, animals, like people, need exercise and physical activity to maintain their ideal weight as well as their mental and emotional health. We as caregivers are responsible for keeping our pets active. Our companion animal’s metabolism, just like that of humans, tends to slow down as we get older (20s and 30s for us, and past 1-2 years for cats). Indoor enrichment will help stimulate your cat to move around more.

If the cost of the surgery is an issue for you, visit the AVMA for national resources or for listings by state for low-cost surgery. You can also contact your local shelter or animal control agency for a referral.

So please, be your best friend’s best friend — have your animal companion spayed or neutered!

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