What’s Involved with Spaying Your Cat

A cat spay is considered in veterinary surgeries as a routine procedure. Vet students (under the direct guidance of qualified Veterinary surgeons) spay cats before qualifying and they’re performed on a daily basis by most small animal vets.

Many UK rescue centres, such as Cats Protection, offer deals for certain groups of people to get their cats neutered either free of charge or at low cost. Many rescue centres also insist on female cats (Queens) being spayed before, or very soon after, being adopted.

What’s the reason behind this, should all cats be neutered and what are the potential pros and cons. These are factors I’m going to explore over the rest of this blog.

What is Spaying?

Spaying is the name given to neutering female cats. It involves removing the ovaries and often the uterus. With women, this is known as an Ovariohysterectomy (“Ovario-” refers to the ovaries whereas “Hysterectomy”, removal of the uterus (or womb) so, put together, it means removal of the uterus and ovaries) and it’s definitely not a routine procedure in human medicine. In fact, in human medicine, it’s not done when at all possible.

With people, though they usually just perform a hysterectomy (ie they leave the uterus alone), the ovaries are almost always removed in veterinary species. Usually, with the cat, sometimes it is only the ovaries removed and the uterus left in place; the opposite to women.

Women without ovaries are at risk of Osteoporosis (meaning pores, or holes, in the bones) but this doesn’t appear to be the case in spayed cats. Osteoporosis in women is often due to the reduction in oestrogen levels post-ovariohysterectomy/ menopause.

Though a lack of oestrogen doesn’t appear to have the same issues in cats, however, conversely, the presence of Oestrogen causes undesirable traits or conditions in cats. The fact that the removal of oestrogen causes few issues whereas the presence causes more problems is a big reason for spaying.
Oestrogen, along with other sex hormones it, lead to queens coming into season (“on heat”), becoming pregnant and increases the risk of some diseases.

Early neutering can be done from 4months old, sometimes earlier
Photo; Instagram @ xa_j_sx

About the Op?

In cat’s spaying is a major surgery but is relatively easy to do with adequate training and skills. Most new graduate vets (remember these have already undergone at least 5years of training at university) can spay a cat unassisted. Experienced vets can often manage the whole procedure in under fifteen minutes, often leaving an around 2cm in length if on the flank (side) or slightly longer if under the belly (known as midline).

Two methods are commonly performed in the UK. The flank spay is where cats are spayed through the (usually left) side of their abdomen. In a midline spay, the incision is underneath their belly, like in a bitch. Each vet tends to prefer one method over the other and use that method most of the time but the method used depends on a number of factors.

A flank spay is good for stray cats as you can monitor the cat’s wound from a distance following the surgery. Whereas, when you clip the hair of some oriental breeds, such as the Bengal, the hair regrow a darker colour. If you spay these breeds via the flank approach they will have a square patch of visibly different hair on their side whereas this is less visible under their belly.

Another benefit to a midline spay is that the uterus can still be easily removed if the cat is pregnant. This is sadly done quite often and sometimes because before the vet starts to spay the cat the owner isn’t aware of the pregnancy or, the owner wanted the cat spaying as a way to stop the pregnancy.

If your cat goes to be spayed and the vet finds out your cat is pregnant during the surgery, find that she is already pregnant, don’t worry. Before the vet proceeds further with the surgery he or she will contact you to discuss the situation. Your potential options will be for the surgery to be halted and your cat stitched back up so the pregnancy should proceed as normal or for her to still be spayed meaning the kittens will die.

Spaying for both species, despite the different approaches and complexities, is basically the same. For both, they have stitches internally and in the skin (which may or may not need taking out), and they should be rested for a couple of weeks to some extent.

In cats, it depends on the individual vet whether the ovaries are removed alone or with the whole of the uterus removed with them. Most issues affecting the uterus are due to the hormones released by the ovaries. If the ovaries are removed, therefore, these often don’t occur or, at least, are much less likely to. The reason the uterus may not be removed is that sometimes this is more difficult to do due to the position of the incision but shouldn’t make a difference to the cat overall.

Young kittens who have only just been born

Positives to Spaying

  1. Stops your cat going into season.
    1. You won’t get the few days every three weeks throughout Spring to Autumn of them constantly calling out waking you up from your sleep.
    2.  The constant worry and risk of them becoming pregnant is gone. This means you no longer have to worry about them going out and meeting with a Tom. Therefore, once cats are spayed many owners are happier about them going outside which is often better for their welfare, at least from a psychological point of view however it does depend on the traffic in your area as to whether you feel it is safe or not.
  2.  Birth control.
    1. Pure and simply once spayed a cat cannot get pregnant.
    2. To avoid pregnancy, most vets advise you do not allow your cat to go out before they are neutered. This is especially the case with young kittens. It is possible for kittens to get pregnant from four months old in some cases; at this point, they are not fully grown themselves and becoming pregnant can jeopardise the health of them and their litter.
    3. As the population of cats UK exceeds the demand (as seen by rescue centres constantly being filled to the brim), kittens are difficult to sell so may end up in shelters or straying.
      1. An entire (not-spayed) queen is responsible for the birth of 20,000 kittens over just five years, many of whom may be unwanted.
    4. Sex hormone-related cancers
      1. Mammary cancer (a cat version of breast cancer) risk rises after a queen’s first season; those spayed before six months old have a 91% less chance of developing mammary cancer compared to those spayed when over six months. Up to a year of age cat’s are still at a 86% lower risk of getting mammary cancer than those who are older.
      2. Mammary cancers are still quite rare in cats likely at least partially due to the majority being spayed early.
      3. The risk of mammary cancers is NOT reduced by a queen having a litter.
        1.  It is a myth that a cat should have a litter.
        2. Cat’s aren’t like us in that they don’t dream of having offspring or view it as something that should happen.
        3. Cats can get quite unwell when they have kittens. They often lose a lot of weight, they may have infections develop in either their uterus or mammary glands which will make them really unwell.
        4. Some don’t build an attachment with their young leading to them rejecting so the kittens will need hand-rearing. Whilst hand-rearing sounds cute, it takes a lot of work. Hand-reared kittens are more prone to disease as they don’t get the immunity they usually would from their mother. Many also don’t thrive well In the early stages they only drink very slowly and need to drink milk every two hours throughout both the day and night, leaving you, your family, and potentially your friends exhausted.
        5. Cats can either have benign mammary cancers which are usually resolved by surgically removing the affected mammary gland or malignant ones.
      4. Malignant mammary tumours are cancers that spread to other parts of the body. In dogs there is a 50:50 chance of getting one type or the other. Sadly in cats there is an 85% chance that the cancer is malignant. Malignant cancers will spread to other mammary glands or further around the body, often to the lungs causing coughing, breathlessness and weight loss.
        1. Cats with malignant cancers have a very poor prognosis, they are unlikely to survive long. If the cancer has spread to other areas of the body then removal of the mammary glands will not dramatically improve survival rates. For this reason, In cases of mammary cancer vets will usually advise taking XRays of the lungs to look for spread before doing surgery. These are not done to cost you more money but to see if surgery is the best route for your cat.
      5.  Ovarian Cancers
        1.  These only occur if the ovaries have not been removed. As these are removed the vast majority of the times when cats are spayed they will not be present in unsprayed animals (unless only the uterus has been removed)
        2. Ovarian cancers are rare in cats and only make up approximately 3% of cancers, mainly affecting older cats. The reason for the low level of this is the high percentage of cats being spayed.
        3. These can spread to other areas of the body or also be benign, sometimes just looking like cysts. If they are benign then removing the ovaries will sure them.
        4.  With a function of the ovaries being to release sex hormones, tumours there can affect hormone release. This may lead to changes in fertility, changes in their cycle, behaviour changes (aggression developing), vaginal discharge, pyometra
        5.  Other, non-hormonal signs of an ovarian tumour are weight loss, vomiting, eating/ drinking less, pain, lethargy.
      6.  Uterine Cancers
        1. These are rare and account for less than 1.5% of cancers in the cat.
        2. They tend to be hormone related so it’s very rare these occur after Ovariectomy (removal of just the ovaries which some vets perform when spaying).
        3. Many are malignant so spread to other areas of the body, often within the belly but not all of them. In benign cases often a hysterectomy will resolve them.
        4.  These can cause your cat to have a swollen up belly, increased or bloody vaginal discharge, changes in fertility and their cycle of when they’re in season or not. Some cats also lose weight and eat/ drink less and may become more sleepy or inactive.
      7.  Pyometra= “Pus in Uterus”, a life-threatening hormone-associated uterine infection.
        1. Less common in queens compared to bitches however they shouldn’t be ignored as they require urgent treatment, usually an emergency spay.
        2.  A pyometra spay is a much bigger surgery than a routine spay.
          1. if the uterus is damaged before it is removed, pus can leak into the belly which is very dangerous and potentially lethal.
          2. To ensure the uterus and ovaries are removed intact, and there is space to remove the enlarged uterus, the wound is bigger so they may be in pain for longer.
          3.  They will usually require antibiotics after to kill any bacteria leached into their bloodstream and ensure your cat fully recovers.
        3.  Approximately 5.7%, which is just over 1 in 20, of cats suffering from a pyo will die even with appropriate treatment. This figure that is slightly higher in dogs who are more commonly affected.
          1.  Approximately 17 cats out of 10,000 unspayed queens in any one year suffers from a pyometra.
            1.  This figure varies between breeds though.
            2.  For instance, 433 out of 10,000 unspayed sphynx cats get a pyometra every year, that’s almost one in twenty and 25x the risk of an average cat getting one.
            3.  Across all breeds, the likelihood of getting a pyometra is increased when your cat reaches seven years old, compared to dogs where risk increases once they reach ten years. Therefore, pyometras shouldn’t be thought of as an old age condition in the cat.

              A cat uterus thickened likely due to pyometra or cancer
      8.  Spayed cats are less than likely to roam.
        1. This reduces the risk of Road Traffic Accidents and them going missing.
        2. They also are less likely to get fighting-related or sexually transmitted diseases such as Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV, similar to HIV in people.

The Negatives

  1. Weight gain and obesity
    1. Spaying your cat will make her more prone to weight gain or obesity
    2. You will need to keep an eye on their weight and perhaps put them on a low-calorie diet and give them fewer treats.
    3.  Making sure your cat gets plenty of exercise also helps to keep them fit and lean as well as mentally stimulating them.
  2. Spaying is not a quick and easy way to alter their behaviour
    1.  This is not a negative to the surgery but disappoints people who hope it will reduce any issues they may have with their behaviour which may have initially been linked to hormones.
    2.  Usually, spaying doesn’t alter behaviour at all though, in males, castration can sometimes reduce aggression in some cases but often doesn’t entirely stop it.

Early Neutering

Most veterinary practices and rescue centres recommend early neutering in cats, usually when they are between four and six months old but could be as young as 12weeks (or earlier in some cases).

Early neutering ensures cats cannot reproduce at all. Depending on when your cat is born, they may enter puberty at four to eight months of age (the variation is because they don’t come into season and, therefore enter puberty, over the Winter). It also reduces the risks of mammary tumours when older.

Another reason for early neutering is the surgery is easier and has fewer risks. At this age, cats have less belly fat so this doesn’t surround the ovaries and uterus in the same way as in older cats. Therefore the organs can be seen and removed easier, usually with a lower risk of bleeding.

Summing up the factors involving spaying your cat

Female cats can be spayed from as young as twelve weeks in most cases. The main reasons for neutering them is to prevent pregnancy, reduce the risks of hormone-related cancers and a pyometra. It can also reduce the risk of them roaming and, therefore, the chances of them getting hit by a car. The main negative is that it can cause them to gain weight especially if they have little exercise.

If you still have any questions regarding spaying, either what involved or the pros and cons then feel free to contact me to discuss it in more detail or leave a comment below. Other than that your vet or a veterinary nurse is the ideal person to talk to regarding this and they can also discuss any policies within the practice you use.

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Author: Kim Halford

I'm a qualified vet and animal behaviour and welfare advisor. I am dedicated to improving the welfare of animals. I also want to work with organisations to improve the education of animal welfare and behaviour as well as improve the bond between animal and owner.

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