Changing the thinking around the decades-old practice of spaying and neutering cats at the age of 6 months has long been a challenge. Although research has shown that healthy kittens can be safely neutered at earlier ages, it wasn’t generally accepted by many veterinarians and shelters. Until now.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has endorsed a new recommendation that urges veterinarians to spay and neuter cats at least one month earlier, by 5 months old. This is a step in the right direction, but at Alley Cat Allies, our recommendations have been more progressive for years. In 2014, Alley Cat Allies launched a campaign that encouraged veterinarians to spay and neuter healthy kittens at 2 months old, or as soon as they weigh 2 pounds.
Sterilizing cats at earlier ages provides many benefits. First, kittens can get pregnant as young as 4 months old, so spaying or neutering them earlier is the best way to prevent litters. Also, studies have found that kittens spayed or neutered at younger ages have fewer surgical complications, recover more quickly, and have a lower risk of mammary tumors.
“Changing a mindset of people who have done something a particular way for 15, 20, or 30 years is difficult,” says veterinarian Philip Bushby, DVM, MS, ACVS, who has primarily focused on, and advocated strongly for, spay and neuter throughout his more than 35-year career at the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
He is working with the Feline Fix by Five campaign. This campaign advocates for spay and neuter of cats by 5 months old, based on the recommendations of the Veterinary Task Force on Feline Sterilization that the AVMA and other national veterinary associations have endorsed.
The task force, which is comprised of nine prominent veterinarians, met in January 2016 and came to a consensus on the optimum age to spay and neuter cats. By July 2017, the AVMA—and other large veterinary associations and cat organizations—officially endorsed the task force recommendation to spay and neuter cats by 5 months old. This decision is expected to influence the approximately 58,000 veterinarians who are AVMA members.
The national veterinary organizations’ endorsements “were key for us,” says Esther Mechler, who started Fix by Five as a program of Marian’s Dream, the nonprofit she founded and leads. The next step is working to persuade individual veterinarians to perform spay and neuter surgeries at an earlier age.
Changing the Landscape for Cats
For 30 years, Mechler, founder of Spay USA, worked at the forefront of the spay and neuter movement in the United States. But it wasn’t until she retired in 2010 as director of Spay USA—having radically improved the accessibility and affordability of spay and neuter services—that she started to ponder the importance of the age at which veterinarians perform these surgeries.
“When I retired and stepped away from the everyday work, the missing piece of the puzzle became clear,” she says.
Mechler read a 2009 study by IPSOS Marketing for PetSmart Charities that showed more than 75 percent of the public doesn’t know the appropriate age to spay and neuter pets. Another study that influenced Mechler revealed that spayed female cats and dogs in four Massachusetts towns accounted for the majority of all the litters born—because they bred before they were spayed.
Mechler realized that if cats could be prevented from having even one litter, that could greatly reduce the number of cats who are euthanized in animal shelters. To achieve this, consistent veterinary guidelines that promote spaying and neutering before cats can breed would have to be in place.
Mechler says she that there is a need to campaign for spay and neuter before a cat’s first heat, which is usually at about 4 or 5 months, in the hope that veterinarians would be more willing to change the customary age from 6 months.
“My own thought was: As they do surgeries earlier, they’re going to see it’s easier, and they’ll voluntarily do it younger,” she says. But she also knew she needed other influential cat advocates at her side. She contacted Joan Miller, chair of education and outreach at the Cat Fanciers’ Association.
“Without Joan Miller, this great step forward in thinking about timeliness for spay and neuter in cats would not have happened,” says Mechler.
Miller was key in organizing the Veterinary Task Force on Feline Sterilization to review the recommended spay and neuter age. The groups that have endorsed the recommendation, in addition to the AVMA, are the American Animal Hospital Association, American Association of Feline Practitioners, Association of Shelter Veterinarians, the Catalyst Council, the Cat Fanciers’ Association, The International Cat Association, SPAY USA, the United Spay Alliance, and Alley Cat Allies.
Supporting Early-Age Spay and Neuter
Many animal shelters use Alley Cat Allies’ recommendation and spay and neuter kittens when they weigh 2 pounds and are about 2 months old. Called pediatric spay and neuter, the shelters use this approach because they offer kittens for adoption beginning at 2 months old and can ensure these cats won’t have unexpected litters.
This is especially important for community, or unowned, cats who live outdoors. There may only be one chance for someone to trap them and get them to a veterinarian for spay and neuter surgeries and vaccinations. These efforts are lifesaving. More than 70 percent of all cats—and nearly all community cats—are killed in shelters nationwide.
Ask your veterinarian to show their support for earlier age spay and neuter. Veterinarians can list their practice on the Fix by Five website. For more information, please visit alleycat.org/veterinarian.