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All responsible pet owners have their cats neutered to prevent unwanted kittens being born. Female kittens are usually spayed at around four months, as they can become pregnant from this very young age. Male kittens are generally castrated at the age of about six months, as they do not become sexually active until they are a little older than the females. This is the age usually recommended by vets, and is how things have been done for many years and frequently still are.
However, recently some people have been advocating neutering kittens at an earlier age, sometimes as young as eight weeks. Re-homing organisations do this to ensure that the kittens they home will actually be neutered. Also, some pedigree breeders are neutering their kittens before they sell them, to ensure that they are not used for 'back yard breeding' or similar. But some people do not agree with neutering kittens this young, and some vets are reluctant to do it or actually refuse, saying it is not good for the cats.
So what is the actual situation? What are the pros and cons of early neutering? This article will summarise the available evidence at this time. However, please note that I am not a vet, and when it comes to your own cat, you are always best to take veterinary advice.
The advantages of early neutering for rescue and re-homing organisations has been touched on above. Most of these organisations will re-home a kitten at the age of eight weeks, and they need to do so, to make space for the ever-increasing number of homeless cats on their waiting lists. Every year, huge numbers of unwanted kittens are born, and it is really necessary to make sure that pet cats are neutered. And in the past, even if free neutering vouchers were given to owners by rescue organisations, neutering did not always happen, or female cats became pregnant before their owners had believed it possible. The only way to ensure neutering is done is for these kittens to be neutered before they go to their new home.
Pedigree breeders claim to have a problem with people buying cats as pets, and then not neutering them, despite having agreed to do so. They claim this is not good for the breed and its development. And again, the only way they can be sure a kitten is going to be neutered is to have it done before the kitten goes to its new home.
The main concerns about early neutering have related to the health of the kitten, both during the operation and when it grows up. Worries have been voiced about the risks of anaesthetising very young kittens, with hypothermia and hypoglycaemia being mentioned. There were also concerns about implications for the cat's behaviour, and also potential problems with growth and development. Some peopled worried about urethral problems in male kittens, particularly problems of blockage due to decreased urethral diameter. Finally, there were concerns about complaints related to possible stress, if a kitten was vaccinated, neutered, and homed, all within a very short space of time.
Recent research has in fact proved most of these concerns to be unfounded. Surgical techniques and anaesthetics have improved in recent years, and very young kittens seem to be at no greater risk than their older siblings. Indeed, some studies have shown that they recover even faster. Studies of behaviour, growth, and development have not found any issues, and urethral diameter concerns have proved to be unfounded. Concerning stress, no scientific data is available, but it is possible, and there is general agreement among vets that procedures should be separated if possible to minimise potential problems, such as reduced immunity or increased adverse reactions, which could be caused by stress.
Despite there being no proved disadvantages to early neutering, many vets still recommend leaving it until at least four months, possibly six months for male kittens. The rationale seems to be that there is no advantage to neutering at an earlier age if the kitten has a responsible owner, and all research on this topic is relatively new. So they advise playing safe.
For rescue and feral kittens, however, having them neutered early has less risk than the disadvantages of it possibly not being done at all, ie unwanted kittens being born, and the health problems that occur in un-neutered cats. So most vets are happy to neuter these kittens from the age of eight weeks, with the proviso that they need to weigh at least two pounds, and obviously the testicles will have to have descended in male kittens. These are the recommendations of both the BVA (British Veterinary Association) and the (BSAVA) British Small Animal Veterinary Association).
Pedigree breeders do not fit into either of these categories. However, the GCCF will not allow pedigree kittens to be homed until a week after their vaccinations are completed, which is usually at 12 – 13 weeks. So breeders who practise early neutering generally do it at around 14 weeks, which is not that much younger than the traditional age for neutering.
In all cases, it is advisable to minimise stress by trying to have a gap between vaccinations, neutering, and homing a kitten. Vaccinations should be done before neutering, to reduce the risk of infection in the vet's surgery.
Early neutering would appear to be safe, and of course has advantages in certain cases, particularly for rescue and feral kittens. However, all operations have risks, and if anything goes wrong, everyone is aware that it could be harder for a very young kitten to cope. So many vets play safe, with some still refusing to even consider early neutering. My own vet early neuters rescue kittens from eight weeks, but still advised me to wait until my own kitten was six months old. So, as recommended earlier in this article, do act on veterinary advice. But most importantly, do ensure that your cat is neutered, at whatever age you decide to do it!
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