Thursday, December 26, 2013

The shocking truth about cats and sex

Kittens are the best. But they're also victims of our ignorance.
The shocking truth about cats and sex is this: how little we (that is humans) know about cats and their dating and mating habits.

My friend Steve told me about a consult he had with some cat owners who presented their cat with a distended abdomen. This particular cat, an undesexed (entire) female, had indoor and outdoor access. When Steve suggested the cat was pregnant, one of the owners emphatically shook his head.

“Oh no,” he said. “She isn’t like that.”

After I picked myself up off the floor, I wondered what exactly “that” is. Were they referring to a particular episode of South Park

But seriously, moralising and being in denial about feline sexuality is dangerous.

A recent survey published in the Veterinary Record found that poor owner knowledge about the sex lives of cats contributes to a huge number of accidental litters. Previous studies have shown that unwanted or unplanned litters contribute to 4.2-14 per cent of feline relinquishments in the UK alone.

Aside from this disturbing trend, being born as part of an accidental litter is a health risk in itself. Prenatal preventative care such as worming, vaccination and proper nutrition of the queen is usually not undertaken; owners may not be on the lookout for signs of difficult labour in pregnant queens if they're not sure they're pregnant in the first place; and inbreeding increases the risks of congenital abnormalities.

A cat presides over the bar. Unlike people cats don't tend to meet in bars - they can find a mate just about anywhere, if they have the motivation. And if they're not desexed, they have the motivation.
The survey reported here found that 552 cats produced 128 litters, a shocking 80 per cent (4 out of 5!!!) were unplanned. It was a phone survey so only included people with a landline (an ever-shrinking population these days?), but they covered a range of households with varying income, ages and lifestyles, reflecting the general UK population.

So what were the misconceptions of UK cat owners about feline reproduction, and how common were they?


A female cat should have a litter before being desexed – 49 % of cat owning respondents believed this, or weren’t quite sure.

This old chestnut. No, no, no. There is NO EVIDENCE to support any health benefits to female cats. And owners who similarly argue “well, it’s better for the KIDS if she has one litter” should remember that it’s one thing to witness the miracle of birth, but if that is soon followed by the tragedy of surrendering cats to a shelter the joy is somewhat negated.

Cats can be safely desexed from 8 weeks of age, they recover beautifully from the surgery. Problem solved.


Queens are unable to conceive until 12 months of age – believed by 26.4% of people.

Incorrect. Though it is uncommon, cats can get pregnant as young as four months of age, which means that the following is


The youngest a cat can get pregnant is five months old – believed by 83.5% of respondents.

I should add that a young cat that gets pregnant is not a bad cat. But desexing that animal before it can get pregnant reduces the number of unwanted cats surrendered to shelters.


Related cats will not mate –38.8% of cat owning respondents believed this, or weren’t quite sure.

Yes they will. The incest taboo does not apply.

(Okay, so I admit when I was twelve I believed that related mice would not mate. I had adopted two “males” from the pet shop. Three weeks later, both had litters. The mothers, Boyd and Floyd, tended their litters happily. Needless to say, my parents whom I'd lobbied with an eleven page letter to let me have mice were not thrilled. I rehomed all but one of each litter. Boyd kept her son Douglas, Floyd kept Merv. Well, I learned a lot about biology that year – and the ability of pet shops to sex rodents accurately).

For me, the MOST worrying thing in the study was not the misconceptions – we all have some sort of misconceptions about something or other, and the antidote is education.

Its that knowledge didn't always lead to appropriate action. Okay, so one person might think their cat can’t get pregnant so young. Said cat has an unplanned litter. The school of hard knocks has taught us that in fact this cat is capable of full-scale reproduction.

And yet…40% of people whose cats had one unplanned or accidental litter reported MULTIPLE accidental litters! One respondent reported SEVEN accidental litters between two queens.

Something is seriously wrong here. One could argue that such litters are hardly accidental or unplanned.

As the authors so beautifully put it:

A pregnancy occurring by lack of positive action to prevent pregnancy by an owner, for example, by allowing an entire female of reproductive age free access to the outdoors and, therefore, to un-neutered males, may be interpreted by some cat owners as an accidental pregnancy, even though this is (invariably) an inevitable consequence of this inertia.
The good news is that doing something about it could make a HUGE DIFFERENCE.

By the calculations of the authors of the survey, 851,000 unplanned kitten births could be prevented just by educating people that cats don’t NEED to have a litter before they are neutered. If they ACT on that knowledge. So...if you haven't desexed your cat, and you aren't planning to breed, call your vet asap. And if you know someone who has an on-heat moggy terrorising the neighbourhood, a quiet word in their ear is a good start. She doesn't need to have a litter to make her life complete.