Traditionally, recommendations as to when ‘pet parents’ should have their pets spayed or neutered have been arbitrary and inconsistent. A study by IPSOS Marketing for PetSmart Charities in 2009, repeated in 2011, found that three out of four people either did not know when to “fix” their pets - or thought it was six to nine months or later.
Meanwhile, millions and millions of unplanned, unwanted kittens were being born only to be taken to overcrowded shelters or abandoned. While a renewed conversation about the best age to spay or neuter certain large-breed dogs is emerging, current evidence does not support an increased risk for cats of complications or long-term adverse health effects with pediatric (6-14 weeks) or juvenile (>16 weeks) sterilization. Also, the numbers of surplus dogs were gradually declining, but the numbers of unwanted, homeless cats were still in the multi-millions. It was time to focus on the felines.
This need was addressed in January of 2016, when a group of professionals met at the North American Veterinary Conference's annual meeting. The meeting was sponsored by Marian's Dream; and Joan Miller, Chair of the Cat Fanciers’ Education and Outreach Committee, invited a dozen prominent veterinarians met to consider the idea of possible recommendations for the optimal age to sterilize cats. Current scientific evidence regarding medical and behavioral effects and community outcomes were discussed, as well as short and long-term potential risk factors. The idea of recommending that practitioners routinely schedule the surgery at the end of the kitten vaccination series, typically between four and five months of age, would provide a consistent message that could increase veterinary visits and spay/neuter compliance while reducing the risk of pet relinquishment and unwanted offspring.
Over the following 18 months, at board meetings of the American Animal Hospital Association, the American Association of Feline Practitioners, the American Veterinary Medical Association as well as The Association of Shelter Veterinarians, The Catalyst Council, the Cat Fanciers’ Association, the Winn Feline Foundation and International Cat Association, the consensus was endorsed.
Today, this ‘pet project’ (Feline Fix by Five) is poised to undertake a massive public awareness campaign. The recommendation of sterilization of cats by five months of age will prevent enormous suffering because millions of unwanted kittens will not be born to a very uncertain fate. Those cats already in shelters will have a better chance of adoption, kittens in homes will be less likely to be relinquished and the incidence of mammary gland cancer will, if the program is successful, decrease further.
Why is Feline Fix by Five Campaign Important?
Pet owners don’t know the appropriate age to have dogs/cats spayed or neutered:
9 months or older
This chart is taken from page 27 of the IPSOS Marketing study commissioned in 2009 and 2011 by Petsmart Charities and entitled: There is confusion among owners as to the appropriate age to have dogs/cats spayed or neutered, with 17% indicating “Do Not Know.”
Nearly as alarming are the 42% who indicate 6 months (by which time cats can have already had a litter and be ready for the next), and worse yet an additional 14% who say 9 months or older.
This chart clearly indicates that ¾ of these adults (a sample of 3,000) either do not know, or think that 6 months or later is fine.
There are many reasons not to wait till first heat, which includes the greatly increased risk of mammary gland cancer, aggression and spraying in males, the development of unwelcome, hormone-related behaviors, and the risk of accidental litters.
On January 15, 2016 a group of prominent veterinarians met at the North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando, Florida and created a consensus document about best practice regarding spaying cats. The document is outlined as follows:
A. Recommendations for the optimal age to sterilize cats may differ from the age to sterilize dogs.
B. Current scientific evidence documents benefits of spaying kittens before the first estrous cycle, including the following:
· Decreased risk for mammary carcinoma
· Elimination of reproductive emergencies such as pyometra and dystocia
· Avoidance of unintended pregnancies that may occur as early as 4 months of age
· Potential decrease in behavioral problems linked with cat relinquishment.
C. Current evidence does not support an increased risk for cats of complications or long-term adverse health effects with pediatric (6–14 weeks) or juvenile (>16 weeks) 6–7 sterilization.
D. More controlled prospective research specifically examining different ages in sterilization in cats is needed. As new information becomes available, the recommended age for sterilization of cats should be revisited.
E. There is potential to increase the number of sterilized cats and reduce the unplanned/unwanted litters of kittens if veterinarians routinely schedule this surgery for client-owned cats at the end of the kitten vaccination series.
Given the known benefits of sterilization and the lack of evidence for harm related to age at which the procedure is performed, the Veterinary Taskforce on Feline Sterilization calls for veterinary practitioners and professional associations to recommend sterilization of cats by five months of age. This provides veterinary practitioners with a consistent message that may increase veterinary visits and spay/neuter compliance while reducing the risk of pet relinquishment and unwanted offspring.
While the professionals around the table were not acting officially on behalf of the organizations with which they worked,—The AVMA, AAHA, AAFP, The Winn Feline Foundation, the Catalyst Council, the Association of Shelter Vets (ASV), the International Cat Associaton and the Cat Fanciers’ Association, they were focused on creating a consensus document as a step towards a best practice initiative. By July 5, 2017 each of the organizations’ boards have publicly endorsed the practice. Now, for the first time, veterinarians have a clear message to send to their clients: Fix your felines by five months.