The Altered Cat
Learn what you can and cannot expect from spaying or neutering your cat.
Diana Lawton's 6-month-old mixed shorthair cat, Luke, kept her and her roommate awake most nights. The rambunctious ball of orange fur scampered around the house, bumping into walls and dipping his paw into the water glass on the nightstand, spilling its contents.
Luke's nightly excursions ceased, however, after Lawton had him neutered. "He got the surgery and it was like a different cat came home," she said. "He got really quiet and docile. He's not an unhappy cat; he's just not as energetic."
In many cases, spaying or neutering a cat can resolve problems such as spraying, roaming, fighting or restlessness. But experts caution, the surgical procedure is not a cure for all unwanted cat behavior. In fact, 10 percent of male cats and 5 percent of female cats continue to spray urine after having the operation. Twelve percent of males continue to fight, even in the absence of hormones.
The reason? Not all feline behavior is hormonally driven.
When Hormones Rule
Under the influence of male and female hormones, cats mature and develop behaviors related to mate selection, mating and kitten rearing. This includes undesirable activities such as yowling and urine spraying in females, and fighting, spraying and roaming in males.
"Males are extremely restless. They will spray to announce their existence or to mark their territory," said Pamela Reid, Ph.D., vice president of behavioral sciences for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York. "I had a client whose female cat would be up all night spraying and, of course, yowling. The cat even sprayed in her face."
Because hormones in the cat's body mainly drive these behaviors, surgery to remove the hormone-producing organs can reduce or completely stop the behavior, Reid said.
In females, this requires removal of the cat's uterus and ovaries in a procedure called spaying. Neutering is the surgical removal of the testicles from male cats. An altered cat is one that has had the surgery. An intact cat is one that has not.
Some experts recommend performing the operation before the cat becomes sexually mature, usually around 6 to 9 months of age. Others suggest doing the surgery as early as 6 weeks old. "There isn't an exact age. In general, it can be done any time they are old enough to withstand anesthesia," said Bonnie Beaver, DVM, certified animal behaviorist and professor of small animal medicine and surgery at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
Studies show no disadvantage to early spaying or neutering. However, advantages to early spaying include preventing the female from ever entering her heat cycle, decreasing the incidence of breast cancer and eliminating the chance of developing serious or potentially fatal uterine infections. Early neutering of males doesn't guarantee they won't spray as adults, but it can keep them from roaming or acting unusually restless in the household, Beaver said. It also decreases the chances of males developing prostatic disease and hernias, and eliminates their chance of developing testicular cancer.
"A cat's mentality is not focused on 'Gee, how can I make the best pet?' Their minds are focused on finding a mate, mating, or nursing their young," Beaver said. "If we spay or neuter them, then they can concentrate on all the other things in life such as 'Who can I find to pet me or play with me?'"
The surgery cannot stop behavior unrelated to hormonal influence. That is why 12 percent of altered males continue to fight, said Laurie Bergman, VMD, veterinary behaviorist at the University of California's Veterinary Medical Center in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. "[Past] studies haven't looked at who these cats are fighting or why they are fighting," she said. "Now we know there can be a lot of reasons for fighting. It could be that one cat is fearful of another, and it has nothing to do with hormones."
After the Operation
Most, if not all, hormone-driven behaviors disappear immediately or within weeks, Reid said. Aggression levels are reduced in about 88 percent of male cats and roaming is reduced in about 92 percent, she said. Spraying is reduced in about 90 percent of the males and 95 percent of the females.
A cat's activity level may decrease since it no longer feels the need to roam in search of a mate, and its metabolism may slow down. "When you alter an animal it alters their metabolism. So if you don't lower their caloric intake, they'll get fat," Reid said.
About a month after getting spayed, Pat Curry's then 1-year-old shorthair cat started packing on pounds. Within 18 months, the cat weighed a hefty 20 pounds. "Before spaying, she was slim and trim. Now she's a big, fat cat," Curry said. "I took her to the vet and was told to put her on a low-fat, low-calorie diet."
In 1995, researchers at the University of Minnesota compared the body mass index of intact and altered cats and discovered a higher metabolic rate in intact cats than their altered counterparts. Based on their findings, the researchers recommended reducing the daily caloric intake of neutered males by 28 percent and spayed females by 33 percent to prevent obesity. Always consult your veterinarian before changing your cat's diet.
With the hormonal push removed, you may be shocked to find your male cat mounting a female cat or biting her neck. However, such behavior, if learned prior to altering, may persist because the cat has already associated it with pleasure, Reid said.
Even male cats that have not previously experienced sexual activity may suddenly mount a female simply because their brains have been biologically wired for it. "People operate under the myth that an altered animal is an 'it,' neither male nor female," Reid said. "But hormones in their youth formed their brains into masculine or feminine brains. So, male cats may still mount or exhibit other sexual behavior because their brain is still masculinized and they are acting on that."
Spraying can also persist or suddenly appear in the altered cat, because the behavior isn't always hormonally driven, Bergman said. "Since the hormones have been removed, it's our feeling that this is a normal feline response to stress," she said. "Typically we see spraying or marking in interaction with other cats. Very often it's territorially driven. It could be that another cat has been introduced to the household or there could be a new cat in the neighborhood and the cat sees it coming up to the windows."
While undesirable sexual behavior can be handled by simply breaking up the amorous couple, spraying requires a little detective work. These steps will help you discover the cause of this troublesome behavior:
1. First you should visit your veterinarian to determine whether the cause is a medical problem such as a urinary tract infection or kidney stones, Bergman said.
2. Once that's ruled out, you need to look at the cat's environment. Spraying can be triggered by tension among cats in the house, by interlopers peering in the window or by a dirty or poorly placed litterbox. "A litterbox should be clean and there should be at least one box per cat in the household," Bergman said. "It also should be easy to get to." If placed in a far-off area of the house it may be viewed as inconvenient and, like people, cats will choose the closest bathroom, which may be your carpet, she said.
3. Discourage spraying by identifying and removing what stressors you can. Place sticky tape on window sills to keep the cat off and unable to see other cats outside the window. Place foil or nubby-textured runners near doors or cupboards to keep the cat from spraying in these areas. "Cats don't like the feel of this on their paws," Reid said. "Or you could spray a synthetic pheromone in these areas to help reduce the cat's anxiety."
4. If aggression continues in an altered cat, enlist the help of a veterinary behaviorist to determine and address its cause, Bergman said.
5. Above all, avoid placing human motivations on your cat. It's just responding to its biological wiring or something amiss in its environment. And it's relying on you to make the world right again for the both of you.
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The Altered Cat