Like other cat advocates, I strongly urge that whole pet female cats be spayed as early as possible, for a number of reasons. In fact, the current thinking is that early spay and neuter is preferred, Once a female cat reaches puberty, she becomes a queen, and estrus - sometimes spelled "oestrus" (heat) - cycles will start. In domestic cats heat cycles run generally from January through August, depending on location and climate.
Until she mates or is spayed, these estrus cycles will repeat as often as every two or three weeks, causing distress to both the queen and her human companions. During these cycles, Queenie's entire focus will be on escaping the house to mate, or to mate with a male housemate, if you are careless enough to have whole male cats in the same household. She will be single-minded in her need to mate, will loudly vocalize (call), and lurk near doors, just waiting for the chance to meet up with one of the noisy feline Romeos who will cluster near your home, fighting for the privilege of impregnating your queen.
While it is assumed that most people have good intentions about spay/neuter of their cats, sometimes females mature earlier than anticipated, and the unwary caregiver will find herself with a female in heat. Here are answers to some questions you may have on what happens during estrus, or if she indeed finds a mate:
What Happens During Estrus?
Estrus is described as the period of receptivity to mating, and is linked with the production of estrodial (a type of estrogen) produced by ovarian follicles. It is not to be confused with menstruation in human females, and you will rarely, if ever, see any signs of blood, although occasional mucous discharge may be evident.
Female cats are induced ovulators, which means that ovulation does not take place without mating or manual stimulation. If the female cat does not mate during estrus, hormonal levels will eventually drop off, and the estrus cycle will cease, until it repeats itself in another two to three weeks.
What Occurs During Mating?
The queen will signal her willingness to mate with a unique posture: head down, forelegs bent, rear quarters raised to expose the vulva ( this raised posture is called lordosis), with the tail raised and held to the side of the body, all designed to accommodate entry by the tom cat's penis. Her rear legs will tread rhythmically, as if walking in place.
The tom cat will mount the female from the rear, holding her on the back of the neck with his teeth. This biting behavior may in part be to ensure cooperation, but may also stimulate a part of the female's brain that induces ovulation.
Whole male cats have barbed penises (much like a fishhook), and upon withdrawal, the female cat will often scream (whether from ecstasy or pain is questionable).
It is also believed that the barbed penis stimulates ovulation. In fact, breeders sometimes use "Teaser Toms" to stimulate ovulation and end the estrus cycle in queens which are not yet ready for breeding. Teaser Toms are neutered by vasectomy, leaving the barbs on the penis to stimulate ovulation.
How Soon After Mating Does Conception Occur?
Ovulation will usually occur within 20 to 50 hours after mating, and the eggs are viable (capable of being fertilized) for approximately one day. The eggs are fertilized in the oviduct, and then make their way to the uterus via the uterine horn, implanting in the uterine lining within 10 to 12 days.
Can a Litter Contain Kittens from Multiple Sires?
Yes. On the street, a queen may mate with two or more tom cats over the length of the estrus cycle - up to 21 days, with an average of seven days. Although genetics of the queen may come into play, multi-colored kitten litters will often vividly demonstrate multiple mating. Some breeders of pedigreed cats keep the queen and chosen tom together for multiple matings to ensure that pregnancy will result.
Can my Cat Become Pregnant While Nursing?
Unfortunately, yes. For that reason, it is critical to keep her indoors and separate from any whole males in the house. Once the mother cat starts to wean the kittens, she should be spayed to prevent further litters. In addition, the kittens should be spayed/neutered, whether kept in the original home or placed for adoption.
Can my Cat Be Spayed While Pregnant?
Generally speaking, pregnant cats can safely be spayed, although veterinarians differ about some of the factors involved. Please read my article, Should a Rescued Pregnant Cat Be Spayed? for more details.
At What Age Can a Cat Become Pregnant?
Although female cats generally mature sexually anywhere from five to twelve months, it is not unusual for a cat to start the estrus cycle as early as four months. If she is allowed to become pregnant at this age, the result will literally be a case of a kitten birthing kittens, dangerous to both the mother and the kittens. Many veterinarians are now practicing early spay and neuter to prevent tragedies of this sort.
If this article seems to be a thinly disguised spay and neuter message, it is intentional. Spaying your female cat will not only help the overpopulation problem, but will make her a happier and healthier pet in the long term.