The Birds and the Bees, and Your Cat.
The Birds and the Bees, and Your Cat.
By Sarah Liu
Mrs. Huggins does not celebrate Valentine’s Day. Far from being attracted to any male cat, she hates all cats equally. In fact, the very idea of romantic love seems an affront, as she joyfully shredded the last $5.50 card my husband bought me, and ate (and vomited) a few of my red roses. But these events gave me pause for thought, and I reflected on the love life of cats. Is Mrs. Huggins missing out?
Seasons of Love:
Female cats, or “queens,” enter their first estrus cycle once they reach sexual maturity; generally around six months of age. Notably though, certain breeds like Persians reach maturity later, and others, especially outdoor ferals, may become sexually mature even earlier. This variability makes pro-active neutering and trap-neuter-release (“TNR”) programs so critical, in order to prevent dangerous early pregnancies in “teen” mothers, and to reduce the number of homeless kittens.
Cats are seasonally poly-estrus, which means they can cycle multiple times during the breeding season. The breeding season varies by region, but in the United States, generally takes place from early spring until the late fall. This period is commonly referred to as “kitten season” by rescue volunteers, as it coincides with an influx of pregnant queens and homeless kittens to shelters who struggle for resources to provide extra care.
For indoor cats, and cats in tropical climates, the breeding season may last all year round.
That Lovin’ Feeling:
The queen’s estrus cycle lasts anywhere from one to three weeks. During the cycle, she will spend one to seven days “in heat” – a time in which she is keen to meet romantic partners. The signs are generally behavioral rather than physical. If your cat has not been spayed, you may observe she is much more vocal and very affectionate, rubbing against objects and demanding attention. She may urinate more frequently, or inappropriately. There will be a lot of rolling on the floor, and when stroked, she will raise her hindquarters and “paddle” her back legs into a position, we can only guess, that is terribly inviting to would-be paramours.
Your queen is also sending “virtual” information to potential suitors. During heat, she is loaded with hormones and pheromones, and she is very proficient at sending these messages to male cats all over her neighborhood. Tom cats you have never seen before will heed her call, peering in your windows and lurking in your yard, spraying their own urinary valentines on your bushes and steps.
Male cats, “toms,” also reach sexual maturity around six months of age. Classic signs include aggression toward other male cats, inappropriate urination or spraying, nighttime vocalization (“yowling”), and increased attempts to leave your house. The intact, or un-neutered tom cat, is an insatiable Romeo. He is not subject to the same cycling as the female cat. He will continue these behaviors and pursue his romantic agenda until he is neutered.
And Baby Makes Three, Sometimes Five, or Eight:
If Tom is successful, and a queen is mated, her pregnancy will last about nine weeks. Like humans, she may experience morning sickness in the early stages. Thirty days after conception, her belly will swell. She may appear lethargic and will require more calories. By the third week you may feel the “lumps” of her developing kittens. About a week before birth, she will begin “nesting,” looking for safe and cozy places to have her litter. When labor comes, the queen is generally self-sufficient. First time mothers may show signs of anxiety; pacing or straining with contractions. There may be panting or noises of discomfort. Queens who are well-bonded with their humans may appreciate companionship and gentle stroking.
Litters average three to five kittens, generally born 15 to 20 minutes one after the other. The queen will lick her babies clean and encourage them to nurse immediately. In general, cats are excellent mothers, instinctually providing comprehensive care for their helpless infants. However, first time and especially young mothers may abandon or reject their young. When a queen rejects her litter, the kittens will die unless substitute care is provided. Inexperienced care takers should immediately seek a veterinarian’s advice. Newborn kittens cannot thrive on other kinds of milk, and must be assisted in elimination of urine and feces for the first few weeks of life. In most cases though, a queen will independently rear and train her kittens, weaning them between four and six weeks. The kittens will reach sexual maturity around six months, sometimes as early as four, and the cycle will begin anew.
Meanwhile Dad, our tom, has nothing to do with any of this. He is instinctually driven to make kittens, but has no interest in caring for them once his mission is complete. DNA donated, he has long since turned his thoughts to the next romantic conquest. But Dad’s genes will contribute to his offspring’s appearance and temperament. Studies have shown that kittens sired by “friendly” fathers are more likely to socialize well with humans; even where the father has nothing to do with the kittens after conception. With respect to fur color, while male kittens take their color from Mom, female kittens take one color gene from each parent, so are more likely to offer clues about who their father was. Likewise, if your kitten is white, and mom is not white, then Dad was probably the white tom cat you saw in your backyard.
1. Get your cat neutered. Not only will it prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce undesirable behaviors, it will allow your pet to focus on loving his or her family instead of pursuing romance on the streets.
2. Get involved in TNR. Trap-Neuter-Release is a fantastic nation-wide initiative to neuter sexually mature feral cats. TNR reduces the number of homeless kittens, many of whom end up euthanized, and improves the overall health and safety of feral colonies and the communities they live in.
3. Consider fostering a pregnant mother and/or kittens. Rescue organizations are flooded with expectant mothers and orphaned kittens. County shelters don’t have the resources to provide care so are often forced to resort to euthanasia. Fostering frees up shelter space, socializes kittens for future forever homes, and allows your family to experience the joys of a cat or kitten without long-term commitments.
4. Roses are not toxic to cats. That said, they still shouldn’t eat them, and the thorns could cause problems in the digestional tract. So keep them out of reach.