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Neutering: mistaken belief 'scarily high'

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01 May 2017, at 1:00am

VETERINARY SURGEONS MUST WORK WITH THE ANIMAL WELFARE CHARITIES to dispel the myth that female cats “need” to have a litter of kittens before they are spayed, according to Maggie Roberts, director of veterinary services with Cats Protection. In an update on feline neutering issues at the VetsSouth congress in Exeter on 8th February, Dr Roberts warned that there was still a “scarily high” proportion of pet owners clinging to this mistaken belief. In one survey by colleagues at the PDSA, 49% of those who hadn’t had their pets treated had cited this as their reason. However, the vast majority of cat owners have got the message that spaying female cats is necessary. The population of owned male and female cats now unable to add to the numbers of unwanted kittens has risen from 89 to 93% over the past five years, she said. Without those queens having that wholly unnecessary single litter, there would not be a surplus of kittens needing rehoming. Currently, around 150,000 unwanted cats enter registered shelters each year along with unknown numbers dealt with privately by individual cat lovers and veterinary practices. These efforts cost the charities alone £340 million a year and, regrettably, 13% of these cats cannot be rehomed and have to be euthanased, she said. Dr Roberts urged colleagues to redouble their efforts to explain the benefits of neutering to those cat owners who are still unconvinced, perhaps because they actively want their pet to conceive, they are unaware of the age that kittens reach puberty, or they assume that cats from the same litter will not attempt to mate. These beliefs are more commonly held by those in the lower socioeconomic groups and rather surprisingly by younger people in the 16 to 34 age range. “Educating young people to understand the welfare costs of unwanted pets will be a really important factor in addressing this problem,” she said. Another crucial step would be to encourage pet owners to have their pets neutered earlier, but “there is no scientific evidence for waiting until the kitten is six months old, as is the traditional practice in this country”. Research in the US and Australia, where neutering at four months old is more common, shows there is no evidence of any detrimental effects on the pet’s physical development and while spayed cats may be prone to putting on weight, that problem can be readily controlled. Indeed, there are significant benefits in neutering earlier, as the surgery is less traumatic and the kittens recover much more quickly than adults, she said. After complaints from some pet owners that their own vets were reluctant to operate on smaller patients, the Cat Population Control Group (an alliance of welfare charities, academics and veterinary organisations) has established a list of practices that will neuter kittens aged four months or younger. However, she insisted that while treating kittens below about 400g in bodyweight may be a little “fiddly”, surgery is technically feasible in those patients that are only a few days old. Surgical neutering may eventually disappear from the workload of small animal practices in the UK, Dr Roberts suggested. The Michelson Foundation, a US-based charity, has sponsored a competition with a $25 million prize for the first person or group to develop a non-surgical option for neutering both male and female dogs and cats with a single treatment. The scheme is designed to help reduce the unknown numbers of feral and free-roaming animals across the globe, but the same technique is likely to replace surgery for owned pets. There are a number of options being considered for use in field trials, some of which have already been tested as a way of controlling numbers in wildlife species. Perhaps the most promising is a vaccine which will provide a lifelong contraceptive option by creating antibodies to gonadotrophinreleasing hormone. Another important area of current research was to develop a reliable method for distinguishing between intact and already neutered animals, as it can be difficult to locate the small scars produced by a capable surgeon. Much effort is focused on measurements of anti-Mullerian hormone – a substance produced in both the ovaries and the Sertoli cells in the testes of adult cats. This is already a promising test for reliably identifying intact animals, but it will need to become less costly if it is to enter routine use. “This would save us from the embarrassing situation for a welfare charity in which we re-home a female cat which we are sure had been spayed but it then goes on to have a litter of kittens,” she said.