One of the most controversial issues in shelter settings is whether or not to spay a rescued pregnant cat. While some people are repulsed at the thought of killing unborn kittens, others believe it can help solve a larger issue, that of pet overpopulation.
Stray female cats seem to have an uncanny knack for finding shelter immediately before giving birth, and will suddenly appear at a doorstep, seeking human help. Other female strays will find themselves cast out into the streets, punished for getting pregnant because their owners failed to spay them or keep them indoors. Or the owner, in an attempt to salve their conscience, will surrender the pregnant female to a shelter, as a "found" stray, or summarily dump her at the door of a known rescuer
All too often, these pregnant females are kittens themselves. It is fairly common for a cat to have its first estrus (heat) between four and six months of age, and to give birth as early as at six or seven months. This situation is rife with potential for disaster, both to the survival of the mother cat and to any kittens that are born alive.
Spaying of a pregnant cat includes abortion, a word that involves emotional reactions, whether applied to humans or cats.
Animal shelters approach the issue in different ways:
- Spay early-term mother cats but allow late-term pregnancies to be delivered before spaying.
- Spay the mother cat in all cases, right up until birth.
- Observe what has been called the "Gold Standard," and never spay a rescued pregnant cat.
This issue is emotional on both sides. Proponents of spaying don't like having to take lives of unborn kittens, but their position is based on pragmatic reasoning. Opponents simply do not like the taking of lives under any circumstances, whether born or unborn.
The larger issue should be addressed first, that of an enormous cat overpopulation problem, primarily caused by cat owners' failure to spay or neuter their cats. Often the resulting pregnant female cats are thrown out on the street, where they and their surviving kittens continue to mate, and the offspring from those matings continue to mate. The horrifying reality is that a pregnant female cat and her descendants can account for the births of several hundred kittens in just a few years. (A female cat is capable of bearing at least three litters of kittens each year.)
Animal rescue groups, humane societies, and TNR (trap-neuter-release) groups are overwhelmed in trying to staunch the flow of new kittens, and "kitten season," which extends for a long part of each year is met with dread by these groups. Dread, because they know that this year's kitten crop will be responsible for the deaths of last year's kittens, or older cats, at shelters. There isn't enough space to house them all, and something must give. It's a matter of supply and demand.
While spaying a non-pregnant female cat will prevent the birth of anonymous future kittens, spaying (and aborting) a pregnant female cat leads to the death of identifiable fetuses, a thought that horrifies many people.
- Spaying a rescued pregnant cat will help contain the overpopulation problem. There are too few homes for the huge number of homeless cats.
- Spaying a pregnant rescued cat will help prevent the deaths of living cats and kittens. Even though a pregnant female cat might be adopted by the finder, with good homes waiting for her kittens, each of those kittens will indirectly be responsible for the death of a shelter cat or kitten that might have been adopted into one of those homes. A case in point is a rescuer who also fosters cats, with space limits to her ability to house them. She recently had to choose between spaying/aborting a pregnant cat that had been dumped on her doorstep or sending a litter of kittens she had been fostering to the local shelter, where they would have immediately been killed. So for the "greater good," she had the new cat spayed, even though it caused a lot of emotional pain.
- Very young and very old pregnant stray cats rarely enjoy the kind of physical condition that would warrant allowing them to give birth. Birthing and nursing a litter of kittens could take their last ounce of strength and even kill them. The kindest and most compassionate action anyone could take with one of these cats is to spay her.
- The only time a pregnant stray cat should be allowed to give birth is in the case of being near-term. There is a Roe vs. Wade aspect to this argument, which brings up whole different issues of viability - "when does it occur during pregnancy?"
- The taking of life, whether it be human or animal, already born or a fetus, is immoral. There are no "excuses" that make it all right.
- Shelters and rescue organizations are institutions, and their primary concern is the movement of cats out, to make room for those coming in. In that sort of atmosphere, moral considerations may take second place. However, an individual who is willing to keep both the mother cat and the kittens or find good, permanent homes for them, should not be made to feel guilty for allowing the birth.
- Where is the evidence that the people with the available "good homes" might have instead adopted cats from shelters? Perhaps they weren't even looking for a cat until they heard a friend, neighbor, or co-worker had adoptable kittens.
Where It Stands
There will never be a complete resolution to this issue until cat owners become responsible caregivers, by spaying and neutering their cats. Most cats can be spayed and neutered before they are of reproductive age - as early as 6 weeks of age or 2 pounds in weight is not unreasonable.
If more and more kittens are born each year, more and more stray cats will appear, and the feline overpopulation problem will increase. That is why this issue is just a small part of a greater issue: spay and neuter.