New research shows that British and American cat owners harbor some pretty serious misconceptions about the reproductive habits of their feline companions. A study of British cat owners, for example, found that 84 percent of the 715 people surveyed thought cats can't get pregnant before the age of six months, which isn't true — kittens can actually get pregnant as early as three to four months.
Mother and kittens
Half of the respondents also said they thought that female cats "should" (or possibly should) have a litter before being spayed, said study co-author Jane Murray, an epidemiologist at the University of Bristol school of veterinary sciences in England. Another 39 percent thought sibling cats couldn't reproduce, which is false; they can and do.
Little ones playing
Due to these misconceptions, a total of 850,000 unplanned kittens are born each year in the United Kingdom, according to the study, published Dec. 16 in the Veterinary Record. Due in part to these unplanned pregnancies, as many as 150,000 kittens end up in British shelters every year, Murray told LiveScience.
"Cat overpopulation is at crisis levels," said Julie Levy, director of Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida's college of veterinary medicine, who wasn't involved in the study. A total of 3 million to 4 million cats end up at U.S. shelters every year, and more than half of them are euthanized, Levy told LiveScience.
This mother cat is named Maisie and gave birth to four kittens. To help prevent unplanned litters, cat owners should get their kittens spayed or neutered at 4 months of age, Levy said. "It's interesting that this study from the UK confirms findings in the U.S., that pet owners are confused about the reproductive lives of their cats, and that this lack of awareness about how quickly cats can reproduce contributes to unwanted litters and cat overpopulation," she said.
Tink and Snufkin
"People don't realize that it's difficult to keep a cat from getting pregnant," said Margaret Slater, senior director of veterinary epidemiology at ASPCA, who wasn't involved in the study. Take for example this mother cat (also known as a "queen"), named Tink. Tink's owners thought she needn't be spayed, since she didn't leave the backyard, surrounded by an 8-foot tall fence, said study participant Heather Robinson. But a male cat somehow scaled the fence and impregnated her at 8 months of age, she added. The kitten at far right is named Snufkin.
It isn't clear why pet owners thought female cats should have litters before being spayed, although it may be because they are projecting human values to the cats regarding the importance of family, Levy said.
Jessie and the kits
This mother cat is named Jessie and these are her kittens Squid, Willow, Sadie and Hannah. About 80 percent of owned cats are neutered or spayed, but not always early enough. Cat overpopulation strains animal shelters, and sets up many cats for difficult lives. Too many cats also present environmental problems, for example, when cats eat wildlife like birds.