Female kittens grow up quickly. When they become mature, they will have their first heat cycle. “Going into heat” means that a female cat is now able to get pregnant.
It is very important to learn about the feline heat cycle so you won’t get caught off-guard when your kitten starts behaving strangely. This is especially true if you are caring for a young female kitten or cat for the first time.
In this article, we go into detail to discuss how often do cats go into heat, what to expect when the heat cycle begins, how often cats go into heat, and effective methods to prevent the heat cycle from occurring.
How Often Do Cats Go Into Heat?
When a cat goes into heat, this is called the “estrous cycle.” An intact female cat is called a “queen.”
Cats have a period of puberty, or sexual maturation, which is similar to the period that occurs in humans.
Different cat breeds will reach puberty at different ages. The typical time frame is between six months and 10 months of age for a kitten.
Once a kitten has had her first estrous cycle, it will reoccur every two to three weeks until one of two things occur: either the cat gets spayed or the cat gets pregnant.
Learn About What Happens When Cats Go Into Heat
This short, informative video made by a cat owner explains the basics of what to expect when your cat goes into heat for the first time.
If you don’t know what you are looking at, it can be a bit scary the first time your cat goes into heat! But once you understand the group of behaviors you are witnessing, it is easier not to worry that something is wrong with your cat.
When Does a Female Cat Go Into Heat For the First Time?
According to PetMD, it is not unheard of for a female kitten to go into heat for the first time as early as four months of age or as late as 12 months of age.
On average, female cats will have their first heat cycle around the age of six to nine months.
There is some evidence that short-haired cat breeds will experience their first estrus cycle earlier in life than will long-haired cat breeds.
What Does It Mean That Cats Are “Seasonally Poly-estrous?”
The term “seasonally poly-estrous” simply means that adult female cats can become fertile, or receptive to breeding, many times each year.
In some areas of the world, the period during which female cats are open to mating will be dictated by the seasonal shifts in daylight hours and temperature.
This often means that cats are only receptive to breeding from January through October or March through October depending on the regional location.
In other areas of the world, and especially in places where it is warm year-round near the equator, cats may go through an estrus cycle every two to three weeks year-round.
What Are the Most Common Signs Your Cat Is In Heat?
As VCA Animal Hospital explains, the most common and visible signs and symptoms that a kitten has entered the heat cycle for the first time are as follows:
- The cat becomes very affectionate.
- The cat vocalizes a lot more and becomes a lot louder.
- The cat will rub themselves along the ground.
- The cat may try to get outside even if they are normally an indoor cat.
- The cat will raise its hindquarters and tail when petted.
- The cat will urinate (spray or mark) surfaces to spread her pheromones.
- The cat may spot blood or fluids (this does not always occur).
- The cat’s vulva (genitals) may appear visibly swollen.
Another sign that your cat has begun a heat cycle is if you suddenly start seeing strange cats showing up in your yard.
Intact (unneutered) male cats – whether pets or feral male cats – can often hear and smell a female cat in heat from a surprising distance away and will come to try to mate with her.
While you may not always see the male cats, you will smell them – male intact cats will also spray-mark the area around your home to try to ward off other male cats who also want to try to mate.
This is why it is so vitally important that you don’t let your female cat slip outside, at least unless your plans include raising a litter of kittens and then finding good homes for them.
Common Myths About Cats in Heat and Safe Spaying
Many myths continue to circulate about when it is or isn’t safe to spay a female cat.
According to the Humane Society of Charlotte, these are some of the most common myths that can lead owners or rescuers to not spay a sexually mature female cat.
Myth: it is not safe to spay a cat until she has had at least one litter of kittens
The truth, as Bowling Green-Warren County Humane Society explains, is that it is not necessary to wait until a female cat has had one litter of kittens before spaying is safe.
With the sheer numbers of abandoned pet cats who become feral and then get pregnant and have kittens, it is a kindness to spay a female cat before she has had kittens.
As well, modern feline medical science shows some evidence that spaying a female cat before she goes into heat for the first time may make for a healthier adult cat.
Allowing a cat to go into heat once before spaying may increase the risk of certain cancers later in life, including mammary cancer and uterine cancer.
Myth: it is not safe to spay a cat once she has had kittens
There is no medically sound reason why a cat that has already delivered kittens cannot be safely spayed.
Sometimes it is much safer to spay a female cat than allow her to get pregnant again. Pregnancy places a mother cat at risk of any number of known health issues, including the potentially deadly condition mastitis.
As VCA Animal Hospitals explains, mastitis, or inflammation of the mammary glands (the milk-producing glands), which can lead to sepsis if not promptly treated.
Myth: it is not safe to spay a cat who is pregnant with kittens
While it is never pleasant to contemplate, sometimes spaying a pregnant cat is the best way to prevent bringing kittens into the world that is already vastly overpopulated by unwanted, relinquish, or feral former pet felines.
A feline veterinarian can evaluate whether the female cat is in a stage of pregnancy where it is still safe to perform the spay surgery.
Myth: spay surgery is expensive and can cause damage to a cat
A spay surgery is one of the most commonly performed surgeries in the veterinary field. The cat is fully sedated during the procedure and pain medications are provided for post-surgical care so discomfort is minimized in every respect.
Myth: spaying will lead to overweight or obesity in a female cat
There is some truth to this myth, in that metabolic changes can occur as a result of the spay surgery.
However, there are far too many pet cats who remain intact and are also overweight. Pet obesity is a significant enough issue that the Association for Pet Obesity reports a whopping 60 percent of cats are obese.
As long as you provide your pet cat with a complete and balanced feline diet and plenty of daily activity, playtime, and enrichment, you are unlikely to be faced with feline obesity issues after spaying.
Myth: Once a female cat has reached a certain age it isn’t safe to spay her
Female cats can be safely spayed at any age. If your cat is over the age of seven, your feline veterinarian may want to order some pre-surgical bloodwork to assess kidney and liver function before surgery.
Myth: cats need to get pregnant to feel like a “real cat”
Just as people don’t need to get pregnant to feel like “real people,” so too can cats have a very enriching and enjoyable quality of life without having kittens.
The experience of going into heat repeatedly and being unable to mate can be far more stressful to a female cat than the experience of being fixed one time and never dealing with it again.
The experience of becoming pregnant repeatedly can be incredibly dangerous and depleting for a female cat.
When you consider that an adult female cat can have three or more litters per year every single year of her adult life, it is easy to see how draining that can become – to the point where her lifespan is potentially shortened as a result.
Myth: spayed cats are less affectionate and loving towards their owners
The “affection” that female cats in heat display have nothing to do with their owners and everything to do with instinctive urges driven by hormones that are beyond their control.
While it may appear like your female cat is very affectionate and loving, in truth she is quite frustrated and under a lot of stress while she is in the heat cycle.
Once you have spayed your female cat, the affection she displays will be un-marred by hormonal fluctuations she has no control over.
Myth: letting kids experience kittens being born is an important rite of passage
Keeping company with a companion animal can be an amazing part of the experience of growing up.
But your kids also need to understand what can happen once the kittens leave your home and go to their new homes with other people.
It is far better to teach your kids how to responsibly care for a family pet by preventing unwanted births that may add to the number of animals already waiting in shelters to be adopted.
Myth: pregnancy isn’t a big deal because it is easy to find caring people to adopt cute and cuddly newborn kittens
According to the ASPCA, a shocking 3.2 million cats may be sitting in shelters right now waiting to be adopted – even as you are reading this.
The truth is, it may not be difficult to find a home for an adorable pet kitten, but once you adopt out that kitten you lose control over the quality (or not) of future life they have.
With numbers like these, the most likely outcome for that cute little kitten is that one day they will be sitting in a small pen in a rescue shelter with the option of being adopted in a period or getting euthanized to free up space.
Understanding the Cat Heat Cycle From Start to Finish
According to Companions Spay and Neuter, the feline heat cycle has five discrete stages.
Stage 1: Pro-estrus
Pro-estrus is the first stage of the estrus or heat cycle. The female cat is not yet in heat and is uninterested in mating (even if the males around her are very interested!).
This first stage of the heat cycle lasts just one to two days.
Stage 2: Estrus
Estrus is the main stage of the feline heat cycle. You will likely see some or all of the signs listed in the previous section here.
This period can last three or more days.
Many first-time cat owners mistake the signs that their cat is in estrus with symptoms of a cat being in severe pain. It is easy to panic when you hear your cat yowling repeatedly and see your cat rolling around on the floor in clear distress.
But if your cat is four months or older (with six months being more common) and there are no other visibly warning signs of illness or injury, it is worth taking your cat to the feline veterinarian to determine if perhaps it is a heat cycle instead.
Stage 3: Inter-estrus
The inter-estrus period will only take place if your female cat does not breed (does not ovulate) and become pregnant during the estrus period.
Inter-estrus lasts two to three weeks on average. Then your cat will go back and repeat the first three stages.
Stage 4: Met-estrus (di-estrus)
The met-estrus period only takes place if your female cat does breed (does ovulate) and becomes pregnant.
Met-estrus can last up to 40 days. Pregnancy on average lasts up to 64 days.
Stage 5: An-estrus
As PetMD explains, an-estrus is the rest period that occurs in between estrus cycles. An-estrus typically occurs as a response to seasonal changes like shorter daylight hours.
Is There a Specific “Breeding Season” for Female Cats?
Many species of animals go through a specific breeding season. This is often regulated by seasonal shifts in daylight hours or temperatures.
This holds for companion felines as well as wild and feral felines.
When the temperatures are warmer and there are 14 to 16 hours of daylight, this will signal the female cat’s body to go into heat.
When the daylight hours are reduced during the winter season, a female cat will be less likely to go into heat at all. If she does enter the estrous cycle, it will likely happen less frequently until the warm season returns.
What Is a False Pregnancy in Cats?
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, false pregnancy is not considered common for companion felines, but it certainly can occur and is important to know about.
False feline pregnancy is sometimes also called pseudopregnancy.
To understand how this might happen to your pet cat, you first need to understand that felines only ovulate after they have mated.
But just because your female cat has mated does not always mean that she has successfully conceived.
However, her body may interpret the act of mating as equal with conception, even inducing hormonal shifts that would only occur if she was pregnant.
Female intact cats that experience a false feline pregnancy may not realize they are not pregnant.
The female cat may behave as if they are gestating (developing kittens). Their mammary glands (breast) may swell with milk and they may begin exhibiting maternal behaviors.
Sometimes a female cat may display the signs of false or pseudopregnancy even after being spayed. When this occurs, it is the result of an incomplete spay surgery where ovarian tissue remains inside the cat’s body.
This is called “ovarian remnant syndrome” and it always requires a second surgery to remove the remaining ovarian tissue. Otherwise, the estrous cycles will continue.
What Happens During the Spaying Procedure for Female Cats?
According to MSPCA Angell, the spay surgery (also called an “ovariohysterectomy” for a female cat is a very fast procedure.
For a female cat, the cat will be placed on a heated pad for comfort and then fully sedated (with general anesthesia) through the use of a face mask.
The cat will be monitored throughout the spay surgery for blood oxygen levels and heart rate to be sure all is well.
Next, the surgical incision area is shaved and sterilized.
The incision allows the veterinary surgeon to remove the uterus, the reproductive tract, and the ovaries from the female cat’s abdomen.
Then dissolvable stitches are used to close the incision site. Sometimes skin glue or skin staples are also used.
The whole surgery typically takes less than 20 minutes.
Following the spay surgery, the veterinary surgeon will administer an injection to reverse the effects of the anesthesia. This shot generally takes effect in as little as 15 minutes.
Once the female cat is conscious and able to move about, the veterinary surgeon will advise the pet parent on the appropriate use of pain medication as needed to minimize any post-surgical discomfort.
The pet parent will return home with a comprehensive post-operative care plan to keep their cat calm and quiet to allow for the quickest possible healing.
How to Prepare Your Female Cat for Spay Surgery
While these guidelines may differ somewhat depending on your female cat’s age, stage of life, and past or current pregnancy status, this is a general idea of what you can expect to do when preparing your cat for spay surgery.
According to Wangford Veterinary Clinic, it will be important to stop offering your female cat food at a certain point the night before the procedure.
You can still make water available overnight unless your veterinary surgeon specifically recommends otherwise.
You will want to refrain from offering either food or water on the morning of the spay procedure.
Depending on your female cat’s age, life stage and pregnancy status, your veterinary surgeon may wish to do pre-operative blood draw to assess overall health, kidney and liver function and red blood cell count (to assess the risk of anemia).
This is more common if your female cat is pregnant or is in the golden years of life.
Following the spay procedure, you will be provided with pain medications and specific instructions for post-surgical aftercare, including wound monitoring and cleaning and administration of medications.
No doubt choosing to add a female kitten to your family will introduce some difficult questions into your life. Should you spay your female cat or allow her to breed?
If you do not have plans to become a professional or avocational cat breeder, or if your budget will not provide for feline pregnancy emergency medical interventions, it is much safer and smarter to have your female cat spayed on or before her first heat cycle.
This is protective for your cat and can benefit overall health and longevity.