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What are the signs that a cat is going into heat?

Dear Sinéad, Siouxsie and Thomas:
I need some advice about my female kitty going into heat for the first time. What are the signs beforehand? She is licking more and more every day around nipple and butt.
She also seems to have lots more energy. Help!

~Nancy

Sinéad: Well, Nancy, cats in heat do have some particular behaviors that are quite recognizable. And this is the time of year when cats that haven't been spayed or neutered start getting the fever for procreation.

Siouxsie: We'll begin by giving you some basic information about cats' sex lives. Cats typically reach sexual maturity between 7 and 12 months of age, with Siamese and Oriental breeds (or moggies with Siamese or Oriental blood) being on the earlier end of this range. Female cats have their first heat at this time.

Thomas: Male cats also reach sexual maturity at this age, and we boy-cats show our newfound interest by spraying (urinating against a vertical surface with extra-pungent urine) or mounting other cats.

Sinéad: Most of the time, cats don't do much mating in the winter -- that would be October through December in the northern hemisphere. That's just a survival thing bred into us through the millennia. But come January, unspayed female cats start getting that funny feeling that maybe they'd like some male company.

Siouxsie: When a female cat begins her estrus (the medical term for being in heat), she becomes more demonstrative. She starts rubbing her head and chin on objects around the house. Humans typically see this as their cat becoming more affectionate. At this time, male cats may try to mate with her, but since she's not fully in heat, they'll be rebuffed with a bat to the head or some other rejecting behavior.

Thomas: About three days into the heat cycle, the female cat's movements will become more demonstrative. She'll open and close her paws and begin rolling on her back and from side to side. She'll start licking her rear end. She'll also start calling -- this is a particular kind of meow, generally a long and forlorn cry that Mama says sounds like "I'm hooooooooooooooorny!" The estrus call is unlike any other kind of meow or vocalization you've heard emanating from your cat.

Sinéad: One way you can tell for sure if a female cat is in heat is to rub her on her lower back, near her tail. If she flicks her tail to the side and assumes a position called "lordosis" (swaybacked), in which she points her butt up in the air, then she's definitely in heat.

Siouxsie: A female cat will assume this position in order to be mounted and mated by a male cat.

Thomas: Female cats are most receptive to male cats on the third and fourth days of their estrus. If she mates, her estrus will stop within 24 hours. But if she isn't mated, she'll stay in heat for two weeks -- although the most noticeable part of the cycle will be in the first week.

Sinéad: Your female cat will also keep going into heat every two weeks until she's mated or spayed. Siamese and Oriental-type cats have a long period of calling behavior, and it can reach the point where it seems almost constant. This is annoying and frustrating to most humans, but it's more than just annoying and frustrating to cats -- it can actually cause physical and psychological harm!

Siouxsie: That's right. Female cats that are constantly in heat are highly stressed. Stress is bad for our immune systems and for our hearts and other organs. And since humans don't react well to the antics of a sexually unfulfilled cat, your relationship with your cat will become strained, and this will be bad for both of you.

Thomas: One other thing you should know is that a female cat in heat is an escape artist extraordinaire! There's almost no limit on the extent to which a female cat will go to get mated. And we boy cats love to hang around and wait for girl cats in heat to escape, so all the neighborhood tomcats will start hanging out in your yard waiting for their golden moment with your precious kitty.

Sinéad: Cats can and do get pregnant "the first time." So if your cat escaped at any time while she was in heat, the odds are good that she is now pregnant.

Siouxsie: Generally cats deal pretty well with pregnancy. But young mothers (that would be any cat under a year old) often have trouble with the nurturing they need to do after their kittens are born. Often they won't have enough milk or their instinctive nurturing behavior won't have kicked in -- and in those cases, kittens can easily die of starvation or cold. Young mothers may have trouble with delivering their babies, too, since their bodies aren't fully grown. Our kitty great-grammie, Iris, had her first litter of kittens when she was only 10 months old, and two of her three babies died because she didn't have enough milk and didn't know how to take care of them.

Thomas: We strongly recommend that you have your cat spayed. She will be healthier and happier in the long run if you do that.

Sinéad: That's right, Thomas. Female cats that aren't spayed stand a much greater risk of developing tumors of their mammary glands and reproductive organs. They also are at a higher risk for accidents and disease due to roaming in search of mates. Unspayed females that aren't allowed to mate become psychologically unstable, and their risk of reproductive organ disease and cancer is even higher than that of unspayed cats that do mate.

Siouxsie: Not to mention that there are so many cats that need homes already! Animal shelters are overflowing with cats and kittens, particularly at this time of year. People all over the country run to shelters in the springtime to dispose of litter after litter of unwanted kittens produced by their escape-artist cats. Or worse, they don't take the cats to the shelter but just kill them by drowning them in lakes or shooting them or other nasty murderous activities.

Thomas: We should also mention that male cats should be neutered, too. Un-neutered male cats spray, roam and fight. They too are much more likely to succumb to disease -- particularly blood-borne diseases like feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) -- because they are constantly fighting and scrapping for territory and for mating privileges. Accidents claim lots of tomcats, too; as they wander in search of mates, they get hit by cars, killed by larger predators, or any number of awful things. And, of course, humans find the aroma of cat spray quite unpleasant!

Sinéad: We know a lot of people don't have their cats spayed because they say they can't afford it. It is true that spaying is expensive (a spay surgery costs about US $150 to US $175 in midcoast Maine, where we live), but the cost of responsibly caring for litter after litter of kittens is a lot higher. The good news is that financial help is available.

Siouxsie: First of all, many animal shelters in rural areas will offer low-cost spay/neuter clinics and low-cost vaccination clinics. Just keep your eye on your local newspaper for information about clinics in your area.

Thomas: The State of Maine has a great program that provides spay/neuter assistance for low-income pet owners. It's run by the state's Department of Agriculture. To be eligible for the program a person must be an adult (18 years or order); be a resident of the State of Maine; be the owner or keeper of the cat or dog being spayed or neutered by a participating veterinarian; make a $10.00 co-payment for a cat or a $20.00 co-payment for a dog to the Department of Agriculture's Animal Welfare Program (AWP); and be a recipient of public assistance such as food stamps, TANF, SSI, Social Security Disability, or MaineCare/Medicaid. Most vets in Maine participate in this program, and will help you get assistance.

Sinéad: Mama says this is paid for by voluntary donations from people filing Maine State income tax, so Maine residents should check the box on their tax forms allotting some amount of their taxes to be put into this program!

Siouxsie: Other states may have similar programs. If you live in some other state or province which does, please e-mail us and let us know. We'd like to help low-income animal caretakers do the best they can to take care of their kitties.

Thomas: Another organization, Pets 911, operates the Spay USA program, which also helps low-income pet owners pay for spaying and neutering.

Sinéad: On our links page, we have more information about financial assistance for low-income pet owners faced with medical emergencies or the need to spay or neuter their animals.

Siouxsie: Good luck, Nancy, and we hope we've been able to help.

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail us at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the material in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.