The Feline Heat Cycle

Breeding require a good knowledge of the feline heat cycle.  This is important because if left unsupervised, cats can breed really fast and really easy, sometimes as early as six to ten months old, which is soon after the female reaches her first heat cycle.  This is far too young to keep the female cat healthy, and is also the reason why overpopulation – especially among stray cats – is a big problem.

Cats are seasonally polyestrus, which means that they can come into heat several times during a year, usually in the spring and summer, though some may cycle multiple times during a calendar  year.  Cycling is initiated by increased daylight, but indoor cats who are exposed to trong artificial light can potentially cycle year round.  And cats will continue cycling repetitively until they breed, so you might find a number of toms hanging around outside your door several times in weekly succession if your cat is not bred.  The feline’s heat cycle usually involves a repetitive cycle of fertility and sexual receptivity, which are driven both by seasons and hormones.

The cat’s heat cycle happens in stages.  The first stage, or proestrus, can last anywhere from 1-4 days.  This will involve some behavioral changes in your female cat.  You might find her rubbing constantly against furniture or against your leg, yowling or persistently vocalizing (calling), licking her genital region, or raising her hindquarters and moving her tail from side to side (lordosis).  Sometimes there will be a clear discharge from her vagina, increased urination, and she may spray on some vertical surfaces.  Of course, some cats may not display any of this calling behavior, and they are what are known as silent callers.  What does seem constant is a certain restlessnes and a need to escape and get out of the house to find a mate.  During proestrus, however, there will be no mating, and the female will usually prevent this by holding her tail between her hind legs to indicate her lack of receptivity.

The second stage, or estrus, is when actual breeding or mating takes place.  She finally becomes receptive to sexual activity, and this can last for an average of 7 days.  Mating itself may last for only 1-20 seconds, but during estrus, the queen will allow multiple toms to mate with her, and mating can take place repeatedly over the next 24-48 hours, so it is not uncommon for a litter to be fathered by more than one tom.  This is referred to as superfecundity.

Cats are induced ovulators.  This means that the act of breeding stimulates ovulation.  Repeated breeding thus ensures ovulation.  It is important during these initial stages that you manage to confine your queen to the house to avoid her mating with other cats.  Once estrus starts, you may want to leave her and the stud alone for as long as she allows mating.  The success of breeding varies, but in some queens, it may take several matings before ovulation is induced.  You may want to provide sufficient room and board for both the queen and the stud during this time, as repeated mating will likely ensure greater chances of ovulation and pregnancy.

If a cat is not bred, a cat’s heat cycle will become longer and more frequent.  It is never wise to allow a queen to call three times in succession without being bred.  Aside from increasing the chances of cysts forming in her ovaries, it may lead to simultaneous release of all the mature eggs she had been carrying up to that point, and which were never released for lack of breeding.  This can lead to difficulties of her carrying too large a litter, or the production of “old” eggs that can result in congenital defects in the kittens.

During the time when your queen is not in heat and you do not think she is ready for pregnancy and motherhood, you should learn the best ways of managing your cat’s fertility.  As her cycle will only repeat every two or three weeks (sometimes sooner) if she is not bred, you can only keep her confined inside the house for so long.  Some ways of managing fertility include:

  • Hormone use
  • Mechanical stimulation
  • Service by a vasectomized male   

            Consult with your veterinarian as to the pros and cons of each of the methods recommended above.

If a cat is not bred, she enters an interval called interestrus, which lasts for some 2-3 weeks (sometimes sooner), before entering a new heat cycle.  If she was bred but did not become pregnant, she enters a stage called diestrus, in which there is no reproductive activity.  If the mating was successful, however, the pregnancy will last for an average of 63 days.

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