Growing up in rural Southern Idaho, at a time when spaying and neutering of barn cats was unheard-of, this veterinarian-to-be got one of the most visible and certainly most vocal “birds and the bees” lessons available.
My earliest sex education was courtesy of the barn cats that were mating right under my bedroom window.
Duke was a big, black longhaired tom that lived in the shadows of our farm. His mistress that night was Punkin, the orange tabby barn cat that would sit on her haunches to drink milk arching across the barn straight from the cow.
Looking and sounding more like a brawl than a breeding, the actual mating took only a few seconds to complete. In retrospect, the courtship between Duke and Punkin was certainly more leisurely, taking place in a complex ballet of body behavior in and out of the farm buildings and haystacks and lasting a few hours.
When it comes to sex, the male cat (tom) and female cat (queen) are romantically shackled and shaped by genetic and biological patterns forged over millennia, but ever changing to today’s environment.
Like many species, the male’s mating motor is always revving, while the female cat ovulates only during the breeding season from January or February to October or November. The queen is able to bear young as early as 7 months and is fertile until 7 to 9 years of age.
However, what makes cats unique among companion animals is that once in season (estrus), they are induced to release eggs from the ovary by the physical act of mating.
About 20 percent of the cats have a pre-heat where they make caterwauling noises (shrill, discordant, like a cat siren), rub up against anything and everything, roll, tread in place or claw themselves forward on the carpet while dragging slightly elevated hindquarters. More than once I had an anxious cat owner call in the middle of the night saying their cat was in extreme pain.
After a few questions to confirm they were in estrus, I told them this feline break dance is simply a body-language way of attracting a partner.
The mournful meowing and body language are fine “up close and personal,” but when the female cat needs to attract a boy cat at a distance, they put up the olfactory equivalent of billboard advertising. The female cat has scents called pheromones in her urine that give suitors notice as to her fertility and location.
The male cat reaches puberty around 6 months of age, and fertility can last 14 years or more. There are several secondary sexual characteristics in tomcats that add to their breeding success.
You can identify an intact male cat by the thick neck, fleshy cheek jowls and muscles that help win battles with rival males. But the most important characteristic is not easily visible.
The male cat’s penis is barbed and looks like a fleshy pink Christmas tree of sorts. As he withdraws from the female, barbs on the penis stimulate the lining of her vaginal vault, triggering a neuroendocrine reflex that leads to her releasing eggs from her ovary to be fertilized.
Even if the male cat, or tom, smells her urinary cologne, hears her flirtatious voice and catches sight of her coquettish dance – all signs of receptivity – he still approaches with caution, and only after she approaches him does he mount her.
During copulation, the female will scream and attempt to break free. In a judo move of sorts, the male grasps her by the neck with his teeth to prevent her from attacking sensitive parts.
Although the stalking courtship may have taken hours, the mating lasts but a few seconds.
After the breeding is complete the tom typically skedaddles while the female has a so-called “after reaction” where she’ll roll or thrash around like a fish out of water and clean herself.
A female may allow up to 30 matings, and queens aren’t picky as to whom or how many times. Because they allow multiple males to mate, there may be offspring from a variety of fathers in a single litter, but each individual kitten has only a single father.
The pregnant female cat remains active from conception to birth, a period of about two months (64 to 69 days).
As birth approaches, the female retires to a secluded birthing den (in the haystacks when I was a kid, or might be inside closet or under armoire today), where she gives birth quietly and efficiently. For momma cat the operative word is “shhhhhh,” as it’s important to stay quiet to not alert predators, and afterwards, momma cat eats all the evidence of the birth (placenta, plus kitten’s urine and feces) so as to cloak evidence of the new family.
If you’re a kitten, forget crying out for daddy for two reasons.
One, the toms are deadbeat dads and don’t participate in the parental care of the young.
Two, in natural colonies, the toms can be mass murderers of newborn kittens, and the females will cooperate to protect the litter even if it’s not theirs. Call it a feline neighborhood watch, if you will.
In the end, the birth of kittens is a beautiful experience to witness but one that typically should be watched on Animal Planet, not witnessed in person.
Why? Because except in the case of very rare or valuable breeds or bloodlines, we already have too many homeless cats, and cats that are spayed or neutered very early in life (between 3 to 6 months), don’t roam as much, aren’t as aggressive, and don’t suffer from nearly as many medical problems, including cancer, and as a result, are happier and healthier.