Pet Wellness and Breast Cancer Awareness—Spay Early

Poor Mimi doesn't even get a break to eat.

Poor Mimi doesn't even get a break to eat.

Mimi, above, arrived in my home on July 30, 2007, with four black fuzzballs who were three days into this existence. To my knowledge, she was about four years old and had had several litters of kittens, though this litter would be her last. Incidentally, this is the Fantastic Four at their inglorious beginnings.

I frequently give Mimi’s belly a little extra rub top to bottom, not because she likes it, but because I like her.

Feline breast cancer is the third most common cancer among cats after lymphoma and skin cancer. In a 2005 study done at the University of Pennsylvania, “cats spayed prior to 6 months had a 91% reduction…those spayed prior to one year had an 86% reduction in the risk of mammary carcinoma development compared with intact cats.” Spaying between 1 and 2 years of age only reduces the risk by 11%, and after two years it doesn’t reduce the risk at all. Actually giving birth to kittens doesn’t change the risk factors, either. The average age of diagnosis is 12 years.

While breast cancer in cats is more common than in humans, it is far less common than it is in dogs, but cats have the highest malignancy rate and the lowest survival rate of all three.

That myth that “it’s good to let a cat have a litter of kittens” has no basis in fact, and can be a death sentence since spaying your cat before it even goes into heat the first time is the best way to avoid breast cancer, not to mention reducing the risks of injury and disease a cat faces while out carousing. So, for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we consider breast cancer in our cats.

What about all those rescued mama cats?

And those of us who have rescued cats or adopted cats who have borne even one litter would be wise to keep an eye open for symptoms.

Several years ago, friends of mine rescued a “torbie”, or tortoiseshell tabby kitty, from a warehouse in a grim section of town. She was unspayed and had apparently had several litters of kittens, though who knew what had happened to them.

The urgency to rescue stemmed from her living conditions and the fact that she appeared pregnant at that time. It turned out that she was not pregnant, but may have recently been nursing kittens as her abdomen from chest to hips felt symmetrically lumpy and her stomach was a little bloated; this may have also been mastitis or symptoms of her heat cycle. The spay went fine and she was back on her feet in no time, the abdominal abnormalities disappearing completely. They estimated her age was about 4 years, though later they would find this was probably younger than her actual age.

Perhaps from dodging forklifts and semis and living in inhospitable conditions, she was cunning and driven to find food anywhere it could be found, though she acted as if she’d always lived indoors and taught the young’uns how to steal food, which had never occurred to any of them. My friends practically had to hang the cat food from the ceiling to keep her from getting into it and threatening to burst her stripes.

A year or so after she joined their household, one of them felt lumps on her torso/belly when they picked her up and thought the lumps felt “different/odd/new/wrong”. Taking a good guess that this was pretty serious, they took her to the vet and discovered that she had feline mammary cancer. The vet guessed her age at six or seven then, a little older than the first guess. One surgery and a course of chemotherapy later and she was fine for two years, but a little relapse never went completely into remission again, the cancer spread, and she lost her battle on February 11, 2010.

The monthly breast exam for your kitty

That monthly mini-exam is a good practice for any animal guardian to undertake, just running your hands over your cat’s body feeling for lumps or bumps or cuts or any abnormality that has simply shown up. Check for tender spots, look closely for any change in movement, study your cat’s eyes and even smell its breath. Of course, you may end up with your nose surgically removed since many cats don’t care for being handled, especially in vulnerable areas like the belly, but do your best without too much bloodshed. I’ll have more about this in the second part of Karen Sable’s article this Friday, including a downloadable checklist for the exam.

Especially for the girls, check for any changes in those eight mammary glands, which are usually completely symmetrical and slightly reducing in size from chest to hips. Look for changes in the nipples or any discharge, uneven lumps or swelling and tender spots. At least we humans only have two mammary glands to worry about.

The spay scar



When I started this exam routine years ago, I found a small lump on my Sally’s belly and made a special appointment with the veterinarian to get what I was sure was a horrifying diagnosis. I wrung my cold and trembling hands as my veterinarian felt the area of Sally’s belly I’d indicated, only to learn that it was scar tissue on her spay scar. So, get to know her spay scar, which is usually tiny but may contain a little hardened scar tissue, and it may also be a site of cancerous growth, so check for changes.

Mimi, wonder mom of the Curious Quartet and 20 other kittens, gets her little exam at least once a week. Kelly, too, was a rescued stray/feral and apparently gave birth to a few litters of little Kellies. I’m not certain of her age, but she was likely between 3 and 4 when she came to me, and she’s been with me since 1997 so she’s about 17 now. It’s taken Kelly years to find a certain comfort level with people though she is very friendly, and the regular tummy exam is a little weird for her but she has grown to enjoy it.

For more information on the disease and treatment, reference these two articles: Association between ovarihysterectomy and feline mammary carcinoma,, and Mammary Cancer in Cats,

When to spay, and early spay and neuter

It used to be that six months, the approximate age a cat reached sexual maturity, was the best time to spay a cat. There were two problems with this. First, cats often went into heat before this age to the surprise of their owners who thought Fluffy’s biological alarm clock wasn’t set for four months. Second, people wanted to adopt young kittens and were sent home with an assurance of a free or low-cost spay for Fluffy included in the cost of adoption. Somehow, Fluffy wouldn’t get back in time, sometimes never.

Many shelters now spay and neuter cats when they reach two pounds, about eight to ten weeks, what I call the “two pounds or two months rule”, and they are not available for adoption until then. They recover quickly and are still cute kittens, frisky and full of fun, and no one needs to worry about their biological clocks.

Low cost spay programs at shelters

If you’ve taken in a stray or adopted a kitten who is not spayed or neutered, there’s no question that spaying or neutering is expensive. Here are a few options to help keep it affordable. All programs have an application process with an income level that determines the final price of your cat’s surgery. In many cases the surgery alone can be done for under $50.00.

In Pittsburgh, you can contact Carol Whaley of the Low Cost Spay/Neuter Program (LCSN) at Animal Friends at 1.800.SPAY.PGH or or on their website at

The Western Pennsylvania Humane Society has a three-level program that includes spay/neuter as well as vaccinations and microchipping, detailed at For more information call: North Shore Shelter, 412-321-4625, e-mail; Elizabeth Shelter, 412-751-2010.

The Animal Rescue League offers Spay Day dates set by the veterinarian twice a month, always on Wednesdays. Cost is $45.00 & includes spay/neuter, FVRCP & a rabies vaccination. All surgeries are by appointment only, and they fill up fast so don’t wait. The information can be found on their website at Please call 412-661-6452 x 211 to make an appointment!

Many shelters in the counties around Allegheny also offer deals like those above.

Low cost spay and neuter clinics

Outside of the shelters, the Spay Neuter Clinic at the corner of Frankstown and Rodi Roads always offers low-cost spay and neuter as well as other basic services. Call 412-244-1202 for information and an appointment, or visit their website at The practice is actually one of several which originated in Arizona specifically for the purpose of low-cost spay/neuter, so most of the information is about those offices, but you’ll find the Pittsburgh office with a phone number, and, most importantly, you can download their price list.

And outside of the Pittsburgh area, you can do a search on Low Cost Neuter and Spay at (search by city, not zip code, it’s more successful), Love That Cat at, or Spay USA at

2 Comments on “Pet Wellness and Breast Cancer Awareness—Spay Early”

  1. Andrea says:

    Great catch, Bernadette. Breast cancer awareness month is a perfect time to discuss feline breast cancer. And your points are spot on. Hope everyone takes your advice.

    • animalartist says:

      Thanks, Andrea–it’s all in memory of Callie, who at least had the chance for a few good years between the warehouse and the cancer. It’s also a great opportunity to push the idea of spaying early!

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