Cats in Heat: Everything You Need to Know


Updated: September 23, 2023

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If you have an unspayed female cat, it’s inevitable that she will eventually go into heat. When this happens, it can be quite disconcerting if you’re not familiar with the signs. Suddenly, her behavior and mood will undergo noticeable changes, possibly leaving you concerned about her well-being.

For those who opt not to spay their cat, it becomes crucial to grasp the indicators and reasons behind her heat cycle. This is a perplexing and intricate process for both you and your feline companion, making knowledge a powerful tool to provide comfort and alleviate your own apprehensions.

Feeling a bit lost on where to begin? That’s perfectly fine; we’re here to guide you. Continue reading as we address all your pressing inquiries about feline fertility, heat cycles, and the mating process. By the end of this, you’ll feel well-equipped to care for your cat, whether she’s in the midst of heat or not.

What Is Heat?

“Heat” pertains to the phase in which an unspayed female cat, known as a queen, is open to mating. During periods when she’s not in heat, a female cat is incapable of becoming pregnant and consequently shows no inclination towards mating with a male. The formal medical term for this state is “estrus,” which constitutes just one segment of the multi-stage estrus cycle that a queen undergoes continuously over her lifetime.

Before delving into further intricacies, let’s address the most basic question right from the outset.

What Is the Estrus Cycle (Also Known As “Heat”)?

While not directly analogous to a human menstrual cycle, the feline estrus cycle shares similarities as it involves a recurring hormonal fluctuation linked to reproduction. These hormones exert physical, emotional, and behavioral effects that vary depending on the cycle stage, akin to human cycles.

The specific sequence of the estrus cycle hinges on whether a queen is mated and, if so, whether she becomes impregnated. Nevertheless, each cycle initiates with two consistent stages: proestrus and estrus.

During proestrus, lasting a mere one or two days, the queen isn’t quite ready for mating, but she begins emitting sexual pheromones. These specialized scented hormones, imperceptible to human senses, prove irresistible to unneutered male cats. They signal that she will soon be ready for mating, attracting potential suitors in anticipation of the ensuing stage: estrus.

Estrus, commonly known as “heat,” transforms the queen into a markedly different feline. Her hormonal levels surge, pheromone production peaks, and she becomes physically primed for mating. Over the next three to 16 days (typically around seven), her sole focus becomes locating a suitable mate.

The subsequent events hinge on whether she succeeds in her endeavor to breed. To comprehend these outcomes, a deeper understanding of cat ovulation is essential.

How Long Do Cats Stay in Heat?

It’s important to clarify that while a cat’s entire reproductive cycle, which includes proestrus, estrus, metestrus, and anestrus, spans approximately 3 to 4 weeks, the actual period of “heat” or estrus, when a cat is receptive to mating, typically lasts between four to ten days. This is the specific phase during which a queen is fertile and actively seeking a mate. The remaining stages involve preparatory and recovery phases, but do not indicate receptivity to mating.

What Is Ovulation?

The inception of a pregnancy and the formation of a new life necessitate two types of cells: a sperm cell from the male parent, and an egg cell, or ovum, from the female. The ovum originates within one of the female’s two ovaries, a location beyond the reach of sperm. To facilitate the union of these two cells, the female must release the egg from her ovary, a process known as ovulation.

In humans, ovulation occurs spontaneously, typically happening approximately once a month. In contrast, cats do not experience automatic ovulation. Instead, feline ovulation is prompted by the act of mating; this phenomenon is referred to as induced ovulation.

The act of mating triggers the production of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which in turn leads to an increase in luteinizing hormone (LH). Elevated levels of LH persist for a duration ranging from 12 to 36 hours post-mating, and if they reach a sufficient concentration, ovulation takes place. Often, a single mating does not elevate LH adequately to induce ovulation, so a cat may need to mate three or four times within a day or two to trigger this process.

Following the release of eggs from the ovaries, the corpus luteum remains, a specialized structure that secretes progesterone and estradiol. These hormones play a crucial role in sustaining a pregnancy, particularly in the initial weeks before the placenta assumes the responsibility of nourishing the embryos.

Once a cat initiates ovulation, her eggs commence their journey from the ovaries to the uterus through the Fallopian tubes. Sperm cells can persist for a day or two after mating, during which time they have the opportunity to enter the Fallopian tubes and, with luck, meet the egg cells for fertilization. Fertilized ova, known as zygotes, promptly embark on their developmental journey toward the uterus, a voyage spanning seven to ten days.

Do Cats Stop Going Into Heat When They Get Old?

Unlike human females who experience menopause, a cessation of the menstrual cycle due to declining hormone production, cats do not go through a similar transition in their later years. A cat’s estrus cycle persists throughout her entire life. While factors like overall health and energy levels can influence an older cat’s fertility and behavior during estrus, the cycle remains unchanged. Remarkably, some female cats have been known to conceive well into their senior years, with queens becoming pregnant at the age of 15 years, equivalent to 76 human years—far beyond the typical age of menopause!

If your female cat is not spayed, she will continue to go into heat for the entirety of her life. As she ages, she may exhibit higher levels of fatigue during heat cycles, giving the impression that the cycle may be diminishing. However, she retains the ability to become pregnant, and it’s likely she will still attract attention from neighborhood tomcats every few weeks as she enters estrus once more.

What Happens After Estrus?

A cat’s estrus phase concludes either after ovulation takes place or, if ovulation didn’t occur, naturally ends after about seven days. The duration of a cat’s heat cycle can vary widely; some may experience it for only three or four days, while others may endure an estrus phase lasting over two weeks. Every cat and every cycle is unique. The subsequent phase depends on whether a successful mating transpired.

In the event that the queen was mated enough to induce ovulation and her eggs were fertilized, she enters pregnancy. Pregnancy commences at the moment of fertilization, and it interrupts the estrus cycle until shortly after she gives birth. Over the next approximately nine weeks, her womb becomes the nurturing abode for one to ten developing kittens. Depending on how many different males mated with the expectant mother, the litter may have multiple fathers.

There are instances where ovulation occurs but fertilization does not take place. This could be due to various factors, ranging from an infertile male to genetic incompatibility or simply unfortunate circumstances. In such cases, the corpus luteum continues to function, albeit at reduced levels of hormone production, mimicking a pregnancy state. This pseudo-pregnancy, or diestrus, persists for about 40 days.

During diestrus, the cat may display some early signs of pregnancy, like enlarged nipples or an increased craving for affection. However, typically, there are no overt indications of pseudopregnancy, aside from the prolonged interval before the cat reenters heat.

Subsequently, if the queen did not mate or did not ovulate, she transitions into the interestrus phase after her estrus phase concludes. In interestrus, she exhibits no inclination for mating and returns to her regular physical and mental state. The duration of this phase varies widely, spanning from a few days to up to three weeks, with an average duration of 10 to 14 days.

Following the completion of pregnancy, diestrus, or interestrus, the cat reverts to the proestrus stage, commencing the cycle anew.

When Do Cats Begin Experiencing the Estrus Cycle?

Much like the human menstrual cycle heralds the onset of puberty, the feline estrus cycle marks the beginning of this developmental phase for cats. Unlike human teenagers, who may grapple with growth spurts and acne, female cats primarily exhibit puberty through their estrus cycle.

Cats attain sexual maturity over a broad range of ages, with the average falling between six and eight months. The precise onset of feline puberty hinges largely on breed, although it can also be influenced by other genetic factors and even the time of year they were born (refer to the section “Do Cats Have a Breeding Season?” for further insights).

In general, short-haired breeds typically reach sexual maturity earlier than their long-haired counterparts. For instance, Siamese cats are renowned for their early puberties, often experiencing their first estrus cycles at a mere four months of age. Conversely, Persians are seldom considered sexually mature before the age of twelve months.

A helpful guideline is that larger breeds undergo a more extended maturation process compared to their smaller counterparts. It’s not uncommon for Maine Coons, the largest domestic cat breed, to reach eighteen months of age before experiencing their first estrus. Conversely, the average mixed-breed cat, being half the size of a Maine Coon, typically hits puberty in around six or seven months.

Do Cats Have a Breeding Season?

Cats undergo a recurring cycle of going into heat approximately every three weeks. However, depending on your location, your cat may experience several months of anestrus, a period when the estrus cycle pauses, and she does not go into heat. This seasonal variation is tied to light levels and, consequently, the changing seasons.

For a queen to sustain her estrus cycle, a minimum of 10 to 12 hours of light per day is required. In the absence of sufficient light, her body interprets it as an unfavorable time for reproduction – in nature, shorter days signify colder weather and subsequently, less food availability. Queens exposed to less than eight hours of light daily experience an abrupt cessation of their estrus cycle; approximately two weeks after returning to longer light exposure, the cycle resumes.

This means that from September to January in the northern hemisphere, cats may experience anestrus during the fall and winter months, during which they do not go into heat. Various factors influence this, including the specific location and intensity of the seasons, as well as the breed of the queen and whether she roams outdoors.

Seasonal changes are more pronounced closer to the poles and less so near the equator. Cats residing farther from the equator are more likely to enter seasonal anestrus due to the shorter days and colder climates that trigger this reproductive pause. Conversely, cats living in proximity to the equator typically experience more consistent day lengths and temperatures, resulting in a lower likelihood of anestrus.

Long-haired breeds are significantly more prone to experiencing anestrus compared to short-haired breeds. While the exact cause is not definitively known, it is theorized that they may be genetically predisposed to enter anestrus in anticipation of colder temperatures, which their dense fur is designed to shield them from. Regardless of their current geographic location, around 90% of long-haired cats undergo seasonal anestrus, compared to under 40% of short-haired cats.

Interestingly, the source of light doesn’t appear to be a significant factor for cats in relation to anestrus. Even indoor cats not exposed to natural light will still enter anestrus if their artificial lighting is reduced to less than eight hours a day. However, cats with outdoor access are more likely to be influenced by diminishing day lengths, especially in regions closer to the poles.

About 50% of queens experience seasonal anestrus, while the other 50% maintain a year-round estrus cycle. Even in higher latitudes, your queen may continue to go into heat throughout the winter, especially if she resides in a warm and well-lit environment. However, if she takes a break during the winter months, there’s no cause for alarm – it’s perfectly normal.

All About Your Cat in Heat

What Are the Signs of Heat?

When your queen enters her heat cycle, even if you’ve never witnessed it before, you’ll undoubtedly notice. It’s like a complete shift in her personality: even the most calm, relaxed, and well-behaved cat can transform into a needy, vocal, and restless troublemaker during estrus. While the exact symptoms may vary from cat to cat, there are several common indicators to be aware of.

Typically, cats reserve screaming and yowling for moments of pain or intense conflict. However, queens in estrus don’t adhere to these norms. Their singular focus is on mating, and if that entails being vociferous, so be it.

While to us, their piercing yowls may sound alarming, to male cats, they’re an enticing call. Your queen is well aware of this and intentionally broadcasts her cries, knowing they’ll be heard by tomcats from considerable distances. In response to this mating invitation, males are compelled to trace the source of the sound.

In the throes of estrus, your queen will display an unusual level of neediness. She’ll avidly rub against everything in sight, including you, as if imploring for attention and affection. Her quest for physical closeness serves another purpose: the rubbing activates her pheromone glands, marking everything with her scent, signaling her readiness to mate.

When you pet your queen in this state, you might observe her reacting differently than usual, especially if you touch her hindquarters or back. She’ll lower her front half to the ground, elevate her rear, shift her tail to the side, and tread with her hind legs. This posture mirrors the mating position, and she instinctively adopts it when stimulated on her highly sensitive spine and rear.

Estrus can lead a queen to lose interest in food and become restless, pacing to and fro while seeking opportunities to venture outside. She possesses an uncanny ability to sense the presence of males nearby, and when in heat, she’ll go to great lengths to reach them. When she’s not gazing out of windows or pawing at the glass, you’ll likely find her strategically positioned near the front door, poised to dash out the moment it’s opened.

Finally, spraying is another telltale sign of estrus, and often the most vexing for us humans. While male cats are typically associated with urine marking, females in heat can exhibit this behavior as well. The reasons behind this will be explored in the subsequent section.

How Do You Stop the Estrus Cycle?

The only permanent solution to halt the estrus cycle and its associated symptoms of heat is to spay your cat. Spaying is a surgical procedure that entails the removal of the ovaries and uterus, rendering the cat sterile. While it may sound significant, it’s an exceedingly safe and effective procedure, with very few cats experiencing complications.

Ideally, the best time to spay your cat is before she undergoes her first estrus cycle. Some veterinarians may perform spaying when cats are as young as eight weeks old. However, many prefer to wait until the cat reaches three or four months of age or attains a weight of around four pounds. Regardless of the timing, early spaying thwarts the surge of hormones associated with puberty, consequently averting the behavioral challenges often linked to this phase.

Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that it’s never too late to spay your cat. While most vets prefer not to perform the procedure while a cat is in heat due to the swelling of reproductive organs during this period, there’s no upper age limit for spaying. Regardless of when it’s done, the outcome remains consistent: the cessation of the estrus cycle, and thus, the end of heat cycles.

How Do You Help a Cat in Heat?

Regrettably, there are limited measures you can take to alleviate the symptoms of estrus. The queen’s innate drive to reproduce is so potent that she’s likely to perceive any attempts at intervention as nuisances, assuming she even registers them at all.

It’s advisable to avoid petting her back and rear areas during this time, as they become highly sensitive, and excessive stimulation could lead to inadvertent scratching or biting. Instead, focus your affection on her head and neck, which she’ll likely be seeking in abundance.

If your cat experiences a loss of appetite while in heat, consider providing her with more calorie-dense food, such as canned kitten food, to ensure she receives adequate nutrition. Prolonged periods without eating can potentially lead to severe illness; some studies suggest that kidney damage may start after just 48 hours without food. If her appetite is diminished, offer extra treats and encourage her to eat as much as she comfortably can.

While in heat, your queen will feel an intense urge to venture outdoors, driven by her most primal instincts. Cats are already known for their agility, stealth, and cunning, but these qualities are particularly heightened during estrus. She may attempt to tear through window screens or make a dash for the door whenever it opens. However, it’s much safer for her to remain indoors.

The outside world poses a multitude of risks, especially when a cat is in heat. The unfamiliar males she encounters and potentially mates with could transmit various diseases, and heightened hormone levels can sometimes lead to aggressive encounters. For your cat’s well-being and safety, it’s imperative to keep her indoors while she’s in heat.

Why Do Cats in Heat Spray?

As we previously discussed, pheromones play a vital role in feline communication, serving as scented hormones that convey various messages, particularly regarding sexual availability. Cats release them daily through actions like rubbing their faces, paws, sides, and tails on objects, humans, and other animals. However, the most potent pheromones are exuded in urine. When a cat is in heat and seeks to broadcast the most compelling message to attract potential mates, she often resorts to spraying as her method of communication.

While a queen’s urine spray can target virtually anything, she typically opts for vertical surfaces and upholstered furniture. This choice is pragmatic, as it’s easier for her to aim at vertical objects, and fabric tends to absorb scents more effectively, ensuring her message lingers. Curtains, sofas, and hanging coats are all prime choices from her perspective. However, if these options are unavailable, she won’t hesitate to use walls, bookshelves, or even her unsuspecting owner’s legs.

It’s worth noting that not all queens in heat engage in urine spraying, but a significant number do. It’s an unfortunate but natural aspect of estrus, one that cannot be reliably prevented or controlled. When a cat is in heat, her determination to attract mates knows no bounds, and spraying proves to be the most effective means. The pheromones in her urine serve as a powerful olfactory message, broadcasting information about her age and health – akin to a scent-based dating profile for felines.

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How often does a cat go into heat?

Cats can go into heat as frequently as every two to three weeks, particularly during the warmer months. However, this can vary depending on factors like breed and individual cat.

What are the signs that a cat is in heat?

Common signs of a cat in heat include increased vocalization, restlessness, affectionate behavior, raised tail and rear end, and potentially marking territory with urine.

Is spaying the only way to prevent a cat from going into heat?

Spaying, or ovariohysterectomy, is the most effective method to prevent a cat from going into heat. However, there are temporary solutions like hormonal treatments that can be discussed with a veterinarian.

How long does a cat stay in heat?

A cat’s heat cycle typically lasts about 4 to 7 days, but it can extend up to 2 weeks if she doesn’t mate.

Can a cat get pregnant during her first heat cycle?

Yes, a cat can become pregnant during her first heat cycle, which usually occurs between 5 and 9 months of age.

Is it safe to let a cat outside when she’s in heat?

It’s generally not recommended to let a cat outside when she’s in heat, as she may attract male cats and potentially become pregnant. It’s safer to keep her indoors.

What are the potential health risks if a cat goes through multiple heat cycles without mating?

If a cat goes through multiple heat cycles without mating, she may be at a slightly higher risk for certain health issues such as uterine infections or mammary tumors. Spaying can help mitigate these risks.

Conclusion

Understanding and addressing your unspayed female cat’s heat cycle is crucial for both her well-being and your peace of mind. The signs of heat can be startling if you’re unfamiliar with them, but armed with knowledge, you can navigate this natural phase with confidence.

Opting for spaying is the most effective way to manage your cat’s heat cycles and prevent potential health risks associated with multiple cycles without mating. However, if you choose not to spay, there are alternative approaches to consider, such as hormonal treatments, to help regulate her reproductive cycle.

Remember, a cat’s heat cycle is a normal part of her biological processes, and providing her with a safe and comfortable environment during this time is essential. Keeping her indoors can prevent unwanted pregnancies and potential encounters with male cats.


Michael R

Michael R

I'm a publisher and editor at Cat Guide 101. I imagine that since you’re here, you likely own a cat — or two! — so helping you better understand them is my aim. I'd like to invite you to check out our about page to learn more about the Cat Guide 101 story.

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