Without a doubt, kittens are among the cutest baby animals around. Cuteness doesn't mean every kitten will get a proper home, though, and far too many kittens and cats end up in shelters and, often, dead because no one wanted them. Preventing the birth of kittens for which there will be no homes is one of the best reasons to have a pet cat altered.
Animals who have been altered have either been spayed or neutered. Spay is the common term for an ovario-hysterectomy, the surgical removal of a female animal's uterus and ovaries, rendering her sterile. Neuter is the common term for castration, which renders a male animal sterile by one of several methods.
Altering offers a number of health benefits. If done before a female cat's first heat, it eliminates her risk for cancers of the female reproductive system and greatly reduces her risk for mammary cancer. It also eliminates the chances for pyometra, a potentially life-threatening infection of the uterus. It eliminates the male's risk for testicular cancer.
Altered cats make better pets, too, because the annoying behaviors linked to the urge to reproduce are prevented. An intact (un-altered) male cat will mark his territory—your home, inside and out—with his unmistakably stinky tomcat urine. He will wander in search of females and fight with other tomcats, which puts him at risk for serious injury or death from cars, wounds and infections, and other dangers of life on the road.
An intact queen may also spray urine, and she'll yowl her yearnings loudly and nonstop when she's in heat, which can be as often as every other week for 7 to 10 days at a time. This yowling will drive you and your neighbors to distraction and bring a gang of spraying, brawling suitors to her (your!) door. Inevitably, she'll have kittens, and their well-being and futures are your responsibility. All in all, an altered cat of either sex is a healthier, more pleasant pet than one who wants to procreate.
Ideally, a male kitten should be neutered no later than 6 months, after his testicles descend from the abdominal cavity into the scrotum but before his urine takes on the strong odor of an adult tom and he starts spraying. A female should be spayed if possible before her first heat, which can come as early as 5 months of age. Adult cats, too, can be altered, of course—better later than never!
The cost of altering varies, depending on where you live and the individual veterinarian. Free or low-cost altering programs are available in many areas. For information, contact your local shelter or veterinarians.