What Is the Difference Between Spaying & Neutering?

Both spaying and neutering refer to the surgical sterilization of an animal. Spaying, technically known as an ovariohysterectomy, removes a female's reproductive organs. Neutering, or orchiectomy, removes the testicles. Neutering, though, can refer to the desexing or "fixing" of either gender.

Cat in a veterinary surgery
This cat is undergoing a spay surgery. She'll be fine in no time.
credit: deyangeorgiev/iStock/Getty Images

Spaying is far more complicated than neutering. For either gender, the surgery requires general anesthesia. You can have your pet spayed or neutered by your own veterinarian, or through a spay/neuter clinic that provides these basic services.

Cat Spay Procedure

It's best to spay a cat before she experiences his first estrous cycle, about the age of 6 months. That reduces chances of her developing mammary and reproductive cancers to virtually zero. But cats can be spayed at any age, as long as they're healthy enough to undergo surgery.

Your cat receives pain medication prior to surgery; her abdominal area is shaved and sanitized. After the cat goes under general anesthesia, the vet makes an incision in the abdomen, revealing the reproductive organs. The vet will remove the ovaries and take out the uterus. Then the vet sutures the incision closed in several layers, involving the abdominal wall, the subcutaneous tissue and the skin.

Male Cat Neutering

Male cat neutering is a straightforward procedure. It can be performed on kittens weighing more than 3 pounds. The average age for neutering is about 6 months, just prior to sexual maturity. There's no age limit for neutering cats, although a senior cat must be healthy enough to undergo anesthesia.

The cat receives a pre-anesthesia shot to induce drowsiness and reduce pain. He then goes under general anesthesia. His genital area is shaved and cleaned. The vet makes an incision in the scrotum and removes the testicles, then ties off the testicle stalks. Some veterinarians close the incision with dissoluble sutures; others remove sutures in about a week; some don't seal the incision at all -- it heals in several days. The entire operation is over in minutes.

Postoperative Care and Recovery

In most cases, newly spayed or neutered cats go home the day of the operation. Since the female's is a much more involved surgery, her recovery will take longer. You'll probably receive pain medication to give your spayed cat for several days. Keep her in a quiet, stress-free environment. You might need to put an Elizabethan collar on her so she doesn't bite at the incision. Check her incision daily and call your vet if it begins to appear infected. If it opens, take her to the vet immediately. Your cat should be back to normal within a week or two.

Neutered male cats often bounce back right away, or at least as soon as the anesthesia wears off. Try to keep your neutered -- also known as altered or castrated -- cat quiet for a few days. Don't initiate play or other activities that make him exert himself.

Spay/Neuter Benefits

Cat overpopulation is a serious issue. There are simply too many felines in the world and not enough homes. Fixing your cat is the responsible thing to do -- and it provides benefits to the pet and the owner beyond halting reproduction.

Once neutered, male cats lose the desire to roam, to fight with fellow males over territory and females, and to spray urine as a territory marker. They simply become better pets. Female cats' periodic heat cycles cease, and along with them the aggravations that accompany heat. Depending on the age at which an animal is spayed, the odds of developing mammary or reproductive organ cancer drops precipitously.