Already this year, I have personally dealt with none other than five teenage cat mothers. In January, I trapped the first three in a park. Between them they were carrying 16 kittens. It was a very early and sobering start to the season.

The second time was a month ago when a mother and her three surviving offspring (a fourth had been snatched by someone) were rescued from a carport. We learned that the momma was allowed into the house, but not the kittens which were between 3 and

4-weeks-old, covered with fleas and still very much in need of mother’s milk. The irresponsible owners wanted the cat and one kitten back, after we had had everyone  “fixed” and vaccinated, of course.

Once the family was in foster care, it didn't take long to realize that momma was inexperienced. She wasn’t always very interested in answering the hungry mews of her babies, and I even saw her hiss, spit and swat a couple of times when one approached her looking to suckle. This was obviously her first litter, and I estimated her age to be between seven and nine months. She finally was spayed and sent home before the optimum eight weeks of nursing her kittens was up.

At present I am fostering yet another 7-month-old and her three. With the kittens about four  weeks old and gestation 63 days, that means mom was impregnated at four months. On top of that, this little mother only weighs five and a half pounds while an average adult cat weighs closer to 10. The family was being given away free on the radio.

This mother, too, at times showed signs of irritation and aggression towards her kittens. I then caught her flirting with one of my (neutered) male cats. With these early signs of going back into heat, I had her spayed. She came back calmer and still able to nurse her litter, but is finding the bathroom too restricting. She will be up for adoption next week, even though the kittens should nurse another month.

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Sexual maturity in cats normally occurs at about seven months, but  it often occurs much earlier. As with humans, just being able to reproduce does not make an adult. Adulthood for a cat is reached at one year.

Felines can reproduce until death. On record, the oldest cat to give birth was in her 30th year, and it was her 218th kitten. Another long-lived and prolific mother produced 420 kittens. Then there was the poor feline who dropped a litter of 19 kittens, 15 of which amazingly survived.

With statistics like these and the stories related above, is it any wonder that we advocate early (prior to six months of age) spay/neuter? It is safe and it is the responsible action to take.

At present we are overwhelmed with rescued kittens and are in desperate need of fosters. Anyone who has an interest in helping out for a few weeks, contact me through our website.

Marci Kladnik is a board member of Catalyst for Cats, a Santa Barbara County nonprofit organization dedicated to the welfare of feral cats. For more information, call 685-1563 or visit www.catalystforcats.org.

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