Perhaps you’ve been sitting on your couch, enjoying your favorite show, when you’ve heard the unmistakable sound of a cat howling or “caterwauling” outside. At first you’re scared that there is an injured stray cat somewhere. The cat definitely sounds like they are in pain. But what you could be hearing is the sound of a female cat in heat.
In this article we’ll discuss what it means when a veterinarian says a cat is “in heat”. We’ll also discuss if this means if the cat is painful and what they are feeling.
What is a heat cycle?
When veterinarians refer to a cat’s heat cycle, we are referring to a female cat’s reproductive cycle and when they are able to become pregnant. Scientifically this is referred to as estrus and it can be thought of similarly to a human female’s menstrual cycle. Estrus is considered the period of sexual receptivity. In other words, the period in which a female cat will accept and breed with a male.
The entire cycle includes the following phases: proestrus, estrus, interestrus, diestrus, anestrus. Estrus is the state of the cycle we refer to when we say a cat is in heat.
Cats will experience their first heat cycle around six months of age. And yes, cats can get pregnant during their first heat cycle! This is one of the reasons why getting cats spayed and neutered at an early age is so important. Cats are considered a polyestrus animal, which means it has numerous heat cycles per year.
A cat may, but does not typically have bleeding or spotting during a heat cycle. They also do not ovulate (release an egg) unless they are bred.
Cats are also considered “long day breeders” which means they typically only go through heat cycles when there is 12 or more hours of sunlight. This means that most cats will be going through heat cycles in the spring and summer months.
Estrus will last an average of seven days. As stated above, it can occur for the first time in a cat less than one year of age and typically will occur for a cat’s lifetime.
Because estrus is considered the period of sexual receptivity, a female cat will both display behaviors and try to prepare her body for pregnancy. Cats who are in heat want to attract a mate. Therefore they are often much more vocal than usual – they can be heard howling as they try to attract a mate. Female cats will also release pheromones to try and attract a mate. This is why they may be seen rubbing on furniture or along doorways, walking with their tails up and/or urinating to mark their scent.
If cats see or smell a male cat, they will often walk with their backs arched, tails held high and “present” their back ends to the males. This lets the males know the female is in heat.
Is the cat howling because of pain?
In short, no. If the howling is just a cat in heat, she is not feeling pain. Rather she is howling to attract a mate. If the howling you hear outside is not a cat in heat, you may want to consider contacting your local animal control.
If you recently adopted a kitten or took in a stray cat that starts to howl, consider that they may be experiencing their first heat cycle. If they are rubbing on household objects, walking with their tails held high, or constantly sitting at the back door howling, your female cat may just be in heat.
What if there is blood?
If the bleeding is coming from the vaginal area and occurs from a normal estrus cycle, then it’s not typically a painful process. A lot of cats do not bleed during their cycle so it’s important to note when the bleeding started and how severe it is. If your cat has recently finished her cycle, is acting painful when you touch her abdomen, is lethargic or otherwise unwell, the bloody discharge may be a completely different problem. Please seek veterinary care if your cat is acting painful, lethargic, or sick.
Length of a heat cycle
Heat cycles will continue for a female cat’s lifetime unless they are spayed. As mentioned above, a cat will go through numerous cycles in a year. The exact number of heat cycles a cat goes through depends on the length of the days where you live and if a heat cycle results in a pregnancy or not. Veterinarians strongly recommend spaying as cats can be bred and have multiple litters per year. If you do not own a cat but you hear a stray (or multiple) howling outside, contact your local animal control or shelter. There are many organizations that will perform spays and neuters on outside stray cats to help control the population.
In conclusion, a typical heat cycle, or estrus, in a cat is a non-painful process. The howling, arched back and behavior changes are normal for a cat wanting to attract a mate.
Featured Image Credit: rihaij, Pixabay