How to Tell If Your Cat Is in Heat and Tips to Calm Her
How to Tell If Your Cat Is in Heat
"The increased vocalization is the hallmark sign of a heat cycle in a cat. This is a natural signal showing the cat is calling out for a mate. Owners sometimes think this is a sign of pain when in reality, it's simply biology," says Jim D. Carlson, DVM, CVA, CVTP, and owner of Riverside Animal Clinic, in the northwestern Chicago suburb of McHenry, Illinois. "The signs of a present heat cycle also include raising of the tail and arching the back and a more affectionate personality toward humans and other cats," continues Dr. Carlson. The only way to prevent a heat cycle is through spaying your cat.
Owners sometimes think this is a sign of pain when in reality, it's simply biology.— Dr. Jim D. Carlson, DVM, CVA, CVTP
Your Cat in Heat
Only females go into heat (the technical term is estrus). Male cats, on the other hand, smell a female cat in heat and will fight over the right to mate with her. However, they do not go into heat themselves.
If you've never seen a cat in heat before, you may be in for a shock. Your cat's personality will suddenly seem to change overnight. Her body is undergoing significant hormonal changes—and not surprisingly, she will experience significant behavioral changes, as well. To the untrained eye, it may appear as if she's suddenly gone crazy!
Let's take a look at how to tell if your cat is in heat and what you can do to calm her down. We'll also discuss spaying (the only preventative measure), and we'll address many frequently asked questions about breeding seasons, heat cycles, and much more.
Signs That Your Cat Is in Heat
There are a number of clear signs that your cat or kitten is in heat:
- Increased vocalization: Suddenly, your cat is a lot louder than usual. She may meow day and night, and her vocalizations may even sound closer to yowls or moans. This is referred to as "calling," and by doing this, your feline is making her presence known to potential suitors.
- Rubbing her head or bottom and rolling around: She can't seem to walk by anything without rubbing her head or bottom on it—whether it's the couch, the wall, or your leg. She also demonstrates an increased interest in rolling around on the floor. All of these behaviors allow her to spread her scent on everything around her, which is another way to attract mates.
- Increased affection: Related to the above, cats in heat may want to constantly rub up against you, to the point where it may seem that she is always underfoot.
- Spraying: Yes, female cats can spray, too! When she's in heat, her urine will contain increased levels of pheromones, which male cats can sense. Spraying, therefore, is another way of advertising her receptivity. (Note: Spraying can also be a sign of a UTI, so if you aren't sure she's in heat, it's best to take your cat to the vet!)
- Escape attempts: The cat who is normally content to lounge around indoors now suddenly seems hyper-focused on getting outside. She may stare intensely out the window, run to the door as soon as you make moves to open it, and otherwise search for ways to flee. Her goal is to find a mate.
- Over-grooming the genital area: We all know cats like to groom themselves, but you may notice an intensified focus on grooming the genital area, which may appear moist and swollen. You may even notice a clear, watery vaginal discharge.
- Mating position: Your cat may frequently assume the mating position—also called the standing estrus posture—as if a male partner might suddenly appear. She will press her front elbows against the floor, crouch with her back legs, push her buttocks into the air, and hold her tail to the side to expose her genitals. She may also "make biscuits" with her back feet (which looks a bit like marching or treading). It is thought that the movement of the back feet may assist with ovulation.
- Restlessness and pacing: She can't seem to stay still for a minute; she seems restless and uncomfortable. You may notice that she focuses her pacing specifically around doors, windows, or pet flaps.
A cat experiencing a heat cycle can be alarming to pet owners who sometimes think something's wrong with their pet.— Dr. Jim D. Carlson, DVM, CVA, CVTP
What Does a Cat in Heat Look Like?
My Cat Is in Heat! How Do I Calm Her?
There isn't a lot that you can do for your cat when she is in heat, other than making an appointment to get her spayed ASAP (though the vet/clinic will likely want to wait until she's out of heat to do the surgery). Here are a few ways you can help distract her or make her feel more comfortable, as well an important tip to make sure you don't end up with an unwanted feline pregnancy.
- Isolation: Keep your cat away from males. If she sees a male (through a window, for example) or otherwise senses his presence, she will become even more excitable. She is likely to try to escape the house during this period, so it's very important to keep the doors and windows closed, the pet flaps locked, and the curtains drawn, if necessary.
- Attention and physical contact: Offer your kitten or cat plenty of attention and physical contact when she is in heat. This will help to calm her down and ease some of her anxiety and restlessness. Try stroking, petting, cuddling, and brushing, if she'll let you.
- Extra playtime: Similarly, playtime is important. Your kitten will be restless and uncomfortable while in heat, and the distraction and physical exertion during playtime may be just what she needs.
- Warmth: Some cats/kittens in heat like to sit on a warm, wet towel or washcloth, or a slightly warm heat pack. Just be careful that the temperature isn't too hot, and never leave a hot or plugged-in heating pad under your cat. It can warm up gradually and cause burns.
- Clean litter box: Cats like to mark their territory, and they're especially likely to do so when they're in heat (this is one of the ways they indicate their availability to males). By keeping the litter box clean and odor-free, you are encouraging her to mark it—rather than the rest of the house. Be sure to avoid using ammonia-based cleaners, though, as these can stimulate increased spraying behavior.
- Music: This idea may sound a bit unlikely, but some cats actually love listening to music! Try playing classical or smooth jazz, and see if the melodies seem to have a calming effect.
- Catnip: Some cats are calmed by catnip during this time; however, other cats do not respond well to this herb. It's best to do a trial with just a small amount to see if it helps.
- Herbal remedies: There are some herbal remedies that purport to calm cats that are in heat. Their effectiveness and safety have not always been verified, so the best practice is to consult with your vet if you are considering this type of remedy for your feline.
- Pheromone products: First introduced in the United States in 2001, pheromone-based products have been used to help address feline anxiety-related problems such as spraying, scratching, and aggression. It is not clear whether it is effective for cats in heat. Consult with your vet for a medical opinion.
Lock Those Doors!
Watch the doors carefully. Naturally, your cat's desire to go outside to find a mate will be strong, so be very watchful when leaving or entering the house to make sure she doesn't escape.
Spaying: The Only Long-Term Solution
The only way to prevent a cat from going into heat is to have her spayed as a young kitten—before she reaches maturity (around 5 months old). The youngest she can be spayed is usually around 8-12 weeks, or she must weigh at least two pounds. Once spayed, she will not go into heat again.
If you have an adult cat who has not yet been spayed, it's not too late! Cats can be spayed at any age, though it may be best to wait until she is not actively in heat. Consult your vet to determine the best time to spay your adult cat.
Benefits of Spaying
According to the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), there are many benefits to spaying your feline:
- She won't go into heat. Your cat won't have to experience the frustration of not being able to mate when her biology is compelling her toward that goal. And as a pet parent, you won't experience all of the headaches of her fertility cycle: the yowling, urine marking, escape attempts, and all of the other behaviors discussed above.
- She will live a longer life. The procedure helps lower her lifetime risk of uterine infections and breast tumors. In cats, these types of tumors are malignant in 90% of cases.
- You will save money. The cost of the procedure is much less than the cost of caring for a litter of kittens.
- You will help control the cat homelessness crisis. In the United States, millions of healthy cats don't have a home. Unfortunately, many of them are euthanized.
The only way to prevent a heat cycle is through spaying your cat.— Dr. Jim D. Carlson, DVM, CVA, CVTP
Where Can I Go for Spaying?
There are many low-cost spay and neuter clinics, as well as regular veterinarians, who will spay your cat for you. In the United States, the ASPCA maintains a handy low-cost spay/neuter program finder page. All you need to do is enter your zip code, and the site will show you all the clinics in your area.
By spaying or neutering your pet, you’ll help control the pet homelessness crisis, which results in millions of healthy dogs and cats being euthanized in the United States each year simply because there aren’t enough homes to go around.— American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
FAQs: Cats in Heat
When do cats start going into heat? At what age?
On average, kittens reach maturity when they are around five months old. After that point, if they are not spayed, they will begin going into heat. Some kittens may reach maturity even earlier (as young as four months), and some kittens reach maturity a bit later.
What is a "queen"?
A mature, unspayed cat is called a queen.
How often do cats go into heat?
Cats are what are called seasonally polyestrous, which means that they go through multiple heat cycles during a single breeding season.
When is the feline breeding season?
This is determined by various factors including temperature and daylight hours, but generally speaking, the breeding season occurs when the days lengthen to at least 10 hours of sunlight. Depending on where in the world you are, this season could last anywhere from six to nine months, or more.
How long does each heat cycle last?
Within the breeding season, cats will continuously cycle in and out of heat. Each period of heat lasts several days, with an average length of six days. During this period of time, she will exhibit significant behavior changes.
How many heat cycles per breeding season?
Typically, a house cat will go into heat a few times a year. Because house cats enjoy safe, healthy lives with plenty of available resources such as food and water, they are fertile and naturally go into heat more often (sometimes as often as every few weeks).
Feral cats go into heat less frequently—usually around twice per year. In colder climates, it tends to occur when the seasons change to spring and fall; and in warmer climates, it tends to concentrate around the summer months.
Can a cat cycle in and out of heat all year round?
Yes, this can happen. Cats who live in tropical regions may be susceptible to this pattern, as well as indoor cats (anywhere in the world) who are exposed to a lot of artificial light.
At what stage of heat can she get pregnant?
At any stage. Cats are what are known as induced ovulators, which means that the act of mating stimulates ovulation.
Is there any way to prevent a heat cycle?
The only way to prevent your cat from going into heat is to have her spayed.
How Can I Calm a Cat in Heat?
Sources and Further Reading
Eckstein, Sandy. "Pet Behavior Problems: Can Pheromones Help?" Pets.WebMD.com. Retrieved March 8, 2019.
"The Female Cat in Heat: The Signs and Symptoms of Feline Estrus." October 19, 2009. Pet-informed-veterinary-advice-online.com. Retrieved March 8, 2019.
"How to Help Calm Down a Cat in Heat." Catalogical.com. Retrieved March 8, 2019.
Llera, Ryan, BSc, DVM; and Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH. "Estrous Cycles in Cats." VCAHospitals.com. Retrieved March 8, 2019.
Travis, Helen Anne. "Cat Facts: How Long Are Cats in Heat?" PetMD.com. Retrieved March 8, 2019.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.