Normal Reproductive Behavior of Cats

An integral part of feline social behavior revolves around sexual reproduction. Sexual development in cats begins at puberty. The age at which puberty begins differs between the sexes and between individuals and breeds.

Sexual and sex-linked behaviors are important to males and females with respect to procreation. It is important to understand the form that these behaviors take in adults and to realize that they are not always completely abolished by neutering. Also, it is useful to note that sexually dimorphic behaviors (behaviors considered typical to a particular sex) are not unique to males or females. Rather, these behaviors are expressed to a greater degree in one sex or the other.

Development in Females

Females generally reach puberty between 3 and 9 months, though sexual maturity may occur later in feral animals. Female cats are polyestrus, which means that they go into estrus (heat) many times in the course of a year. Under natural conditions, most queens cycle between January and March, and again from May to June in the northern hemisphere.

However, much individual variation exists. Reproductive cycles are affected by length of daylight. Indoor animals exposed to artificial lighting may come into estrus throughout the year if they are not breed.

When females are in estrus ("heat"), they become exceptionally affectionate and rub themselves more than usual against people and objects. During estrus there is a gradual build up of estrogen in the bloodstream. As estrus progresses, the queen will push herself along the floor with her head to one side, roll and rub herself on the floor, deflect her tail to one side and assume a posture of lordosis (a mating posture in which the head and rump are raised and the back is arched downward). Vocalizations ranging from soft purring to throaty caterwauls accompany the female's sexual behavior.

Development in Males

Males become sexually mature between 7 and 12 months. Feral males may not fully mature until they are 15 to 18 months old. Intact males go through a period of springtime sexual excitement, or "rut," that diminishes to a lower level of sexual activity during the fall. During the "rut" period, males spray urine by backing into vertical objects, treading with their hind legs, and twitching the tips of their tails. Outdoor males engage in many more fights during the rut than they typically do at other times of year.

Mating Behavior

When a female goes into heat, her smell and vocalizations advertise the fact across entire neighborhoods. If tomcats pick up the cues, they will assemble around the females and engage in noisy, violent catfights with rivals. Courtship between males and the female is ritualized and may last several hours before copulation takes place. Cats about to mate perform pursuit and avoidance behavior. Once the female is ready to mate, she will assume the typical lordotic posture. Premature attempts to mate on behalf of the male will result in an intensely aggressive response from the female. When both parties are ready, the male grasps the female by the skin over the nape of the neck. At the moment of ejaculation, the female emits a loud piercing cry, hisses, and aggressively swats at the male. It is presumed that the female's aggression is a response to the pain of withdrawal, since males have a barbed penis. It is also thought that the barbs on the penis help to induce ovulation, the biological climax of the mating sequence. After mating, the queen rolls on the ground in apparent ecstasy while the male retires to a discrete distance to lick himself clean. The mating process is often repeated many times and females may mate with more than one male over the course of a single heat. As the female comes out of heat, the males depart. Male cats do not normally participate in parental care of their young.

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This article was excerpted from the CD entitled "Behavior Problems in Cats – Etiology, Diagnostics and Treatments" by Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Professor of Clinical Sciences at Tufts University, School of Veterinary Medicine, © 1998, Trustees of Tufts College. To buy a full copy of the CD, contact .