I imagine most of you won’t find this topic amusing but I can’t help presenting it here by way of soliciting your impressions. Here’s the deal: Over on VIN (mostly for vets only), there’s a thread about a vet who “spayed” her first male cat.

Well, not exactly…she just started to, making an abdominal incision and seeking out a set of tubes that weren’t there…before realizing it was a boy cat whose invisible reproductive innards she sought. In the wake of her mistake, this mortified veterinarian wanted to ask US, her colleagues, if we’d ever committed such a blatantly stupid act.

Well…My name is Patty Khuly and I’ve “spayed” a male cat.

The first (yes, technically more than one) was an older, longhaired tomcat with hypoplastic testicles. They were tiny. He really looked like a mature female in every other respect.

That’s my excuse but, truth be told, I didn’t perform a full physical before anesthetizing him. He was a feral cat (in for sterilization only). I got into his abdomen and rooted around (cursing the fact that I couldn’t find the uterus) before realizing my horrible mistake.

The other one? Another feral—this one a young, bilaterally cryptorchid male (both testicles undescended). Again, I’d failed to check him out fully beforehand. This time the tech saved me after she’d scrubbed his belly and found two little lumps (his testicles, thankfully just under the skin instead of lurking in the abdomen). OK so technically I didn’t attempt to spay him by opening him up but I would have had someone else’s vigilance not stayed my hand.

(By the way, those of us who do lots of trap-neuter-release colony work don’t often even get the chance to get a good physical in. It’s all about tranquilizing the wild beast and asking questions later. )

So you understand how it can happen, here’s some background: It’s hard to confuse a male dog for a female. But it’s shockingly easy to confuse a boy for a girl kitty, especially if you take an owner’s word for it (and don’t do a thorough check yourself).

Because the typical physical exam in a kitten doesn’t dwell on the reproductive anatomy, and because the testicles on a kitten are little things until about month four or five, your surgery schedule at month six might say “spay” if you’re not careful.

The first time this happened to me in a non-feral it was my aunt’s cat. She’s a cat person. I took her word for it. The spay was on the schedule. Again, he was longhaired and the fuzz obscured the obvious. Again, a tech caught the mistake—this time before anesthetizing him, but late enough so that my foible became the brunt of a week-long inside joke.

It’s happened to almost every vet I know. And if those of you non-vets reading this think you would never commit the same heinous mistake…you’re wrong. It’s just too easy to do.

Based on the sixty-plus comments in this thread on VIN, it would seem that “spaying” a male cat only proves that you’ve done enough feline spays and neuters to qualify for this popular club: The club of veterinarians with enough experience to have seen and made the most obvious mistakes. There’s even talk of designing a T-shirt to celebrate this particular brand of human stupidity.

Don’t get me wrong—we’re not pleased to have put cats through an unnecessary procedure. Indeed, far from it. God knows we take these mistakes very seriously. But we are aware that having done so makes us more sensitive to how things can go wrong. In fact, I think it makes us better at what we do in the long run. If nothing else, it puts us in touch with our frail humanity. And the humility that comes with this knowledge can only be a good thing.