Feline abortion: often an unnerving necessity

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: March 31, 2011
Published: May 07, 2007
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You might assume this would be an incendiary topic in the world of veterinary medicine. But it’s not. I’m sure there are plenty of vets unwilling to perform feline abortions but I don’t know any personally. Faced with the choice: terminate a pregnancy in the process of spaying a cat or add to the already huge unwanted kitten population…hmmm…let me think…

I, for one, don’t have to.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t ever.

On Friday I saw a gorgeous grey kitten named Goldie (go figure). She’s about seven months old and probably as many weeks along in her pregnancy. Sixty-three days is full-term so this otherwise tiny cat was getting pretty close to popping. The father? Presumably, a big black neighborhood stray.

Don’t ask how this fiasco came to pass but let it suffice to say that Goldie didn’t really belong to anyone until she got knocked up. A group of neighbors, so far unable to trap the phantom menace, decided to pitch in to make sure a new litter of kittens didn’t populate their cul-de-sac.

The problem? She appeared so close to term I was worried I’d have to deal with the kitten-killing guilt.

I’ve probably performed over a hundred abortions and so far my career as an abortionist has gone unmarred by near-term kitten stirrings or otherwise stress-provoking signs of life. By accident or divine intervention I’ve never had the opportunity to consider whether to abort or not based on the size of the kittens.

I did hear about one vet who did a “peek and shriek,” meaning she opened the abdomen only to find that the kittens were so close to term she couldn’t go through with the procedure. She stitched her back up and let nature take its course.

For the record, I’d never ever do this. This cat’s natural delivery was probably extra-painful and suture-poppingly perilous. Imagine trying to deliver a baby with a recent abdominal incision. I’ve never had an abdominal incision but, having delivered a baby the old-fashioned way, I’m not insensitive to this kitty’s predicament. I would have felt compelled to abort the kittens or attempt to deliver them by C-section.

But I can’t imagine having to try to revive a bunch of kittens who might be just one or two days undercooked. When a gestation is only a couple of months long, one or two days can mean the difference between life and death. And preemie kitten care is not something we routinely engage in. For obvious reasons…

I probably don’t have to explain to you, my Dolittler readers, why aborting kittens of a certain age is fraught with potential moral peril. But others don’t always see it that way. There are so many kittens on the street, they’d argue, how can you conscionably allow them to live when you’re in the ideal position to end their lives?

Theoretically, that may make sense. But there’s something about recognizing the coloration of the kittens’ fur beneath the thin lining of the uterus that evokes the vision of kittens in a plastic bag. And drowning kittens in a bag seems antithetical to the values I pledged to when I took the veterinarian’s oath at graduation.

Consequently, I always pause when I acknowledge a cat’s pregnancy pre-spay. I’ve taken to adding an X-ray to my protocol. If the kittens look full term I’ll send her home. Luckily that’s only happened a couple of times. I hate losing the opportunity to spay her when I have her in my sights but the alternative’s worse—for my conscience.

Goldie was another story. She was so small (about four pounds) and her kittens were so big (dad’s genes were visible on the X-ray) that to let her go full-term on the street might end in her death. If no one’s watching, C-sections can’t be made available, can they?

So I spayed her and carefully wrapped the bulging, four-kitten uterus in a plastic bag. At least I managed to resist the urge to open the uterus to peek. I just didn’t want to know.

Here's an X-ray of an almost full term cat with a belly-full of kittens. See the spines and skulls? I count four kittens.

Summary Image: pregnant cat by yourbartender