Animals, including cats, have mating seasons. Cats are typically seasonally polyestrous, meaning that their heat cycles peak during certain months when daylight hours are longer. However, there is a chance that an indoor cat may still go into heat and become pregnant during winter, provided certain favorable conditions are met.
How is this possible? Let us dive in!
What is a heat cycle?
A heat cycle is a recurring period during which female mammals become sexually receptive and ready to produce offspring. Female cats also experience this cycle, but compared with other domesticated animals, their estrus period occurs more frequently. Felines have two to four heat cycles per year, recurring every two to three weeks and lasting four to five days. However, the duration and frequency might vary depending on the cat’s age and breed, and the season. If your cat is not spayed, you might notice that she is always in heat and ready to go!
Young cats become sexually mature at around six to 12 months of age. During her first heat cycle, the cat will signal her availability through excessive meowing, scratching, rubbing, and spraying. This period could last a week or two. Nearby tom cats will likely dash to the location of the female cat as soon as they hear her flirtatious calls and smell the pheromones in her urine. Then, courtship commences and might last a few hours, while the actual mating will only last a few seconds.
Cats in heat are not generally picky about their mates, and might even allow multiple matings. They are actually able to give birth to offspring from different fathers in a single litter!
So, do cats go into heat during winter?
Cats, especially those who live in the wild, are seasonally polyestrous. Although females – or queens – can breed year-round, it is less likely for them to come into heat during the cold seasons for the following reasons:
- The mother cat instinctively knows that kittens have less chance of survival during winter.
- Prey would hibernate to escape the cold, hence food supply will be scarce.
- The daylight is shorter and hunting will be more challenging.
- Due to the extreme temperatures, it would be difficult for the mother cat to find a suitable shelter to protect her babies.
Wild cats tend to have sharper instincts when it comes to the appropriate mating season, and somehow, this survival instinct is also ingrained in the DNA of domestic cats, so it is quite likely that their bodies will withhold estrus cycles until the summertime.
However, for some indoor cats pampered with warm shelter and plenty of food, their sexual behavior can be altered. Extended hours of artificial light in the home can encourage females to have estrus cycles even during the winter season. So, if a male cat lives in the vicinity of your home, you may hear caterwauling and witness some feline breakdancing even in mid-winter, in order to attract the nearby tom cat. The potential suitor will notice the body language and will soon make his advances on your queen.
So, in a nutshell, cats can go into heat and become pregnant during winter, provided they have enough warmth, food, and a potential mate nearby.
What time of the year do cats normally go into heat?
In the Northern Hemisphere, female cats have multiple heat cycles between February and October when the days are longer. Spring and summer is also the ideal period to give birth to a litter, because of the availability of enough food, sunlight, and warm shelter. However, indoor cats and those that live in warmer climates will likely go into heat year-round.
In general, a cat’s mating season will be greatly influenced by temperatures, daylight hours, and the availability of potential mates. That means that cats can go into heat throughout the year; however, there are certain months in which they are more likely to breed. A female cat’s reproductive system will be more active from February to June, and enter a dormant period during winter.
Additionally, while tom cats are always ready for mating action, females will only approve the mating during their estrus periods. Cats also do not go through menopause, which means they can go into heat throughout their lifetime. However, at an older age, the frequency will be less than in their younger years.
What makes cats unique among animals is that both males and females display their willingness to mate. If you own unspayed or unneutered cats, you have probably endured the loud, mournful meowing during mating season.
Female cats also tend to show odd behaviors like frequent rubbing, spraying, rolling everywhere, and adopting an arched-back position as if making themselves ready for intercourse. In short, the queen will do anything to attract a male cat.
Intact males will not hesitate to make advances. Once he finds the queen, the tomcat will cautiously approach her, grasp her neck, and start mounting her. Once the queen is successfully impregnated, she will give birth to kittens 64 to 69 days later.
Queens can remain sexually active even during pregnancy and might allow up to 30 matings. However, as birth approaches, she will lose interest in males and start looking for a private birthing den where she can give birth to her offspring.
What happens during a cat’s heat cycle?
Cats go through different stages during their heat cycle, as follows:
- Anestrus stage – During this period, the cat has not yet entered her heat cycle. She is not actively searching for a male partner and will show no interest in mating.
- Proestrus stage – The cat becomes vocal and affectionate. Her ovaries start to become active as her body prepares for the breeding season.
- Estrus stage – At this point, your cat goes into heat. You will start to notice behavioral changes such as excessive yowling, scratching, spraying, agitation, and an increased level of affection. The cat also starts assuming the breeding position, wherein her front half stays near the ground with her rear lifted in the air. The estrus stage typically lasts between one to two weeks.
- Interestrus stage – Cats enter this stage if they are not bred during their estrus phase. Here, the queen will not show interest in mating and will likely become aggressive to any advances from males.
- Diestrus stage – if the queen is bred during her estrus phase but does not get pregnant, she will enter the diestrus phase. Here, she might behave as if she is pregnant, which creates confusion among breeders. The cat will also not show any interest in mating.
Daylight and heat cycle frequency
Sunlight is essential for all animals. In cats, the amount of sunlight they receive can affect their level of melatonin, a hormone that influences sleep. So, when daylight hours are longer, cats tend to become more active and more likely to go into heat. On the other hand, shorter days increase melatonin levels, inducing sleepiness.
Aside from regulating your cat’s wake and sleep cycles, this hormone also provides a calming effect to help cats manage their stress levels.
Domestic cats vs. wild cats in heat
Wild cats do not have all the privileges that their domesticated cousins have. They need to consider a lot of factors in order to survive the harsh outdoor conditions. For example, they need to hunt for prey to keep themselves nourished and find a warm shelter to sleep during the night. Everything is about survival. Hence, mother cats need to be more precise when it comes to the right time for mating.
Domesticated cats, on the other hand, have everything provided for them – food, warm shelter, extended hours of artificial lighting, and a potential male partner within the household or from a neighbor’s house. For this reason, unspayed house cats can go into heat no matter what season it is.
Behavioral changes of cats in heat
How do you know if your cat is in heat? These are the tell-tale signs you should look out for:
- Becoming increasingly affectionate and demanding of attention
- Excessive vocalization such as yowling and whining to attract nearby tom cats
- Assuming the breeding position
- Rubbing and rolling everywhere
- Decreased appetite
- Trying to escape to find a male partner
- Frequent spraying of urine to leave pheromones to attract males
For most cat owners, this behavior during their cat’s heat can be frustrating and bothersome. Allowing the female to breed with any random males can also risk her getting infections.
So, how do you soothe a cat in heat and reduce problematic behavior?
While these behavioral changes might drive you crazy, it is important to stay loving and patient with your furry friend. First and foremost, there is nothing you can do to stop her from going into heat unless you have her spayed. There are, however, some things you can do to reduce unwanted behavior. These are summarized below:
- Keep your cat indoors to avoid her coming into contact with potential suitors. If you have intact male cats at home, make sure to separate them from your female cat.
- Play more with your cat to exhaust her pent-up energy. You can also buy her new toys to keep her busy.
- Provide a heating pad to keep your cat warm and comfy. Make sure to choose a high-quality, scratch- and a chew-resistant heating pad, such as a RIOGOO Pet Heating Pad, to avoid accidents. Warm towels also work fine if you do not have a heating pad.
- If the behavior becomes too much to handle, consult your vet for advice. He will likely prescribe medications and hormonal injections to calm your cat.
How to tell if your cat is pregnant
If your cat is not spayed, goes into heat, and wanders outside your home, then her chances of becoming pregnant are very high. Watch out for these signs if you suspect this is the case:
- Her appetite suddenly increases. Pregnant cats tend to eat twice as much food to nourish their unborn babies.
- Your cat gains some weight. You will notice about two to four pounds of additional weight as her body becomes heavier with the litter.
- Your cat’s abdomen becomes swollen. Pregnancy in cats becomes more visible in the fifth week, with the abdomen becoming increasingly bigger until the day they give birth.
- The nipples become swollen and turn a rosy color.
- Your cat suddenly stops being in heat. Female cats have recurrent heat cycles every two to three weeks if they do not get pregnant, so if your cat does not display the behavior typical of a heat cycle, she may be pregnant.
The importance of spaying or neutering your cats
There is no clear benefit to allowing your female cat to go into heat unless you intentionally want her to produce kittens. However, if you do not want the hassle and stress of caring for the kittens and the responsibility of homing them, it is better to have your pet spayed.
Spaying is a completely safe procedure performed by a competent vet. Cats can be spayed once they reach sexual maturity, which is around four to six months of age. It is also possible to spay older cats if you do not intend to breed them.
If you get your cats fixed, the unwanted behaviors of heat cycles will also be reduced. This will save you the hassles of cleaning up urine and the sleepless nights you have to endure due to their incessant yowling.
Vets also recommend spaying cats because the procedure not only prevents unwanted pregnancies but also protects pets from serious conditions like breast cancer and uterine infections. Neutering male cats can also be beneficial as it reduces their risk of benign prostatic hyperplasia and testicular cancer later in life.
Wrapping it up
Indoor cats can go into heat during winter because of the warmth, comfort, and abundance of food provided for them in a domestic environment. If a healthy male cat lives nearby, then it is more likely for your cat to become pregnant, even in the winter season.
Wild cats or community cats, on the other hand, will likely abstain from mating during chilly seasons due to their survival instinct. Kittens do not do well in the cold and will have less chance of survival due to the lack of warm shelter and scarcity of food.
If you have an indoor cat and you do not intend to breed her, it is best to have her spayed. Not only is this beneficial for her health; it also saves you the headache of dealing with problematic behavior during her heat cycle and caring for unexpected kittens.
Image: istockphoto.com / Mariusz Wos