Copyright 1996 - 2004 Sarah Hartwell

This article is part of a series looking about cats and cat care in Britain from the late 1800s through to the 1970s. It has grown since originally written in 1996 (web version 1999) and was split into separate web documents in 2003 (to speed loading time) with some overlap between the parts. Each part is split into topics and the contents of each topics are ordered chronologically as far as possible with added "then and now" commentary. In this way I hope to keep it an ongoing work! It is interesting to note how attitudes have changed, as well as how our knowledge has increased.



Cox-Ife, Grace; "Questions Answered About Cats" (1947)
France, Sydney W; "Siamese Cats" (1949)
Soderbergh, P M; "Your Cat" (1951) (using 3rd edition; 1959)
Soderbergh, P M; "Pedigree Cats, Their Varieties, Breeding and Exhibition" (1958)
Tenent, Rose; "Pedigree Cats" (1955)
Jude, Albert Charles; "Cat Genetics" (1955) (reprinted 1967, 1977)
Mery, Fernand; "The Life, History and Magic of the Cat" (1966) (originally published in French)
Cats Protection League (various leaflets from 1960s & 1970s)

Other sources are as credited in the text with additional personal information and commentary.


In 1893, an anonymous "A Veterinary Surgeon" wrote "The Diseases of Dogs and Cats" described the neutering of male cats. The cat was immobilised by rolling it in a blanket and the operation carried out without anaesthetic. This vet did not recommend the "Wellington boot" whereby a cat was thrust face down in a boot and the operation carried out quickly with a small knife (giving rise to the modern day joke of "welly boot and penknife" when booking a tomcat in for neutering).

He wrote "Anaesthetics, especially in the shape of chloroform and of ether, are frequently advised for operations on cats. Unless absolute immobility of the animal is required for the success of the operation, I do not like the use of anaesthetics. To begin with, even carefully given, they are dangerous. I have found that animals to which I have given an anaesthetic are more afraid of me afterward than those which I have simply had held properly and produced pain upon. The pain they understand as done for their good; the use of the anaesthetic they do not understand [...] The subject if young, may be found at play a few minutes afterwards, alike unconscious of his loss and ungrateful for the trouble he has been saved in the future."

An owner could insist on anaesthetics of chloroform or cocaine at additional cost. These were relatively dangerous and it was easy to overdose the cat. It was not until later that spaying of female cats could be considered. The castration of males was considered most barbarous in the late 1800s and early 1900s, while the spaying of females was considered humane into the 1930s. Consequently there were many unwanted kittens and it was quite acceptable to dispose of these by drowning. Drowning was even considered quick and painless for adult cats. It was believed that after one gasp underwater, the brain formed carbonic acid which made the cat unconscious before it finally drowned Although drowning is most definitely not quick and painless, sadly it is even today considered a convenient method of disposal..

During the 1930s, an adult cat could be put to sleep using chloroform. The owner was advised to give the cat a saucer of milk or some other treat. While the cat was busy eating, a large foot bath or bell jar must be placed over her. Chloroform-soaked cotton wool should be placed under the rim. After the cat became unconscious. It must be left for at least half an hour. In some cats, this only caused unconsciousness, probably because the jar was not airtight. To ensure that the cat was indeed dead, it must be placed face held down in a bucket of water for several hours.

In 1935, the British cat population was estimated at 6 million and an estimated 250,000 unwanted cats and kittens were euthanized. Up until the 1930s, spaying was rarely carried out as it was considered dangerous, difficult, inhumane and extremely cruel. When females had kittens, owners were advised to destroy all of the kittens except for one, to stop the mother fretting. The litter was left with their mother for a few hours while they suckled so that the owner could choose which one to keep, preferably a male. The other kittens would be removed when the mother left her bed.

It is not easy to tell the gender of hours old kittens. If the supposed male kitten turned out to be female, it would often be taken taken to a cat shelter to be destroyed. At some shelters, the majority of the cats destroyed were females which had been accidentally kept. More cats were destroyed becasue they were pregnant than because of illness or injury.

The CPL gave useful advice in a 1935 issue of "The Cat": "When getting a kitten, choose a male; when he is about six months old, take him to a Veterinary Surgeon or dispensary for a little operation. This will make him a better house pet, less inclined to stray. If your cat is a female, do not keep all her kittens, only one Tom, take the others to a shelter to be put to sleep."

NEUTERING IN THE 1940S and 1950s

Neutering was far less common in the 1940s than it is today, and certainly a lot riskier. Although the operation was available, many owners were resigned to patching up battered tomcats. According to France in 1949, Siamese males were known to be terrific fighters, more so than other breeds, and must never be allowed to come in contact with other toms "or there would be a dreadful combat, after which one might find the Siamese covered in blood, but which is not his own, and soon washes off, and he is usually found to have very few marks of the battle to carry".

Cox-Ife wrote in 1947 that a male cat could be neutered at any age over three months. The age of three to four months was considered best. If mature a general instead of a local anaesthetic is required. With female cats, the best age is between three to eight months and always requires general anaesthetic. A female can still be spayed up to two weeks after mating i.e. if the pregnancy is not too far advanced. At ages beyond eight months, the risk to the cat was considered greater.

Cat care books of the day sometimes contained advice on disposing of unwanted kittens. Cox-Ife condemned drowning, even of newly born kittens, as cruel and prolonged. She advised that disposal should instead be done as soon after birth as possible by gently pressing the kitten’s nose and mouth into a pad of cotton wool on which a little chloroform has been sprinkled. The chloroform will take effect in a very short time. Readers unable to obtain chloroform were instructed to get the vet to dispose of the kittens.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s (and in some areas well into the 1960s), cat writers noted that euthanasia of adult cats was often also be chloroform, using the "lethal box" in which the cat was placed with sufficient chloroform to overcome it and then kill it.

According to Katharine L Simms in "They Walked Beside Me" (1954): "A vet told me he speys five or six queens every week and has never yet lost a case ... I believe it is now becoming possible to have queens speyed by injection, with no danger or ill-effects." Sadly Ms Simms was incorrect, sterlisation by injection still hasn't been perfected some 50 years after she wrote those words.


In 1951, Soderberg wrote the following regarding castration of male cats:

"No entire male Should be kept unless he is to be used for stud Purposes Un-neutered males are usually a nuisance to the neighbourhood in which they live, and the frequent fights in which they become involved sooner or later spoil their appearance. It is always unwise to generalize, but one can say that the neutered male is less pugnacious than the entire male and is also inclined to be much less of a wanderer. Probably the earlier the neutering is performed, the less likely is the animal to learn the arts of war and indulge in long expeditions of discovery.

The operation of neutering is a simple one and is rarely followed by complications. It must, however, be carried out by a qualified vet. The animal is normally sufficiently developed at the age of three months for this operation to be possible, but if it is delayed until the cat is over six months, the law demands that a general anaesthetic shall be used."

It is interesting that a general anaesthetic is not legally required for cats under the age of six months. He notes (albeit with regard to pedigree cats) "males rarely sire until they are over a year, and many of them do not become fathers of families until they are two" and continues:

"During recent years the neutering of females, which is called "spaying" has become much more common, and although the operation is more serious than in the case of the male, the percentage of losses is very small indeed. Opinion is divided as to the best age for carrying out "spaying ", but if your vet, is used to small animals, you can safely take his advice which will be the result of his own experience. Some breeders feel that a female should be allowed to have one litter before she is spayed, and there is much to be said for this point of view on humanitarian grounds alone."

This of course is at odds with modern accepted wisdom that what a female cat has never had, she cannot miss - a philosophy more humane than that stated, with all good intentions, back in 1951.

"It is necessary to be able to sex kittens as soon as they are born, for if any are to be destroyed this is the time to do it. If you have a kitten to give away, it will find a home much more easily if it is a male. Although, as is explained earlier in the chapter, females as well as males can be neutered, the spaying of a female is at least twice as expensive as the neutering of a male. As a result female kittens are often unwanted when they grow up, and unless homes a already booked for them when they are born, unwanted females should be disposed of during the first twenty-four hours after birth."


According to Rose Tenent in "Pedigree Cats" (1955), when choosing just a pet cat (rather than a breeding cat) the choice of male or female is a case of owner preference and that either could be neutered for a very moderate fee. Tenent wrote "Please do not imagine that this minor operation is unnecessary, in fact it is most advisable. A full male, however well behaved in kittenhood, will sooner or later develop the unfortunate habit of spraying on the curtains and furniture, which will make it impossible for you to keep him with you in the house. In addition, he will almost certainly wander off in search of females, often perhaps remaining away for days at a time. When, eventually, he does return he may be torn and bleeding, the worse for fights encountered on his travels.

In the case of a female you will have the continual problem of unwanted kittens, for unless a queen is mated, obviously she will seek a husband of her own choice. Mongrel kittens can be as beautiful as thoroughbreds, but the fact remains that it is extremely difficult to find good homes for them. There is also the point that it may be cruel to subject a queen to the attentions of every tom-cat in the neighbourhood, while to shut her up and never mate her would most definitely be cruel.

The best age to have a male kitten neutered is between three-and-a-half and four months. Provided this operation is performed by a qualified veterinary surgeon, or at a recognized animal clinic, there is little or no risk. In fact, you can be almost certain that a few hours afterwards your kitten will be full of mischief and have forgotten all about it. But do not postpone the operation until the cat is six months old or over, for by that time it ceases to be a minor one, and the law rightly insists that a general anaesthetic be given.

The neutering of a female cat is known as ‘spaying’. It would be wrong to suggest that this is anything but a serious operation for it entails the removal of the ovaries. Nevertheless, today it is done so frequently and effectively that the risk is almost negligible. The most suitable age for spaying a kitten is from four to six months, although it can be done successfully any time, even after the first litter. A general anaesthetic will be necessary, so do not feed your pet beforehand, although a little milk or water and glucose can be given. Most veterinary surgeons will allow a spayed kitten to return home the same day, feeling that the little patient will make quicker progress in her own surroundings. No special attention apart from warmth is usually necessary, but it would not be advisable to allow the kitten to get over-excited. Spayed females are charming creatures. In fact many cat lovers claim that they are even more affectionate than neutered males."


In 1935 the CPL had advised: " If your cat is a female, do not keep all her kittens, only one Tom, take the others to a shelter to be put to sleep."

The advice on the keeping of female cats is the most interesting part by modern standards, and probably the part which has changed most over the intervening thirty years: "Though we do not recommend people to keep female cats, unless they are prepared to look after them and their kittens ... we give a few hints on their general treatment." It goes on to describe calling, pregnancy and kittening and dwells on the thorny topic of removing and destroying litters of kittens.

"It is very difficult to make any hard-and-fast rules on the vexed question of when and how to remove unwanted kittens ... It is generally though best to remove them singly after each new arrival. If none are to be kept, a fresh bed should be prepared in another room, and the mother-cat should be coaxed into this as soon as it is certain the whole family has arrived. She should be given some warm milk, Benger's food etc., to induce her to move, but she should not be handled. The old bed must be taken away so that nothing is left to remind her of her missing family. Extra fuss and petting will help her to forget."

"If the owner wishes for one kitten a tom should be chosen. It is easier to find homes for one or two kittens than four or five. So unless it is absolutely necessary for the mother's sake please do not keep more than two kittens from each litter and be sure they are males. The queen should not be deprived altogether of families - one kitten might be kept once in two years say [depending on mother's temperament]. Some fret for a long time after the loss of their kittens, whilst others seem quite indifferent. ... for several days after the arrival of a family, if no kittens are kept, the queen needs an extra nourishing diet, but less milk should be given."

It also mentions physical problems which lactating, but kittenless, queens may suffer and advises veterinary treatment in case of serious trouble. At that time, prevention of kittens in the first place by spaying was not commonplace and owners of queens are begged "to think of the many homeless cats living in misery owing to the actions of their owners, who, rather than take the responsibility of having kittens humanely put to sleep ..." give away kittens without considering the kitten's future. "Fully two-thirds of the cats destroyed at shelters are queen, not wanted because they are 'too much trouble'."

Though this advice sounds callous by modern standards, it was geared to the prevailing attitudes of the times. This leaflet advised the control of the cat population by disposal of all unwanted kittens at birth by a vet or other qualified individual, it being kinder to put them to sleep at birth than at three of four months old; by neutering toms when they are between three and five months old, although fully grown toms may also be neutered (emphasising that they remain good mousers after neutering) and by spaying females between three and five months old (though again it states that this can be done in adulthood, even if they have had kittens) with present day methods ensuring almost a hundred per cent success (one wonders what method is in use!). It is interesting that the age given for neutering/spaying is three to five months, rather than six months, since today some authorities are recommending a return to the earlier age for neutering.

"Cat Care", another CPL leaflet of around the 1960s has a brief section on removing kittens from mother cats (which this time FOLLOWS the section on neutering and spaying). In this leaflet, the CPL appears to be pushing the concept of spaying female cats, rather than allowing them to breed and removing the kittens.

"SPAYING (NEUTERING) is one of our hopes of curbing the great increase of unwanted cats and kittens and is therefore, of vital importance."

"Note:- If no kittens are to be kept, remove them, directly after the last one is born and give the mother about two teaspoonfuls of salad oil mixed with sardine oil, which she will probably lap up herself. This can be repeated the following day, but she must be given milk and water now and again as the oil makes the cat thirsty. Give a light diet with NO meat for the first four or five days, and afterwards a nourishing diet to build up her strength. If kittens are kept the mother needs extra food, etc"

"If cat owners co-operate with us in this matter they will be helping to solve the unwanted cat problem, and until the above methods [neutering and spaying, I assume] are universally adopted the number of homeless and starving cats and kittens will not be diminished ... It is the thoughtless, though kindly people who will not try to learn simple facts about cats, who are responsible, for the misery of thousands of homeless animals.

Later CPL leaflets on "Cat Care" and "Basic Care of Cats and Kittens" reduce this emphasis on destroying unwanted kittens, instead suggesting aborting and spaying females who are less than half way through their pregnancy, while at the same time amending the neutering age to "over five months" for spaying. It is interesting to note that current leaflets completely omit the suggestion of aborting pregnant females, possibly because this is a rather emotive point and considered distasteful by many cat owners (although many cat workers find it an unpleasant necessity). The age given for castration remained at three to five months until relatively recently, and the advice began to reflect the fact that cats were moving indoors - castration stops tomcat odour!

(Note: Dates of CPL leaflets are approximate since the earlier leaflets are undated).


You are visitor number