If you find a cat who's all tatted up and you're wondering if she's joined some cat biker gang, take heart. Cats are frequently tattooed when spayed. There are other methods of letting others know the cat is spayed, such as ear notching, but tattoos work, too.
Is She or Isn't She?
When a female kitten is spayed, a small incision is made in her abdomen and her reproductive organs are removed. The incision is then closed with surgical glue or stitches. As the kitten grows, the scar becomes almost invisible as it stretches and thins. A veterinarian looking at an adult female cat cannot always tell if the tiny scar he sees on the cat's belly is a belly button, well-healed wound or the result of surgery for something other than spay. Before universal methods to indicate spaying has been done, vets had to anesthetize cats and open them up to see if they were intact. Ultrasounds and X-rays are not effective in determining if a cat has been spayed. The universal methods include ear-tipping, tattooing and microchipping. Each vet has her own preferred method.
Tats for Cats
There are many reasons why a female cat who has just been spayed should be marked in some way. Alley Cat Allies, an organization dedicated to helping stray and feral cats, advocates clipping off the tip of the cat's left ear. This helps with community efforts to address the cat overpopulation problem. Homeless, stray or feral cats, if not sterilized, will reproduce at an alarming rate. To stop the reproduction of more and more kittens, these cats are captured and sterilized. With a male cat, it's easy to see if he's been neutered because his "equipment" will be missing. But with a female cat, it's not obvious that she's been spayed. So ear-tipping, a universal practice among vets, tells rescuers that the cat has already been spayed. Vets who ear-tip do not tattoo.
The Tatted Cat
Some vets find the idea of cutting off healthy ear tissue unprofessional or unethical, so they prefer to use other methods. Ear-tipping is the only method that allows rescuers to see if a cat has been sterilized without having to get too close to the cat. Other methods require handling the cat, something done with great difficulty when dealing with feral cats. Microchipping, for example, requires capturing the cat and scanning her for a microchip, which will have a record of the cat's sterilization. Collars and ear tags indicative of a spay can come off and present a danger to outdoor cats. Tattoos, while a good idea for owned cats who are unlikely to become homeless, are not the best option for wild cats because it requires catching, sedating and shaving the cat to find the tattoo.
Inky Dinky Do
Not all vets tattoo after spaying a cat. Those who do employ several methods. The ink is usually black, blue or green, as long as it is clearly visible and does not blend in with the flesh. Some vets use a tattoo gun, others use a technique involving a needle and syringe. Tattoos were once placed on the cat's ear, but not everyone knew that it was an indication of sterilization, so the universally accepted site is on the abdominal area where the spay surgery would typically take place. The tat can be a thin S-shaped line or other identifying mark.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.