Determining whether a cat is male or female isn’t as easy as you might think. This is especially true if the cat has yet to reach maturity, is already neutered, or isn’t social enough to let you take a closer look at their genitals.
Coat color, coat pattern, and even behavior won’t help. Taking the cat to a vet will be your best strategy to get a straight answer, but you can also take an educated guess by considering the size of the cat’s head and other prominent facial features.
Male cats, especially those that are not neutered, have noticeably larger heads than females. Their snouts, cheeks, and whisker pads are also usually bigger and more distinctive. Here’s why.
Hormones are the main reason why male cats have big heads. The male sex hormone, testosterone, does the same thing for cats as it does for humans.
In terms of body size, testosterone is responsible for muscle development and strength. As cats mature, their bodies produce more testosterone, and this allows them to grow bigger muscles all over their bodies.
Testosterone also triggers the release of other growth hormones that contribute to bone growth, bone density, and high levels of bone marrow.
An intact (not neutered) adult male cat’s skull is noticeably larger and thicker than that of a female due to all of these hormones working together to prompt continual growth. When you combine big muscles with a thick skull, you get male cats with markedly large heads.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. There are certainly female cats that grow up to be especially large. Their size is more likely a result of genetics and lifestyle habits than testosterone, however. A cat’s size will also depend on their breed.
A female Maine Coon will almost always be bigger than a male Scottish Fold. And because head size is related to overall body size, the female in that pairing will also have the larger head.
Are There Advantages to Big Heads?
Hormones don’t only make a cat’s head extra large, they also contribute to the overall size of a male cat. In general, males are larger than females.
Their bones are longer and denser, and they typically have more muscle. All that brawn is useful when a tomcat needs to hunt down dinner and defend itself from other cats and predators. But are there specific advantages to having a particularly large head?
When you look at an intact male cat, you’ll notice his big head, and he might also have large cheeks that look more like jowls, a prominent snout, puffed-up whisker pads, and a blocky-looking forehead.
It’s impossible to know for sure whether these facial features evolved for a specific purpose, but most researchers theorize that a male cat’s large and full-looking face is meant for protection.
Erin Katribe, the medical director at Best Friends Animal Society says, “We generally assume it’s for protection from fighting. The face is definitely a commonplace for fighting wounds or abscesses.”
Those big cheeks that contribute to a male cat’s big head are a kind of armor to help protect him during fights. And because intact male cats are territorial and generally unwilling to coexist with other males that threaten their status, that protection comes in handy.
What Happens When a Cat Is Neutered?
If a male cat is neutered before he reaches maturity, his head and cheeks might not be noticeably larger than a female from the same litter.
This is because neutering completely removes the main source of testosterone–the testes. Neutered male cats have significantly less testosterone than their intact brethren. Less testosterone means they don’t grow up and develop extra muscles, and their skulls and other bones don’t become extra thick.
When male cats are neutered especially young, research shows they do have a slightly higher risk of fractures compared to intact adult males because their bones aren’t as dense. The overall benefits of neutering at an appropriate age, however, outweigh any long-term concerns.
Neutering a male cat will likely prevent them from growing those adorably impressive chubby cheeks, but it will also reduce the population of unwanted cats, prevent territorial spraying, reduce inter-cat aggression, and reduce the risk of testicular and prostate cancer.
When adopting a kitten that is already neutered, don’t expect him to grow up and have a noticeably larger head. If you find an adult feral, however, the size of the cat’s head will be a big help in determining whether you’re looking at a male or female.