Even though you may not be able to see it, if your cat sprays in your home you can definitely smell it. The unmistakable odor indicates all is not peaceful in your cat’s universe. When a cat sprays, it can put everyone in crisis mode and it can put the cat at risk of being relinquished to the shelter, given away or sadly, even euthanized. Many people don’t understand why cats spray so they don’t understand how to effectively deal with it.
Many people misunderstand the motivation behind spray-marking behavior. All-too-often, cat parents simply label the behavior as territorial marking but that isn’t the only reason cats spray. Unless you can uncover the true cause for the behavior, you won’t have much success in stopping it. So it’s time to sharpen your detective skills and do some undercover work.
Note: whenever you’re dealing with any behavior that involves a cat not using the litter box, it’s crucial you have him examined by the veterinarian. Even if you’re sure the problem is behavioral, it’s important to rule out underlying medical causes.
Spraying vs. Indiscriminate Urination
To start with, you need to know that there’s a difference between spraying and indiscriminate urination. If a cat urinates outside of the litter box it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s spraying. These are two different behaviors and can have different causes. Indiscriminate urination is usually done on horizontal surfaces. Spray-marking is usually done up against vertical objects but some cats will spray regardless of whether there is a vertical surface present. In this case, the sprayed urine will form a thin line as opposed to the typical puddle during urination.
The posture for spraying is different from normal urination. When a cat sprays he typically backs up to the object, twitches his tail and begins treading with his front paws. He may also close his eyes while spraying. When a cat (male or female) displays normal urination, he usually squats.
When a cat indiscriminately urinates there may be an underlying medical cause or the conditions in the litter box may be unappealing. Even if the box is kept clean there may be something about the set-up that’s not appealing. There could also be something going on in the environment causing stress to the cat or making him feel as if it’s not safe to use the litter box.
Communication is Why Cats Spray
When a cat sprays, it’s a form of communication. Surprising to many cat parents, both male and female cats can spray. I’ve seen so many cases where cat parents completely overlooked the female cat and were convinced (incorrectly) it was the male doing the spraying. The pheromones in urine spray reveal lots of information about the sprayer. It’s the feline version of a resume. Spraying should be viewed as an outward sign that a cat is communicating something. It shouldn’t be viewed as a bad or spiteful behavior. Even though we certainly don’t like the idea of a cat spraying inside our home, it’s important to remember that it’s a normal reaction to particular situation in the feline world.
Some common reasons cats spray:
- to define the perimeter for other cats
- to create a familiar scent in his territory
- Some cats will spray a family member’s belongings as a way of self-soothing by mixing scents
- A cat may spray a family member’s personal belongings (such as a pillow or dirty clothes) as a way of creating a bond
- A cat may spray a family member’s belongings if that family member’s schedule has changed or something else about about the person’s behavior is different
- A cat might spray a family member’s belongings if he isn’t sure whether the person presents a threat
- Since scent and familiarity play important roles in the feline world, some cats spray new objects brought into the environment
- A cat may spray if he is denied access to another cat who may appear to be a threat (typically this is caused by the appearance of an unfamiliar cat in the yard)
- A cat might spray if anxious, even if there doesn’t seem to be an obvious trigger from a human’s perspective
- Cats may spray as a challenge to another cat
- A cat may spray as a victory display after a hostile altercation with another cat
- A fearful cat may spray only when there are no other cats or humans around
- Intact cats spray when looking for mates
Confident and non-confident cats spray. A confident cat may spray as a grand display of his victory after a confrontation with another cat. A less-than confident cat might spray-mark as a form of covert aggression. It’s a way of giving a warning without actually having to risk a physical altercation.
The sprayed urine reveals information such as age, sex, sexual availability and status. These are important facts when it comes to cat-to-cat communication, especially in an outdoor environment where close encounters could result in injury or death.
Not all cats spray and if you gradually ease your cat through changes in his life such as the introduction of a new spouse, new pet, new baby, new house, etc., you’ll greatly reduce the chances that he’ll feel the need to spray. And of course, if you have an intact male cat you stand a 100% chance of spray-marking behavior so it’s a very wise idea to have him neutered. If your intact male is currently displaying spray-marking behavior, having him neutered will, in almost all cases, stop the spraying behavior.
Managing a Sprayer
If you have a multicat household, the first step is to identify the sprayer. Unless you’ve actually witnessed the cat spray-marking, the most reliable form of CSI is by using a video surveillance. Set up a motion detector camera, use a webcam or you can even put a kitty cam on your cat’s collar. The latter won’t show you the spraying but it’ll hopefully show what the sprayer was reacting to when he felt the need to mark.
The targeted areas need to be addressed:
- Clean the soiled area with a product labeled for cleaning and neutralizing cat urine
- Change the cat’s association with that area by engaging in playtime there so it becomes a positive location
- Use clicker training to click and reward whenever the cat walks by the area without spraying or walks away from an area when called
- Use a synthetic pheromone spray near the targeted areas so help change the cat’s association
- To prevent further damage to carpets or furniture, you can cover the area with a shower curtain liner temporarily
- In some cases, the area may need to be closed off completely while you work on behavior modification
If your cat has targeted one or two areas repeatedly, place litter boxes there that have high sides (but not covered boxes) because the cat may be satisfied with spraying inside the litter box. You can use a plastic storage container (Sterilite makes great ones) and just cut a low opening on one side
If the spraying is due to the appearance of an outdoor cat, you’ll need to block viewing access. Cover the bottom on the windows with an opague window paper that will allow the light to come in but blur your cat’s view of any feline interlopers. If the reason cats are coming into your yard is because you’ve set up bird feeders, you’ll have to take them away or reposition them (if possible) so they aren’t such an appealing target. If you know who owns the feline intruder, perhaps you can have a tactful discussion about the situation. If the appearance of outdoor cats is a real problem in your yard, you may have to consider fencing. There are companies that make cat-proof fencing. Many of my clients have also had success with motion-activated sprinklers.
Speaking of outdoors, if you allow your cat outside, that may be contributing to the spraying behavior. While some indoor/outdoor cats may restrict their marking to the outdoors, your cat may feel threatened by unfamiliar scents he encounters and might bring his spraying behavior inside as well.
Here are some additional guidelines for helping a sprayer:
- Reduce household stress if possible (chaotic environment, erratic schedules, improper new pet introductions, etc)
- increase vertical territory
- Make sure your cat has safe areas to retreat such as hiding places, cat trees, cat beds
- In a multicat environment make sure everyone has their own favorite perching spot
- In a multicat environment increase the number of litter boxes and scatter them throughout the house so no one has to pass an opponent’s area in order to eliminate
- Set up more than one feeding station so no one has to compete when you have more than one cat
- If you think your cat is about to engage in spraying, distract him with a enticing sound to change his mindset from negative to positive (for example, roll a ping pong ball in the opposite direction)
- Incorporate daily individual interactive playtime to help reduce anxiety and increase feelings of confidence and security
- Increase environmental enrichment to create constructive and positive diversions
- In some multicat household cases, cats may need to be separated so a reintroduction can be done
- If the cat is spraying a family member’s items, have that family member be the one who offers the meals and also have that person engage the cat in interactive play
- If the cat is spraying a family member’s items, use a synthetic pheromone spray on some of the clothes to help the cat think he has facially rubbed those items
- If spraying is done as a bonding behavior with a family member, increased playtime and environmental enrichment may help build confidence
- Ease your cat through changes rather than force him to endure abrupt ones
Spraying Behavior is Complex
This article is just meant to provide a general road map for you. Your cat’s situation is unique so take time to carefully evaluate your cat’s environment and his behavior. The spraying behavior is a normal communication tool (yes, I understand it’s not one humans like very much) but with time and a solid game plan, you’ll hopefully be able to find a solution that works for both the cat and the human family members.
Seeking Professional Help
If you’re not having success with behavior modification, talk to your veterinarian about whether the cat may benefit from behavioral medication. If your cat is put on medication, keep in mind this is to be an adjunct to behavior modification.
Your veterinarian may also refer you to a veterinary behaviorist, certified applied animal behaviorist or a certified cat behavior consultant. A qualified professional can help in pinpointing the cause of the behavior and set up a customized behavior modification plan.
Need More Help about Cat Peeing?
For step-by-step information on dealing with a cat who sprays, refer to Pam’s books Starting from Scratch or Think Like a Cat. For multicat households, refer to the book Cat vs. Cat. They all contain in-depth chapters on spraying behavior and indiscriminate urination.
Note: This article is not meant as a medical diagnosis. If your cat is displaying any type of litter box aversion or a change in behavior, contact your veterinarian because there could be an underlying medical cause.