Why do cats “spray”?

Are you having an issue with your cat spraying urine around your house? We’ve got some explanations to this unpleasant, but natural cat behavior as well as some recommendations on how to address it in your home. Remember not to punish your cat for urine spraying. Punishment can lead to fear-related aggression, reduces the bond with your cat, and encourages your cat to urine mark in less conspicuous areas.

Spraying/Scent Marking

Cats use scent marking as a means of social communication – usually to keep other cats at a distance. Cats also have a phenomenal sense of smell. When we smell urine-spray, all we detect is ammonia. Cats can smell so much more: male or female; in heat or not; friend or foe; calm or afraid. You may also notice that your cat deposits urine, usually but not always, on a vertical surface, such as a wall. Your cat can also mark with feces, although this is less common.

Reasons Why Cats Spray

  • Territorial/Natural Behavior
    • Cats commonly urine-spray when they want or feel they need to mark their territory. A cat’s territory is basically the area they’re prepared to defend. Another cat coming into or sharing that territory will know who the cat is and when she or he was there.
    • In the wild, a cat’s survival and hunting success depends on the integrity of its territory. Consequently cats are usually cautious and concerned about intrusions into their area, especially at certain times of the day such as dawn and dusk. As beloved household pets, cats are fed by their caregivers and they don’t need to hunt to survive, however they still have a strong drive to hunt and establish territories and ranges.
    • In your home, your cat is fed on a regular basis and your home becomes their safe core area within their territory. Your cat cannot have a complete view within your house and outside at the same time so, just like their wild ancestors, they scent mark.
  • Perceived Threat
    • Your cat might also mark when there is a perceived threat inside your home, such as new pets, strange and boisterous people, or remodeling noise and confusion.
    • Some territorial scent marking, (i.e. spraying, urination, defecation, and sometimes scratching) can be a sign that your cat does not feel safe.
    • Scent marking indoors is not a sign that your cat is “dirty,” but is a response to changes in emotional state and often happens when your cat feels threatened.
  • Litter Box Issues
    • If your cat urinates outside her litter box, she might not be spraying. Instead, she might not like something about her litter box. It might be too small or the location too noisy, or your cat might feel trapped by another cat.
    • The texture or smell of the cat litter might not be right: too much perfume or too dirty. Remember, cats have an exceptional sense of smell, what smells OK to us might smell horrible to them.
    • Your cat might also urinate outside the litter box because she is in pain or have come to associate their litter box with pain. They might have a strong urge to go but cannot get to the litter box fast enough. This is especially true for very young, very old cats, or cats with urinary system disease.
    • When a cat is not using the litter box, always consult your veterinarian to make sure there is not an underlying medical problem

Ways to Address Spraying/ Scent Marking

  • Consult a feline-friendly veterinarian to get information about the best way to determine why your cat is spraying or scent-marking inappropriately. This may include diagnostic testing to identify any medical issues.
  • Ensure that all of your cat’s needs are being met including safety, key resources, opportunity for play, positive social interaction with humans, and an environment that allows them to appropriately scent mark with their face and body.
  • You can look into neutering or spaying your cat. This will physiologically eliminate sexually-related marking behavior. You should consult with your veterinarian to see if this is recommended for your cat and this situation.
  • Reduce the possibility that other cats may be encroaching on your cat’s territory and triggering this marking behavior.
    • Tip: If your cat is an indoor-only cat, you can look into using motion activated water sprinklers to make your yard unattractive to other cats.
    • Tip: Lay plastic carpet protectors upside down in front of sliding glass doors to create an uncomfortable surface. This may dissuade other cats from sitting close to your house and intimidating your cat.
    • Tip: Remove or block all cat doors that allow other roaming cats to enter your home. Use microchip or magnet operated devices to only allow access to your cat.
  • Continuously clean any urine-marked areas. This will reduce your cat’s habit of refreshing their scent on the marking site. You can use a black light (UV) to find soiled areas. Make sure to clean the soiled areas with a good quality urine odor and stain remover according to the type of surface that your cat has soiled. Be sure to test the products on an inconspicuous area first, and clean a sufficiently large area to remove the odor, which may be up to three times of the size of the soiled area. You should avoid using any ammonia-based cleaners, because they smell like urine to your cat.
  • Consider using synthetic pheromones which can be comforting and reinforce your cat’s sense of security.