One of the most unpleasant behavior problems to deal with in cats is spraying. According to the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, spraying is unfortunately a very common reason for cats being turned in to shelters. The good news is that with a dedicated guardian and veterinarian working together, spraying can be overcome. It just takes some detective work and a little behavioral modification.
What is cat spraying?
Spraying, also known as urine marking, is when a cat deposits urine on a wall, door or other upright (vertical) object. A cat will not squat to spray, as would happen with normal urination; instead, a cat that is spraying will be standing straight up. If you see your cat in the act, you may also notice an erect tail with some occasional twitching of either the tail or the whole body. You will also likely notice that the odor of the urine in the spray is much more pungent than urine deposited in the litterbox. The smell is due to additional items in the urine that facilitate communication, such as pheromones. Spraying is different from litterbox aversion, and there are a variety of reasons that your cat may be spraying.
Why do cats spray?
One common reason for spraying is that something is wrong. For this reason, your first step should always be a visit to the veterinarian. If you and your vet have ruled out a medical reason for spraying, then it’s time to investigate behavioral causes:
- Within feline social groups, urine marking is used as a form of communication. By spraying in a specific area, a cat can let other cats know she has been there. Marking in an area also lets other cats know to stay away and establishes a cat’s territory.
- Anyone who has cats knows they can be quite sensitive to changes in the environment. If you have moved to a new location, done major renovations, brought home a new family member, or lost one, you might discover your cat beginning to spray. One recent review in Applied Animal Behaviour Science looked at how chemical cues and scent can help a cat to feel more comfortable in her environment and reduce stress.
- Cats can leave “messages” about potential mating encounters by spraying. This is why so many cats that spray are unneutered males, although spraying can be found among fixed males and spayed and whole females too.
- If you live in a home with more than one cat, spraying can occur if there is conflict between the cats. Even multiple cats who get along well may mark within the household, simply because of the presence of other cats.
- We can also see urine marking in homes with only one cat, where there are cats roaming freely outside and the house cat is aware of the presence of the other cats.
How to stop cat spraying
As mentioned before, your absolute first step is a trip to your veterinarian to rule out medical causes of the behavior. Any steps you take to correct this behavior won’t work if your cat is sick. If it is behavioral, step one is identifying the cause. These are the questions I would ask myself:
1. Which cat is marking? If you have multiple cats, first, figure out which cat is doing the marking. One method is to confine the cats and allow one out to roam at a time. If that doesn’t work, you can contact your veterinarian to see if you can get a prescription for fluorescein. This non-toxic dye can be placed in your cat’s food and will appear blue under a UV flashlight. The dye can be washed off your wall as well.
2. Is my cat neutered or spayed? If not, doing so can help, particularly if other cats are around.
3. Is my cat being taunted by the neighbors? If neighborhood cats are the problem, keep window shades closed, as well as doors. You can block screens, and access to any perches or places to relax and look out the windows. You don’t need to do this for every window, but focus on the ones where your cat is viewing other cats.
4. How can I give my own cats more space? If you do have multiple indoor cats, increase the amount of litter box options. A rule of thumb to follow is one box per cat plus one. Make sure boxes are not crammed into corners where a cat might feel “trapped” if another cat comes by.
Give cats more places to sit up high (cat trees, shelves, and window perches). Place multiple food and water bowls around the house, and toys. The more there is of everything, the more likely it is that conflict will decrease.
Cleaning can reduce cat spraying
Regardless of the issue causing the marking, you need to make sure that you clean any feline spraying in your home properly. It’s not enough to just use soap and water to remove the smell. It may not smell to you, but if not cleaned properly, your cat can definitely sense it. Use special enzymatic cleaners that are made specifically to break down pet urine. Don’t use any type of cleaner with an ammonia base, as this odor can stimulate more spraying since there is ammonia in urine.
How can your veterinarian help you reduce cat spraying?
If you continue to struggle with cat spraying, discuss it with your veterinarian. Some cats may be placed on medication for anxiety to help alleviate the spraying.
If your vet recommends a behavior professional to assist you, visit the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the Animal Behavior Society, and the IAABC to find a professional near you who specializes in feline behavior.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.