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Scent marking, otherwise known as cat spraying, is a common concern among unneutered cats. But why do cats spray, what else could cause a cat to start spraying? Other cats? Big life changes? Something else altogether?
We’ve all laugh-cringed at the memes, winced at the descriptive posts on online forums, and simultaneously shuddered and thanked our lucky stars that our beloved kitty wasn’t a sprayer while watching “My Cat From Hell” episodes. But then it happens. Our oh-so angelic kitty cat backs up to a wall, shoots his tail up, and unleashes an epic stream of smelly pee on the target.
But before you start tearing out your hair and screaming into the abyss, we’re here to get to the root of the problem and explore why cats spray and how to stop a cat from spraying. Our super practical solutions and quick facts can give you a jump start on getting spraying under control.
What does it mean when a cat sprays?
First, here’s the scoop on the larger topic of what’s known as inappropriate elimination.
According to the ASPCA, “inappropriate elimination,” or peeing or pooping outside of the litter box, is the most common feline behavioral problem reported by cat parents. These numbers include both incontinence (your kitty’s inability to hold their urine or make it to their litter box to urinate) as well as spraying or deliberate urination for the sake of “scent-marking.”
So while the two are different, you could almost see the two as opposite sides of the same coin. And both of them happen to such a degree that there was even a study that found as many as one out of every four cats are surrendered to animal shelters because of repeated peeing outside the litter box.
Spraying, or scent marking, is a behavioral problem that can be fixed. There aren’t instant solutions to stop spraying, but with a little patience and flexibility on your part, you can reshape your cat’s behavior and eliminate their urge to spray.
Before we get into the ways to remedy spraying, we need to take a minute to brush up on what exactly spraying is.
How do you know if your cat is spraying?
In its simplest form, cat spraying is when a cat squirts pungent urine onto a vertical surface like a wall or piece of furniture to “claim” the spot as its own. They’re marking their territory. This spraying, or scent marking, is the feline version of some punk teen graffitiing a wall with their name, only your cat uses smelly pee instead of a canister of paint.
Why does cat spray smell so bad?
There’s nothing quite like the gag-inducing, stomach-churning pungent scent of cat pee.
So what gives? What’s behind the offensive odor?
It all comes down to biology! Veterinarian Dr. Kathryn Primm says that when a cat’s kidneys break down and filter their urine, what’s known as urea is created.
This highly concentrated byproduct of your kitty’s bodily waste quickly converts to ammonia! Bacteria rapidly grows on cat’s urine, so the stinky smell is intensified the longer it sits in a little box, or the case of cats spraying, on carpets, couches, curtains, or walls.
Do female cats spray?
Cat spraying is most common in unneutered male cats, but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook if you’ve got a girl cat. Spraying has been observed in both intact male and female cats and cats who are spayed and neutered.
When does a male cat start spraying?
There’s no one size fits all answer to why cats spray. But here are a few of the most common factors that play into cats spraying:
- Stress, anxiety, and insecurity
- Multi-cat households
- Sexual maturity
- Significant changes in routines, households, and living arrangements
- Moving to a new home
- Having a new baby, new roommate, or a new romantic partner
- Bringing new cats or dogs into the home
- Neighborhoods with large outdoor cat populations
- Unneutered, sexually mature male and female cats
- Medical conditions
Why do cats spray? Factors that lead to spraying
At its core, spraying is a behavioral problem often rooted in stress and anxiety. It can even indicate your kitty’s emotional health!
Peeing isn’t the only way a cat can claim a space as theirs. They also have scent glands on their tails, cheeks, face, and feet. Bunting or rubbing their head or cheeks against furniture is a very common way for cats to mark their territory with their scent.
Cats who spray, or “urine mark” are acting in “a more reactive, anxious manner” versus cats who, by using their cheek glands, mark “ in a more calm, familiar manner.”
Multi-cat households can come with a host of issues. This isn’t to say all homes with multiple cats are going to be full of strife and spraying, though! But we cannot discount how they can be a breeding ground for high stress, conflict, and insecurity.
Clashes over territory and resources like food, toys, and furniture are huge contributors to cats spraying. Lack of proper litter boxes or frequently dirty litter boxes in multi-cat households is also very important and impactful in promoting cat spraying behavior.
The urge to spray as a form of mating behavior is extremely strong in intact male and female cats.
So do the responsible thing and take care of your kitty’s reproductive health by getting them neutered (or spayed) by the time they’re five months old. The longer they go without being neutered, the more likely their spraying or scent-marking behaviors will continue and even become a habit!
Sometimes spraying isn’t spraying at all! Peeing outside of the litter box can automatically be misunderstood as spraying, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes a severe medical condition, not a behavioral need to mark territory, is behind your kitty’s inappropriate elimination.
Peeing outside of the litter box can indicate potentially life-threatening or chronic illnesses such as feline interstitial cystitis (bladder inflammation), urinary tract infections, bladder stones, kidney disease, and hyperthyroidism.
International Cat Care reports that as many as “30 percent of cats that present for spraying may have an underlying medical problem.” Cystitis is often a major culprit. This excruciatingly painful condition may cause some cats to shift their posture to a spraying position to urinate. But unlike cats who are just spraying, cats who have cystitis and who appear to be “spraying” release much more urine.
If you notice your kitty peeing outside of the litter box for any reason, your number one priority is to get them to the vet. An exam and urinalysis can determine whether medical conditions play a role in any spraying or if the problem is solely behavioral.
Location affects cat spraying
It’s not just what’s inside the house that matters; what’s outside also counts. Consider what may cause a perfectly healthy male cat who has been neutered since kittenhood and is living harmoniously in a very stable, stress-free home to start urine marking? It could be territorial cats outside! Areas densely populated by outdoor cats could cause an uptick in preexisting cat spraying behavior (or spraying behavior for the first time) because of disputes over outside territory.
Cats are creatures of habit. Like us, they prefer sticking to routines, so any kind of change or “newness” can trigger spraying behavior. Getting a new roommate or romantic partner, adopting a new kitten, having a baby, getting a new job with very different work hours, and moving to a new home. But even minor changes like remodeling rooms in the same house or buying entirely new furniture sets can cause your cat’s anxiety and stress levels to spike and lead to spraying.
Do neutered cats spray?
Male cats who are neutered at a young age (before they’re five months old) and never sprayed before will likely not spray in the house unless they experience one of the major stressors or medical conditions we covered above.
Newly neutered males with a history of spraying may continue to occasionally spray (VCA hospital estimates that number is about 10 percent). But, being neutered reduces their motivation for spraying, lessens their likelihood of continuing to spray, and eliminates the smelly odors from their pee when they spray. The same goes for newly spayed females who had a history of spraying urine (VCA Hospital puts that number at five percent).
Do all male cats spray in the house?
No, they don’t! But intact male cats have the highest rates of spraying or marking their territory with urine in homes.
So what happens if you miss the neutering “window” and your male cat is past his kittenhood and already spraying? According to VCA Hospitals, getting your male cat who sprays neutered is a great way to tackle the problem!
Ninety percent of previously intact males and 95 percent of previously intact females show a “significant decrease in spraying” after being neutered.
So while neutering isn’t a quick fix for cats who may already be in the habit of spraying, it greatly reduces the levels of their sexual hormones to curb their urge to mark their territory.
9 ways to stop your cat from spraying
We’re glad you asked! Let’s count the ways.
1. Get your cat spayed or neutered
It’s your duty and responsibility as a cat parent to care for your cat’s reproductive health, namely getting them neutered or spayed by the time they reach five months!
As you’ve read above, neutering them at a young age is one of the best ways to prevent spraying from happening in the first place.
2. Rethink litter boxes
We don’t mean to talk dirty to you, but that problem your cat has spraying might come down to their litter box situation. Litter boxes that are dirty and not regularly cleaned could be a culprit in spraying situations.
Litter boxes that are too shallow, small, or cramped, or placed in locations that cause stress or anxiety for your cat are another toileting issue. Top entry boxes are an excellent option for cats that like to spray.
A shortage of litter boxes in multi-cat households can lead to peeing outside the box. When it comes to litter box hygiene in multi-cat homes, the general rule is one litter box per cat plus an additional litter box. So a home with four cats would need five litter boxes!
Availability of litter boxes and make sure to scoop them daily and clean out the entire litter box at least once a week help cats who show their litter box avoidance through spraying. If you need a visual reminder, try a cat litter disposal system. Each time you see it you’ll be reminded to scoop out the litter box.
3. Use diffusers
Diffusers are a fantastic way to clear the air of anxiety.
Not only do they combat the stinky odors that come from spraying, but veterinarian recommended diffusers like Feliway spritz out scentless imitation feline pheromones to help calm cats in the moment and for the long term. These pheromones soothe your cat and aid in reducing destructive and stress-related behaviors like spraying!
4. Share resources between cats
In multi-cat homes, make it a point to share resources between the cats evenly.
This means distributing toys, food, water, scratching posts, and cat furniture throughout many rooms in the house. Equal access to comfortable sleeping spaces, yummy food, and fun toys makes a world of difference when it comes to your kitty’s emotional wellbeing.
Squabbles over high ground can easily be solved by purchasing other cat trees or towers, installing window seats, and even just clearing off window sills or counter space to create a perching space for your kitty.
5. Clean mindfully
You might be tempted to make like Cinderella and start frantically cleaning all of the sprayed areas, but that’s not the solution. However, a good scrub does help! The Humane Society of the United States suggests avoiding using strong-smelling cleaners on soiled areas because they may cause your kitty to redouble their efforts spraying that spot!
Here are the basics for cleaning up after a cat sprays:
- First, clean the sprayed area as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more the urine will set or soak into the surface it was sprayed onto.
- Next, try to use blotting motions to absorb the urine, not rubbing or scrubbing, which could also only make the sprayed urine soak in more.
- Lastly, use an effective cleaner: an enzyme-based or baking soda-based one.
6. Try medication
We’ve covered that anxiety, insecurity, and stress can be huge contributors to spraying behavior. In these cases, medications that target anxiety in cats can be invaluable! The Humane Society recommends talking to your vet about putting your kitty on a short anti-anxiety medication course. Medications like clomipramine, fluoxetine, buspirone, and benzodiazepine have all effectively reduced the urge to spray in some cats.
7. Consider cat diapers
If this one makes you chuckle, you’re not alone! Diapers for cats? Yes. It’s a thing! But it’s not quite as ridiculous as it may seem. They’re not the typical thick white monstrosities that human babies wear. There are cat diapers specifically for spraying as well!
While we don’t suggest cat diapers in the long term for cats who don’t have a serious medical problem like incontinence, cat diapers can be a helpful tool in the short term to prevent your kitty from spraying on your furniture or walls. Briefly wearing cat diapers can be an effective behavioral modification tool for some incredibly stubborn cats as they physically cannot spray while wearing the diapers.
Before going this route, be sure to talk to your veterinarian and educate yourself on how to use cat diapers properly.
8. Change the environment
Make sprayed areas “unattractive” to your cat. Cats that urine mark in one or two specific places might stop spraying if the area’s function is changed. You could do this by moving some of their food, toys, or furniture to sites they’ve sprayed at.
9. Find ways to deter neighborhood cats
Sometimes it’s perceived territory disputes with cats outside that can cause an indoor cat to start spraying. Even if your cat never leaves your home, they’re still aware of other felines in the neighborhood and feel protective towards the area outside that surrounds them.
Consider covering windows, keeping windows shut, and making use of odor neutralizers to mask outside cats’ presence.
Key takeaways on cat spraying
It’s safe to say that cat spraying, although smelly and frustrating, is a very fixable behavioral problem. Whether spraying is due to conflicts between felines in multi-cat households, high-stress new situations like moving to a new home, or adopting a new kitten, options like diffusers, medications, and outdoor deterrents will help stop cat spraying.
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