You notice a wet spot on the side of the sofa, or the drapes, or maybe running down the front door. Hmmm, is that . . . ? Yep, it looks — and smells — like cat pee. Uh oh. What’s going on? Is your cat trying to tell you something?
Actually, when your cat sprays, they are trying to send you (or another cat in or around your home) a message! It’s usually either, “I was here”/"this is my home,” or “I’m stressed out.”
You see, spraying (or “marking”) is all about communication for cats. It’s different from fully peeing or pooping outside the litter box (a.k.a. “inappropriate toileting” or "inappropriate elimination") — which, though could also be due to stress or problems between the pets in your home, is most often related to a problem with your cat’s litter boxes (e.g., the type of litter used, the location or number of boxes available, or another of the common problems with litter box setup and maintenance). And, just to keep things interesting, both “spraying” and “inappropriate elimination” can also be brought on by, or worsened by, an underlying medical problem (e.g., arthritis, urinary tract inflammation (“cystitis”) or infection (“UTI”), kidney failure, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, or a host of other problems). This article is going to focus on helping you with a cat that’s spraying or “marking.” Read on to see if that might be your cat, and what you can do about it.
What Cat Spraying Means
One of the ways cats communicate is through scent, specifically leaving their scents in certain places. In the cat world, spraying is a totally normal and appropriate way to “converse,” just like scratching*, rubbing their face on objects (including you), or even rolling around on the ground.
Of course, in the human world, we’re usually fine with our cats communicating by rubbing their face on things or rolling on the ground, but we’re (understandably) less excited about having our cats communicate by spraying urine. So let’s explore why your cat might be doing it and how you can help them (and yourself).
*Need help with your cat scratching your furniture, too? Or want to learn how to prevent them from ever doing so in the first place? Check out our Scratch this, NOT that! article.
Signs Your Cat Might Be Spraying
It can be tricky to figure if your cat is spraying/marking, as opposed to avoiding the litter box and showing "inappropriate elimination." So, here are some clues to look for that may help you distinguish between the two:
- Inappropriate elimination urine generally happens only on horizontal surfaces (e.g., floors, laundry, etc.). Whereas urine that’s sprayed typically shows up on vertical surfaces (e.g., furniture, walls, etc.).
- If you’re able to catch your cat spraying/marking in real-time, you’ll most likely see them standing with their back to their vertical “target” and holding their tail held straight up. You might even see their tail quivering, too.
- A cat that’s spraying/marking will probably still be also using their litter boxes regularly – both for pee and poop.
- Cats that are spraying typically only do so with pee — they rarely ever “mark” with poop.
- For cats that are spraying, the location they are doing it in is typically more important to them than the “feel” of the surface they’re doing it on. Meaning that they’re most likely to spray in areas they want to claim as their own or where other cats will see and read their message. On the other hand, inappropriately toileting cats will often “do their business” on a surface they prefer to whatever is in their litter boxes – hence why this type of behavior often happens on carpet, laundry, or other “cushy” surfaces.
If these signs sound like what your cat is doing, read on for help. If you now think that your cat is just avoiding their litter boxes, check out this article on inappropriate elimination, which can help you get to the bottom of that issue.
Common Reasons Why Cats Spray
Territory: Spraying is one way cats mark their turf, especially if another cat is lurking around and leaving their own mark in your yard. Even if your cat never goes outside, there’s still the possibility that they will see or smell the “intruder,” and then spray around a door or window in response.
Conflict: In multi-feline households, spraying can also be a way for cats to draw boundaries, establish pecking order, and settle disputes.
Change: Moving to a new place, a home remodeling project, changes in routine, or the arrival or loss of a human or pet sibling can all make a cat feel insecure and stressed. The changes don’t have to be big, either. Even moving around the living room furniture can upset a more sensitive kitty. Spraying is just one way for a stressed cat to show their stress.
Mating: Both female and male cats spray — although unneutered males are more likely to leave their mark as a way to let the opposite sex know they’re available (and to mark their territory). Even if your spraying cat is spayed/neutered, if the procedure was done later in life, this could be a learned behavior they’ve carried over from their previous “fertile” days.
Solving the Spraying Riddle
If your cat hasn’t been spayed or neutered yet, the first step is to get them fixed. It’s also critical to rule out any medical problems with your vet. What looks like spraying might actually be the sign of a urinary tract inflammation or infection, bladder stones, hyperthyroidism, or a host of other common feline medical conditions. Once your cat gets a clean bill of health from the vet, here are some ways to try and trouble-shoot and tackle your cat’s spraying situation at home:
Sparkling Clean: If there’s the even slightest scent of urine left behind, your cat will know, thanks to their 200 million scent receptors. And the smell may encourage them to keep going back to spray the same spot. To thoroughly clean all the areas your cat has marked, use a good enzymatic, bio-based cleaner, like the Nature’s Miracle ADVANCE Cat Stain & Odor Eliminator. And check out this article for tips (and a caution) about cleaning up pet messes.
Calming Pheromones: After cleaning, plug in some Feliway® multi-cat calming pheromone diffusers around your home. Feliway multi-cat has been shown to help reduce stress-related problems between cats in multi-cat homes and situations. (Note that the Feliway is also sometimes sold under the “Comfort Zone” brand and the multi-cat product is different from the “classic” Feliway/Comfort Zone product, which is intended for single-cat situations. And they’re both also different from the FeliScratch product, which is helpful for directing/redirecting unwanted cat scratching.)
Cat Away: If another cat is wandering into your yard and stressing your kitty out, try pulling the shades and/or moving your cat’s perch to another location. This next tip is a stretch but worth trying – if it’s the neighbor’s outdoor cat causing the stress and you have a good relationship with your neighbor. Let them know that their cat’s presence in your yard is stressing your cat and causing them to pee in your house. Maybe, they'd be willing to keep their cat indoors, or at least in their own yard (there are cat-proof fences available, including this option which, although a little pricey is highly effective for most cats). If it's not your neighbor's cat, or if it is but they won't keep their cat indoors or put up cat-proof fencing, consider a humane outdoor animal deterrent, like the Hoont Cobra Jet Spray.
Environmental Enrichment: Keeping your cat active— physically and mentally — will help increase their well-being and reduce their stress level. Training, interactive toys, food puzzles, and plenty of vertical perches and quiet places to hide will help keep them busy and content.
Boxes and Bowls: To minimize battles in a multi-cat household, make sure there’s a litter box for every cat plus an extra one, as well as ensuring that litter boxes are located in different areas and levels of your home. Giving each cat their own food bowl and separate feeding areas can also help reduce conflicts.
Supplements: The VetriScience Composure chews can help calm and reduce stress in cats in certain situations and are worth trying. Your vet can also discuss and recommend other supplements that may help. (See also the note at the end of this article about medications your vet can prescribe that can help, too.)
If Your Cat Is a "High Pee-er": If your cat simply pees high, but in the litter box, you might want to use boxes with higher sides to avoid the mess. The important part is that there's still one side that's low enough for your cat to get in. Especially as a cat ages, getting in and out of their litter box can cause another set of problems and a whole lot of discomfort (as many cats over 7 years old have arthritis).
These first two box options fit the bill, with three high sides and one lower one.
You could also switch to covered boxes, but you've got to be extra careful to scoop covered boxes at least once daily, as they are more likely to trap ammonia and other smells that can irritate your cat's nose/lungs and drive them out of the boxes. The Modkat boxes are a little pricey, but function great for many cats and homes.
What Not To Do
Negative reinforcement, like shouting at your cat, won’t help the situation — and will probably make things worse because your cat will end up feeling more stressed.
Deterrent sprays (including spraying water) can also make your cat nervous and increase their stress. And even if the spray deters them from marking that particular spot, they will probably just go off and find a new place to mark.
Although having a cat that’s spraying in the house can be pretty frustrating, try not to take it personally! Your cat isn’t mad at you — they’re just letting you know that they’re either feeling threatened or insecure. If you and your vet have ruled out an underlying medical problem and you’ve tried some of the DIY solutions above and you’re still not having much luck solving the problem, heading back to your vet or to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist truly is your best bet. And doing so sooner, rather than later, is a good idea. Not only can they help guide you with some other, more specific suggestions for your cat and home, they can also prescribe medications that have been shown to help spraying cats.