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Cat Spraying: Why It Happens and How to Stop It

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The unmistakable pungent odor and awful urine staining associated with cat spraying is a source of angst for many pet parents. The same behavior we find frustrating is essentially a feline survival technique: cats spray to find mates, claim territory, and respond to perceived threats. 

To help you restore harmony on the home front, we’ve provided evidence-based suggestions on how to stop a cat from spraying. Part of finding a solution is to understand the problem, so we’ve also dedicated sections to explain why cats spray. 

It’s always a good idea to check with your veterinarian before trying new techniques, and to get a proper diagnosis. 

Why Do Cats Spray?

Cat in focus with another blurry cat in background behind

Spraying urine is how cats communicate with each other. “Cats prefer to avoid physical confrontations whenever possible so they often use scent communication to relay messages,” says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified cat behavior consultant and owner of Nashville-based Cat Behavior Associates. “Cats are master communicators and scent is one of the most important methods for them.” 

Sprayed urine contains pheromones, the chemical that facilitates this communication. Pheromones “tell other cats vital information about the sprayer, including status, sex, mating availability, and territorial claims,” says Bennett. 

Changes in a cat’s environment can also lead to spraying, says Dr. Lisa Goin, a veterinarian with Heart + Paw in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. “Spraying that is occurring near doors or windows can indicate an outside stressor such as seeing other cats outside,” she says.  “Spraying in other areas of the home can indicate stressors from inside the home such as new pets, people, and construction.” 

In multi-cat households, competition for resources can cause anxiety that leads to cat spraying. Some studies suggest that the likelihood of spraying increases in proportion with the number of cats in the home. 

Do Litter Box Setups Contribute to Cat Spraying?

Cat in a litter box next to a second litter box

Cat spraying often has little to do with the litter box itself, says Bennett, which is why a spraying cat may still use the litter box for elimination. “Spraying is usually the result of some environmental dynamic. Cats who spray may also regularly use the litter box for normal urination and defecation.”

The difference is the location of the urine—puddles of urine on furniture or rugs are more likely to be associated with litter box problems. Urine on vertical surfaces such as walls and furniture is true urine spraying and is about communication.

If you have a multicat household, cats may spray if there aren’t enough litter boxes present. You should aim to have one litter box per cat, plus one additional one to help relieve stress or territorial issues around litter box habits. 

Do Male Cats Spray?

Intact males will spray because they’re ruled by their hormones, says Bennett. “Spraying may help males avoid physical confrontation which could lead to injury. Males may also spray in an unfamiliar environment. Spraying is the safest form of exchanging information.”

Intact males use spraying to mark their territory.

Do Female Cats Spray?

Though spraying is more prevalent in males, some intact females will spray as part of their normal mating behavior, says Goin.

Female spraying is in many respects similar to male cat spraying. “A female may spray to let males know her mating availability status,” says Bennett. “Females may also spray when feeling threatened or in an unfamiliar environment.”

Do Neutered Cats Spray?

Black cat looking to camera behind quilted blanket

Neutering may greatly reduce the occurrence of cat spraying, but it doesn’t guarantee that the behavior will never surface. It’s estimated that about 10 percent of neutered males and 5 percent of spayed females continue to spray. If your cat is already spraying, sterilization surgery may not eliminate the problem, especially if they have been practicing the behavior for a long time.

Spraying from a neutered (or spayed) cat may be a warning sign that he feels threatened or concerned, says Bennett. 

“It could be that you’re rushing a new cat introduction or that you’re missing the building tension in your multi-cat household. It could even be that the new furniture you bought has an unfamiliar scent and your cat needs to establish it as part of the territory. The bottom line is that you need to determine the cause in order to effectively address the behavior.”

Cat Spray Vs. Pee: What’s the Difference?

Cat looking surprised and caught in the act doing something they shouldn't

Cats pee to eliminate waste. Soiling issues like peeing right outside the litter box are usually due to a poor litter box setup, underlying diseases, cognitive decline, or old age. Though some of these can factor into spraying behavior, cats generally spray to communicate mating status, establish territory, and respond to anxiety

Here are some tangible ways to tell the difference between cat spraying and regular peeing. These are just guidelines, so it’s best to have your veterinarian make a proper diagnosis if you’re unsure.

Is it a Squirt or Stream?

A cat who sprays will produce a smaller amount of urine than you would normally see with regular elimination. Put into perspective, healthy adult cats normally produces 28 milliliters of urine every 24 hours. In contrast, sprayers usually squirt less than two milliliters

Does the Pee Land on the Floor or Wall?

Goin says sprayers usually aim for vertical surfaces, which is why you may notice urine on walls, fences, or the sides of chairs. Cats with inappropriate urination issues, she says, will usually pee on horizontal surfaces (like floors and walls). This is not a hard and fast rule, though. Some cats will occasionally spray on horizontal surfaces

Is the Cat Standing or Squatting When He Pees?

A cat usually stands to spray on a vertical surface, while a cat who’s eliminating will squat, Goin says. Another sign that a cat is spraying is that he will often turn his arched back to the target then raise and shake his tail. 

Spraying Smells Worse Than Regular Cat Pee

The cat spraying smell from an intact male is noticeably more pungent than female and neutered male urine. This is because “intact male cats have higher levels of hormones (like testosterone) in their system compared to neutered male cats, so that is why their urine smells stronger,” explains Goin. 

A neutered cat’s urine can stink, too, but not for the same reason. “With neutered and spayed cats, the reason the smell is more noticeable to cat parents is because it is often deposited on objects repeatedly where it stays and dries, for example, against a wall or piece of furniture,” says Bennett. “After a few repeated visits to the same area, the dried spray becomes quite offensive to the human nose.”

When Do Cats Start Spraying?

Six month old cat sitting in a cat tree hiding

You might start to notice cat spraying behavior when your cat reaches sexual maturity, which generally occurs at around 6 months of age, says Bennett.

When cats become socially mature at about 2 years old, they may begin challenging each other, says Bennett. “Spraying may start to be seen at that time.”

A cat can spray at any age, however. “Any change in the environment that causes a cat to feel threatened or concerned can result in spraying at any age in an adult cat,” says Bennett.

How to Stop a Cat From Spraying

Two cats sitting on a wooden shelf in the home

It’s important to rule out medical issues (like cystitis) before considering behavioral modification techniques. 

If your vet does not diagnose your cat with a medical condition, you can try the following tips to help stop a cat from spraying. 

Consider Neutering or Spaying Your Cat

Neutering or spaying a cat is the best way to dramatically reduce spraying behavior, says Bennett. “If a cat hasn’t been neutered or spayed, talk to your veterinarian about when this should be done. If a male cat isn’t neutered then it will forever be a losing battle to combat spraying.”

Provide a Stable Home Environment

Cats don’t like change, says Bennett. “They take comfort in familiarity and their social structure is built around the availability of resources.” Sometimes change is unavoidable—work schedules rotate, people move out of the house, or you adopt a new pet. However, “Keep these things in mind so you can provide the most security and emotional comfort for your cat,” adds Bennett.

Examine Your Litter Box Setup

Cat approaching a litter box in the home

Though spraying is not an elimination problem, providing an attractive litter box setup can reduce conflicts—and thus anxiety—especially in multi-cat households. 

Veterinarians recommend maintaining one litter box per cat plus an additional one. So a home with two cats would need three litter boxes, and a three-cat household would require four boxes. The litter boxes should be large enough for a cat to move freely and be kept in quiet areas. The type of litter you use is important, too; cats tend to like soft, unscented clumping litter. 

If you have a multi-level home there should be at least one litter box per level that your cat has access to.

Reduce Your Cat’s Anxiety Level

Removing or reducing stressors can help alleviate cat spraying. Inside the home, synthetic pheromones such as Feliway can reduce anxiety,” Goin says. Pheromone diffusers contain synthetic chemicals that mimic natural pheromones. They’re easy to use: just plug it into an electrical outlet and occasionally replace the cartridge. 

If your cat becomes anxious from seeing cats outdoors, experts recommend preventing visual access by drawing blinds, using a motion-activated sprinkler, or other deterrents. 

Thoroughly Clean Soiled Areas

Spray cleaner on the carpet next to a cat who just sprayed

Cats will return to marked areas, so cleaning up any remnants can prevent spraying in that area. “Any urine marked areas should be cleaned regularly with an enzymatic urine cleanser to reduce the habit of marking frequented areas,” says Goin.

To be sure you’ve cleaned up every last drop of urine (it’s not always visible to the human eye) use a black light, an ultraviolet light that causes urine to glow in the dark.

Ask Your Veterinarian About Medications

Veterinarians may prescribe medications like Clomipramine or Fluoxetine in cats with anxiety issues. Drug therapy is intended for use in conjunction with behavior therapy, the theory being that it reduces anxiety enough for the cat to be receptive to change. Ask your veterinarian if this is a good option for your cat, and work with a professional behaviorist skilled in techniques like operant and classical conditioning, which teach cats to refocus their attention. Punishment is never an acceptable option and can even make the spraying worse.