Why do cats spray?

Liz Palika

cat lying against wall

Cat urine is pungent in the litter box, but when a cat urinates outside the litter box it’s even worse. Add to that a cat who sprays on the walls or furniture and it’s a disaster. Even the kindest most devoted owner may rethink her decision to add a cat to her household when that cat is spraying.

What is spraying?

A cat urinating normally will squat and release a puddle of urine. Most cats will empty their bladder at this time.

When a cat is spraying, he (or she) is standing upright rather than in the normal squatting position. The spraying cat will then back up to the vertical object or place where he wishes to leave his scent and will squirt a few short bursts of urine. Spraying is less about emptying the bladder and more about saying, “Hey! I’ve been here!”

Start at the Veterinary Hospital

Any change in urinary habits needs to be investigated, and your first step should always be to make an appointment with your veterinarian. A urinary tract infection can cause your cat to avoid his litter box, as can kidney disease, diabetes, or bladder stones or crystals. Even stiffness, soreness, or arthritis can change your cat’s bathroom habits.

Most of the time, illnesses that can cause your cat to avoid his litter box will cause him to urinate a puddle elsewhere rather than spray; however, it’s important to eliminate any health concerns before addressing behavioral ones.

Now Be a Detective

Once your cat has been given a clean bill of health, let’s look at some other reasons why your cat may have started spraying. Is your male cat neutered? In the vast majority of cases, the cat doing the spraying is an unneutered male. He may do it when he reaches sexual maturity, when another unneutered male is venturing into your cat’s sight or smell, or when a female cat is nearby. An intact (not spayed) female cat may spray as she comes into season; especially if there are some male cats prowling around outside the house.

Some cats handle change better than others so a new pet in the household may trigger spraying by both males or females. Even a puppy or guests to the home can trigger behavioral changes with some cats. Cats who are anxious or nervous tend to be more likely to be threatened about changes and then spray in reaction.

Make Some Changes

To change your cat’s behavior, you need to understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. Neuter or spay the intact cat to reduce those pesky hormones – and do so before the spraying turns into a bad habit, if at all possible.

If your cat is bothered by stray or wandering cats outside, see if you can discourage them. Don’t leave food or water outside and reduce hunting opportunities. Perhaps put up some shades or blinds to make it more difficult for your cat to see through certain windows to help your cat ignore those trespassers. If he can see cats outside from his cat tree in front of the window, moving his cat tree to another area of the house might work too.

If your cat is an only cat, make sure he has the choice of two or three different litter boxes in various locations. If you have additional cats you’ll need more litter boxes as some cats like to guard their favorite box. High-sided litter boxes can give the cat a place to spray, if he so desires, without causing a problem in the house.

Don’t change cat litter abruptly either. Cats get comfortable with their normal brand of litter so if you want to make a change (for a better reason other than one brand is on sale!) gradually mix the new litter in with the old, taking a couple of weeks to make the change just as you would to change your cat’s food. If there is tension between cats in your household, you might wish to try Feliway Multicat. The blend of synthetic chemicals is designed to help cats get along in a calm, friendly manner. It helps reduce stress. Feliway doesn’t work for all cats of course, as every cat is unique and every situation is different, but many cat owners feel that it helps.

Professional Cleaning

Cats, like dogs, will return to the scene of the crime to refresh their scent. That means even if you solve medical issues, revamp the litter box system, and chase intruding cats out of your yard; your cat may well go back to his previously sprayed spots to update his scent. All of his spots need to be completely and thoroughly cleaned.

Use cleaners made specifically for urine and follow the directions for their use. Casual cleaning isn’t going to get anything clean enough so that your cat will ignore it.

Although you can try cleaning those spots yourself, professional cleaning may well be worth the investment; especially if the carpets or fabric furniture has been sprayed. Professionals have the equipment and cleaners to do the job right. 

While you can't predict when your pet is going to get sick or injured, you can protect yourself from expensive veterinary bills. Embrace Pet Insurance gives you the freedom to do what’s best for your pet without stressing over the cost. Easily personalize your coverage to fit your budget and your pet’s needs, then visit any vet for nose-to-tail coverage. Check out what the Embrace plan covers or compare pet insurance providers to learn more.

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