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Why Does My Cat Spray, and How Can I Stop the Behavior?

All cats -- male and female, fixed or not -- can spray; here's how to find the reason and end it.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Oct 9th 2015


Cats don’t need high tech devices to communicate. In addition to body language, vocalizing, scratching objects, and rubbing, they use urine to broadcast their intentions and emotions. Spraying, which is one form of urine marking, is not hugely popular with people, especially when done indoors.

Cat spraying

Cat spraying. by Shutterstock

It can be difficult to tell the difference between urinating and spraying because some cats stand instead of squat while urinating. The smell and the amount of urine indicate whether it’s urinating or a marking behavior. Spray is highly pungent because it contains pheromones. This unpleasant smell sometimes is the only indicator that cats have sprayed in the house. One positive note is that less urine is deposited when cats spray than when they urinate.

Kitties are sometimes caught in the act — backing up to a vertical surface, treading with the front paws, and quickly twitching their tails while spraying. Simultaneously they may close their eyes.

Cat starting to spray

Cat starting to spray. by Shutterstock

Why cats spray

Urine is a powerful communication tool — cats can tell a great deal about each other from it including age, sex, status, and sexual availability. Although adult cats of both genders, whole as well as fixed, might spray under specific circumstances, intact ones are most often guilty of the smelly behavior.

Whole males, as a rule, spray. Pheromones, released into the urine, advertise they’re ready, willing, and on the alert for girlfriends. Additionally, spraying broadcasts clear messages to other male cats to stay away. Intact female cats spray too — the chemicals in their urine indicate where they are in their cycle.

Spraying is a form of communication: broadcasting availability and emotions of the spraying cat

Spraying is a form of communication: broadcasting availability and emotions of the spraying cat. A cat sniffing by Shutterstock

Spray from intact cats is more pungent than from those who are fixed. The unpleasant smell is easier to detect from a distance — important for advertising for a special friend.

Although spayed and neutered cats aren’t looking to connect with members of the opposite sex, they have other reasons to spray including:

  • Marking boundaries
    Spraying is the feline version of drawing lines in the sand and putting up “no trespassing” signs. Kitties are territorial — the far-reaching effects of the pungent urine lets other animals in the hood know the extent of their stomping grounds.
  • Reacting to neighborhood cats
    Inside cats sometimes spray around doors and windows when they see or smell unfamiliar cats hanging out around their homes. They spray to mark territories and because they can’t reach the intruders to chase them away or engage with them. Often, the unwelcome visitors leave their own calling cards, which the resident felines smell.
Neighborhood cats are one of the reasons cats spray

Neighborhood cats are one of the reasons cats spray. Two cats by Shutterstock

  • Recognizing their own scents
    Cats sometimes will spray inside their territories so they can smell and recognize their own scents.
  • New objects and furniture
    Some cats will spray new furniture or objects that are brought into their homes.
  • Stress
    Insecurities and stress can trigger the unpleasant behavior. Some cats are more sensitive than others, responding by marking to situations such as other cats, household changes, owners traveling, illness, new household pets, and even schedule changes.
Stressed cats will often spray

Stressed cats will often spray. A gray cat by Shutterstock

  • Mingling scents
    Some cats will spray their favorite people’s belongings in an effort to mix scents together and create a bond. Another reason is for security. Stressed, fearful cats will sometimes spray objects that smell like their owners, helping the cats feel a little more secure.
  • Not adjusting to change
    Some cats do not adjust well to household changes, including problems between the humans residents, a new baby, schedule changes, moving, and remodeling.
  • Conflict resolution
    Conflicts in multicat households can cause marking. Stressed, anxious, and threatened felines will spray in order to communicate status and territorial boundaries. In theory, the smelly behavior might keep cats from fighting. Cats who engage in hostilities often are scratched and bitten. Settling wars through spraying is much safer.
Conflicts between cats can cause spraying

Conflicts between cats can cause spraying. A hissing cat by Shutterstock

Curtail the smelly behavior

The following tips and suggestions help stop spraying, and they also help stop the behavior before it begins:

  • Don’t punish cats
    Never punish cats when they spray. Don’t yell, rub noses in the urine, or hit them. Those responses will cause kitties to feel more stressed and escalate behaviors. Sadly, it also breaks the bonds between them and the punisher. Kitties aren’t being bad — they have good reasons for marking. Instead, identify the causes for the behavior and address them.
  • Use an enzyme cleaner
    Thoroughly clean marked areas with an effective enzyme cleaner. It might take a couple of applications until the smell is eliminated.
  • Change mental connections
    Change your cat’s association with the targeted areas after the areas have been cleaned with the enzyme cleaner. Do activities she enjoys such as playing, petting, and clicker training on the areas. Placing toys and scratchers near them will also change how she relates to the sprayed spots.
Change the cat’s association with the sprayed areas.

Change the cat’s association with the sprayed areas. A woman pets her cat by Shutterstock

  • Use synthetic pheromones
    Using synthetic pheromones around the marked areas can help calm and relax your cat.
  • Close doors
    Temporarily keep your kitty out of the rooms that are being sprayed.
  • Interaction
    If your cat is spraying a family member’s belongings, encourage the person to feed, play, and interact with the kitty every day.
The person’s whose items are being sprayed should play and interact with the cat

The person’s whose items are being sprayed should play and interact with the cat. A woman engages a cat by Shutterstock

  • Address intercat issues
    Increase the resources to reduce the competition in multicat households. Provide more vertical territory, hiding places, scratchers, and toys throughout your home. You might need to add feeding stations, placing them a distance from each other. Make sure there are enough clean litter boxes — one per cat, plus one, and place them in different areas of your home. Sometimes separating warring cats from each other and gradually reintroducing them will stop the squabbling and the marking.
  • Discourage neighborhood cats
    Keep neighborhood cats off your property by placing safe deterrents around the outside perimeter of your home. Temporarily block your kitty’s view of the unwelcome visitors by covering windows. After the intruders stop visiting, uncover the windows.
  • Spay and neuter
    Although all adult cats can spray, the chances of their marking are greatly reduced by spaying and neutering. In addition to eliminating the reasons to mark, spaying and neutering also helps curtail hostilities.
Spaying and neutering can stop spraying

Spaying and neutering can stop spraying.Two cats interactby fotolia

  • Daily interaction
    Help your cat feel more secure and less anxious by doing activities she enjoys every day, such as playing, treasure hunts, and clicker training.
  • Vet check
    Before assuming your cat has a behavior challenge, have a veterinarian examine her in order to rule out any possible medical problems that could be causing her to spray.
  • Gradual introductions
    Newly adopted kitties need to be separated from your resident felines and gradually introduced. It might take a month or longer to introduce them to each other with a minimum of stress.
Introduce cats to each other gradually

Introduce cats to each other gradually. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Although all cats can spray, it is a behavior that intact cats are more likely to engage in than those who are fixed. Once the reasons for the smelly behavior are identified, you should be able to stop it or at least reduce the occurrences by addressing the causes and modifying the environment.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods. Marilyn is big on education — she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.