Cats have many ways of communicating. Some of these ways, like meowing, are more understandable for humans than others. Urine spraying, on the other hand, not only proves much more challenging for humans to comprehend but is also much less pleasant.
Let’s face it: Humans and cats see urine very differently. Sadly, that misunderstanding lands many cats in shelters where they may never get adopted. So it’s important to understand the ways cats communicate with it.
Intact male cats spray to attract a female and to deter other males from their territory. Intact female cats spray to announce when they are in heat. The urine cats spray to attract a mate contains pheromones, making the odor much more pungent. Neutering males and spaying females eliminates this reason for spraying.
Spraying communicates another message. Other cats clearly understand the message when they wander into another cat’s territory that they either need to move on or prepare to fight.
“Spraying is driven by territoriality,” says Gary Norsworthy, DVM, a board-certified feline specialist at the Alamo Feline Health Center in San Antonio, Texas. If cats think another cat is encroaching on their territory, they will often respond by spraying “as a means of telling the other cat that this is my house.”
Resolving this issue involves identifying the source of your cat’s feelings of encroachment, whether it’s a new pet in the household or a neighborhood cat roaming your yard. You may need to separate household pets and gradually reintroduce them. For neighborhood cats, place cat-safe deterrents in your yard and temporarily block your cat’s view of the area. A pheromone spray can help calm your cat in both circumstances.
“Inappropriate elimination may have a root cause that creates pain when urinating or defecating,” Dr. Norsworthy says. Conditions that can cause a cat to urinate or defecate outside the litter box include a bladder infection, bladder stones, constipation, and anal sac abscess or impaction.
Some diseases, such as diabetes and kidney disease, cause a significant increase in urine production or diarrhea, Dr. Norsworthy says. An ingrown toenail can cause pain in the litter box when litter gets into the open wound and, as a result, the cat may associate the pain with the litter box.
“Arthritis of the spine, hips or knees can make positioning to urinate or defecate painful, and the cat may associate that with the litter box,” he says. “Cats with almost any debilitating disease that causes weakness may result in the cat urinating or defecating where they are rather than expending the energy to walk across the house — or up or down stairs — to get to the litter box.”
Dr. Norsworthy recommends first having your veterinarian look for issues that cause pain associated with urination or defecation. “This begins with a thorough physical examination plus urinalysis, urine culture, X-ray and ultrasound study. Have tests done that reflect disease, such as a blood glucose determination and kidney function tests. A comprehensive blood panel with urinalysis and culture may reveal serious underlying disease.”
If your cat is healthy but urinating outside the litter box, a dirty litter box or too many cats per litter box might be the problem. A litter with an adverse smell or texture can also repel a cat, Dr. Norsworthy says. He recommends providing at least one litter box per two cats and to clean each litter box at least once per day. Interestingly, he says that cats often see two litter boxes in the same room as just one. “Be sure the cat likes the type and brand of cat litter you are using,” he says, adding that cats usually prefer clumping litter.
If the cat is healthy and the litter box is clean and you have enough of them, look at emotional stressors that may precipitate peeing outside the litter box, such as “living with an aggressor cat, a new person in the household, someone moving out of the household, new carpet, furniture or drapes,” he says.
No matter what causes your cat to spray or urinate outside the litter box, clean the area and remove the odor. Anything that smells like urine to a cat identifies it as the cat’s bathroom, and he or she will continue to pee there. Look for enzymatic cleaners that remove odor as well as the stain.
Dr. Norsworthy advises prompt action when a cat starts to miss the litter box. “Duration is a major factor in reversing inappropriate elimination. I am successful about 90% of the time if I get to work with the problem in the first 30 days. If it has been occurring over six months, it is unlikely that I will reverse it.”
Understanding the difference between the two helps you determine if your cat marked his territory because he felt threatened by another cat or simply couldn’t make it to the litter box because of a health reason.
“Spraying is defined as directing the cat’s urine in a horizontal direction,” Dr. Norsworthy says. This could be against any vertical surface like a wall, door or a window. “Inappropriate elimination means the cat urinates or defecates anywhere except the litter box, but it is on a horizontal surface.”
Examples include a floor, couch, bed, chair or tabletop. A home that is overcrowded with cats can prompt more urine marking behaviors as well as inappropriate elimination.
“Overcrowding is the No. 1 cause that results in inappropriate elimination,” says Dr. Norsworthy, who recommends no more than four cats per 2,000 square feet of living space. He estimates that every household cat increases the likelihood of inappropriate elimination by 10%. “If you have 10 cats, there is a 100% chance it will happen.” In overcrowded households, he recommends rehoming cats that do not get along with the others.
Pee happens, and the aftermath isn’t much fun to deal with. Here are a few tips to help you get the job done.