Why do cats spray or mark with urine?
If you are reading this post because you have a cat who is spraying or marking with urine, I want you to know that I understand how frustrating this problem is. I also want you to know that with a little effort, understanding, and sleuthing, you can get to the bottom of why your cat is spraying urine and hopefully eliminate the problem.
How do you know if your cat is really spraying?
Just because you find pee where it is not supposed to be in your house, doesn’t mean your cat is spraying. There are all kinds of reasons why urine ends up somewhere other than the litter box.
What does a spraying cat do?
If you catch your cat spraying, also called urine marking, you’ll know it. Cats who spray will back up to a vertical surface, like a wall, with tails upright and quivering. A cat’s whole body may quiver. Sometimes a cat will also perform a kind of pedaling motion with her back legs. Here are a couple of videos so you’ll know what you’re looking at when you see it:
A spraying cat will deposit only a bit of a urine; this is not a cat who is trying to empty his whole bladder. In fact, cats who spray also tend to use the litter box regularly, because spraying is not about a cat relieving himself.
A spraying indoor cat will often choose to spray at entry and exit points of a home, like doors and windows. Outdoor cats who spray will do so on the edges of a property, or on prominent objects like a big tree. Outdoor cats may also spray on new objects in the area, and in locations where other cats have already marked.
When is peeing outside the litter box NOT spraying?
Just because your cat is putting urine somewhere it doesn’t belong, doesn’t mean she is urine marking.
What difference does it make? It matters because if you don’t identify the actual problem you’re having, you won’t be able to address it.
Spraying is different from “improper elimination.” A cat who is peeing on a shirt left on the floor, or missing the litter box, is telling you one thing, while a cat who just sprayed your front door is saying something else.
How can you tell the difference?
Cats who are just peeing will squat down and empty their bladder on a horizontal surface, like the carpet or your bed. Spraying cats do so on vertical surfaces and only emit a small amount of pee. Improper elimination might also involve pooping outside the litter box; it is rare for a marking cat to do so with poop.
Pee from a cat who is eliminating improperly will smell like cat pee. A spraying cat, on the other hand, will often release urine that smells very pungent (especially if the cat isn’t neutered) because it contains some extra scent chemicals.
There are some overlaps between spraying and improper elimination. Sometimes the same trigger – stress, for example, or a medical condition – will cause one cat to spray and another to pee in your laundry basket, but there may be some differences in how you address the problem, depending on which problem you have.
If you think you have a cat who is “just” eliminating improperly, read this blog post, “Why is my cat peeing on my bed?” There is specific advice in that post that addresses the problem of a cat who is not marking, but just peeing somewhere other than where you want him to.
Why do cats spray or mark with urine?
How do you feel when you catch your cat spraying your beautiful curtains? It can be infuriating. Maybe you think your cat is being vindictive, or that your cat wants to “own” all of your possessions. Maybe you think your cat is being dominant or just really naughty, and needs to be taken down a peg or two.
What if I told you none of that was true?
Let’s back up a minute and talk about cat communication. Once you understand why your cat sprays with urine, you might also understand that a spraying cat probably just feels insecure. Also, your cat doesn’t think that urine smells bad the way you do. The smell of her own urine on objects around her living space actually makes her feel safer and more secure.
How cats communicate
So, cats are not dogs. Dogs are highly social animals. They rely upon each other for survival: they hunt together, sleep together, and eat together. They’re quite capable of doing harm to each other, too, so they’ve developed some pretty sophisticated interpersonal communication skills to head-off conflict. Dog-pack social structure is well organized, with a clear pecking order amongst the members. Dogs also employ body language to help other pack members read an individual’s intentions, which can help ward off unnecessary conflict.
Cats, while social, do not rely upon other members of their family for their survival. They hunt alone, eat alone, and sometimes sleep alone, too. Individual cats perceive themselves as equal to other cats; there are no leaders and followers in the cat world. Cats prevent disputes by simply avoiding face-to-face meetings with other cats. Cats who have something to say to one another will communicate indirectly. They’ll leave messages for one another, as if on a bulletin board.
Marking is all about communication
Spraying is a form of communication that allows cats to avoid confrontation with each other. Cats “talk” to each other with scent. The scent a cat leaves behind with her urine might say, “hey, this is my area,” or “I was just here,” or “I’m looking for a mate.” Scent eliminates the need for cats to meet up in person and risk a direct confrontation.
Change how you think about spraying
If an adult human peed on your things, you’d have every right to be furious. You’d attribute all kinds of unwelcome intent in an action like that – and you’d probably be right. But if you attribute that kind of intent to your cat, you’d be dead wrong.
Unless your cat is spraying to attract a mate, your cat is spraying to feel safer, to make his home feel more secure, to deal with very real stress, or to avoid a fight with another cat. That’s all. Cats do not feel the same way about urine as we do. They are not trying to ruin our things and they are not trying to claim our things as their own.
Remember that urine spraying is usually anxiety based. A cat doesn’t get angry because another cat has the nerve to step foot into his territory, for example. He’s upset because he doesn’t have the social skills to deal with the intrusion.
Why is it important to understand what your cat is feeling when he is spraying? If you understand the very real stress a spraying cat is feeling, you’ll be less inclined to shout at a spraying cat or to punish a spraying cat. You’ll be more interested in trying to resolve the problem that is causing your cat to spray in the first place.
What causes a cat to spray urine?
Let’s start with a description of cats who don’t spray or urine mark.
A cat who doesn’t spray is typically spayed or neutered and thus has no interest in mating. A cat who doesn’t spray lives in a world that is predictable and unchanging. A cat who doesn’t spray has no conflicts with other pets in the home, and no concerns about cat intruders outside the home. A cat who doesn’t spray is feeling healthy and is not in any pain. Simply put, a cat who doesn’t spray is a cat who isn’t distressed about anything.
So, what kinds of things cause a cat to spray?
- The cat (male or female) is unneutered and is seeking a mate.
- The cat has an underlying medical problem, such as a UTI, kidney failure, diabetes, arthritis, or hyperthyroidism. Note that there are no medical problems that directly contribute to urine marking, but certain physical problems can cause anxiety, which can cause a cat to spray. (Read, “How do you know if your cat is sick?”)
- The cat lives in a household with other cats with whom he has unresolved conflicts.
- There are new cats in the neighborhood, especially other cats who leave their urine marks in your yard. Even if your cat never goes out, he might still smell the intruder.
- There is a new person in the house, including a baby, or a new cat or other pet.
- There are changes in smell to the house from paint, new carpeting, or furniture.
- There are changes of any kind in the household, including just moving furniture.
- There are changes in your family’s routine. (Read this blog post, “How do cats deal with a change in routine? The answer: not very well.”)
All cats “mark” with scent
You might not realize this, but even cats who don’t urine mark are leaving their scent everywhere in an attempt to make their environment feel safer and to make themselves feel more secure. We tend to be fine with cats who want to rub their faces on things, or roll on the ground. Cats who are rolling and rubbing are actually depositing scent from scent glands located in various places around their bodies. (Read more about in this post, “Why does my cat head butt me?”) We’re OK with that kind of marking, but we’re just not too excited about cats who spray urine.
What to do if your cat is spraying
Take your cat to the vet
Before you do anything else, you must take your cat to the vet. You must first rule out any medical problem that could be causing stress and anxiety, which, in turn, could lead to urine marking. A diagnoses and treatment plan could be the end of this problem for both you and your cat. Remember, however, that there are no medical problems which directly cause a cat to spray.
Get your cat neutered
Intact cats who are looking to mate will urine mark. It’s the cat version of a dating app. Spraying announces a cat’s availability. Both male and female cats spray, although unneutered males are most likely to leave their mark. If your cat was spayed or neutered later in life, spraying could be an unfortunate learned behavior that stays with him or her even after the need to spray has been removed. 10% of neutered males and 5% of spayed females will continue to spray.
Note that when an intact male cat sprays, there will be a pungent “tom cat” odor to the urine. Neutering will change the smell and will hopefully reduce the cat’s motivation for spraying.
Clean, clean, clean
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Cleaning up the scent of urine isn’t going to fix the problem that is causing your cat to spray in the first place, but the smell of urine can trigger your cat to re-mark the same area.
Don’t use ammonia-based household cleaners to clean a sprayed area. Ammonia is a component of urine and might actually prompt your cat to mark again.
Use an enzyme-based cleanser which actually breaks down the proteins in urine. Ordinary household cleaners may leave traces of urine scent. Even if a spot smells clean to you, your cat’s nose has 200 million scent receptors and can smell what you can’t. An enzymatic-based cleaner like Angry Orange may discourage your cat from going back to “refresh” an old spot.
Read this post, "How to get cat pee out of carpet" for more details.
If you’ve determined that outdoor cats are marking your yard and causing your indoor cat to spray, you can try using odor neutralizers on any areas where the outdoor cats have eliminated or sprayed. Try this one by Simple Green, which connects to a garden hose and allows you to really saturate a larger area.
Discourage outdoor cats
You have to do a little sleuthing first to figure out if outdoor cats are marking your yard and causing your indoor cat distress. You’re going to have to become a careful observer of your cat (and your property) to figure it out.
If your indoor cat’s spraying seems to be inspired by outdoor cats lurking about, you need to prevent your cat from seeing, smelling, and hearing these cats. Keep your cat in a room away from windows and doors to the outdoors. Try a remote-controlled device to encourage your outdoor “neighbors” to find some new stomping grounds. This Critter Ridder by Havahart is a motion detector that shoots a surprising stream of water when it senses movement in the yard.
Reduce stress in multi-cat households
Cats are very subtle about their conflicts. A conflict might involve one cat staring at another. A conflict might involve one cat standing possessively over a food bowl so the other cat can’t eat. You might be hard-pressed to read these signs. But any conflict is stressful and stress can cause any cat to spray.
You might also be hard-pressed to figure out which of your cats aren’t getting along. If you do, try reintroducing them as if they’ve never met using the instructions in this blog post, “How to introduce a new cat to your cat.” Take it sloooooow.
To keep cats from reinforcing their new spraying habit, keep the ones that aren’t getting along separated, giving each their own litter boxes, food and water bowls, sleeping areas, and toys.
If you can’t tell which cat is marking, ask your vet about giving one cat at a time fluorescein, a harmless dye. Although the dye doesn’t usually stain furniture or walls, it causes urine to glow blue under UV light for about 24 hours. (Try this UV flashlight by DARKBEAM, which emits just the right wavelength of UV light to find urine.) If fluorescein isn’t an option, you’ll have to temporarily confine your cats, one by one, to determine which one is marking.
To keep stress and conflict to a minimum amongst a group of cats, spread resources around the house. Have multiple food bowls, litter boxes, and water bowls spread about your home to make sure every cat has access to what he needs. Note that cats don’t tend to mark in feeding, sleeping, or scratching areas, so if you have enough “safe” spots around, you may put a dent in your spraying problem that way.
Provide perches all around the house, preferably the kind with space for only one cat. These cat window seats are fun, but even a cat tower designed for a single kitty, like this one by Amazon Basics, will do the trick when you run out of windows!
Note that at a certain maximum capacity of 7 to 10 cats, you will often have spraying and marking behavior that may be difficult to completely address.
Add reassuring scent to your home
Cats who rub scent on surfaces with their cheek glands are less likely to mark with urine. It might be said that cats who mark with scent glands are marking in a more calm, friendly way, while spraying is more reactive and anxious.
You can try rubbing a soft cotton cloth on your cat’s scent glands and then transferring the scent to objects and walls in areas where she is spraying. It might help make her feel more safe and secure in her home.
You can also try adding synthetic pheromone (scent) to your home environment with a product called Feliway, which mimics the natural scent from a cat’s own glands. Feliway comes in a variety of formulations, including a diffuser for a multi-cat household and a spray you can apply yourself.
Discuss pharmaceuticals with your vet as a last resort
When you have tried absolutely everything and have still been unsuccessful in solving your cat’s spraying issues, you should reach out to your veterinarian again.
Certain antidepressants (such as clomipramine and fluoxetine) are effective in controlling spraying in some cats. Certain anti-anxiety drugs, such as buspirone and benzodiazepines, have been tried with some success, too. But you’ll have to weigh the risks and benefits along with your vet, including the cost and side effects of using these drugs with your cat.
What you should never do when your cat sprays
Remind yourself again that your cat is anxious and upset and only trying to find a way to make herself feel more secure. Tap into your own sense of compassion as you’re dealing with this very upsetting and very frustrating problem.
Remind yourself that your cat isn’t mad at you, or punishing you, or being vindictive. Do not take urine marking personally.
Don’t shout at your cat. Don’t punish your cat. Don’t spray water on a cat if you “catch him in the act.” Doing so might get your cat to stop spraying right there, but he’ll invariably find a new spot to spray.
Do not do anything that could make your cat even more nervous. You will not stop the spraying, but you will increase her stress, possibly making the spraying problem even worse.
And that’s the last thing you both need right now.
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 Horwitz, Debra, and Gary Landsberg. “Cat Behavior Problems - Marking and Spraying Behavior.” vca_corporate, vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/cat-behavior-problems-marking-and-spraying-behavior.
 “Urine Marking in Cats.” ASPCA, www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/common-cat-behavior-issues/urine-marking-cats.
 Horwitz, Debra, and Gary Landsberg.