Why Do Cats Spray?

Grey cat looking at the camera

Your cat sprays to mark his territory, an instinctive behaviour that goes back to his ancestral hunting days. Spraying behaviour is typically seen in unneutered male cats (although somewhat common in females too) and was once used by the cat to let other cats know that the area in question had been claimed and any prey to be found is scarce. Spraying behaviour usually goes away with neutering.

Spray is not like regular urination. It involves your cat backing up to a wall or other surface and releasing tiny amounts of urine that have a horribly strong and pungent scent that stays behind and is sometimes called a “tomcat” odour. When your cat sprays, he is effectively telling other cats “Move on, this place belongs to me! Nothing to see here!”

How Can I Tell if My Cat Is Spraying or Just Urinating? 

If your cat is spraying, not just urinating, his tail is erect as he backs up to a vertical surface and squirts the urine purposefully at the wall, tree, hedge or other object. His tail may quiver as he sprays. Normally, cats squat to urinate, even in their litter boxes.

Communicating With Other Cats

Cats communicate in lots of ways with each other, and spraying is one example. Cat spraying can benefit the neighbourhood by helping to curb any physical confrontations between cats, especially toms, in the area. Cats spray at nose level of other cats so that passing cats can find out information about them, including their sex, age, health, activities, and where the marked territories begin and end. 

When Cats Spray Indoors

Spraying outdoors typically causes minimal upset to owners, since it’s on an outdoor surface in the fresh air, and they can easily walk away and forget it. However, when cats begin to mark territory indoors, all bets are off. If your cat suddenly starts making territory in your home, it's typically a sign that the cat is anxious about something that’s made him more apt to claim his space.

Why your cat is spraying inside may hold the clue to what’s going on in his life. For instance, if he's spraying window ledges, curtains and doorframes, then it might be because something he’s seen outside has left him feeling threatened. If your cat is spraying dressing tables, beds and chair legs, he may be feeling insecure and is marking the area in an attempt to enhance his confidence by adding more of his own scent to his surroundings.

If you can’t determine what's caused your cat to suddenly start spraying indoors, you may need to ask your vet to intervene and help you determine what’s going on. Your vet can help with advice on spray prevention or even refer you to a behaviourist for additional help.

Getting Control of Your Cat’s Spraying

Now that you know spraying is your cat’s way of showing that he’s scared, frightened or anxious, be sure to not frighten your cat even more by shouting at him when you notice spraying behaviour. This can cause his stress level to rise, and with it, more spraying to ensue.

When it comes to learning how to stop cats from spraying, the initial step involves thinking about your cat’s stressors. Are there new pets in the house? Is your family experiencing turmoil? Looking at your cat’s life from his point of view may help you determine what’s gone wrong that's caused him to feel like he does.

  • Is your neighbourhood suddenly a cat haven? Cats become anxious when there are a lot of cats around. If your cat goes outdoors, invest in a cat flap for your door that stops cats from getting in, and try your best to keep other animals off your property.
  • Are you dealing with the loss of another cat? Have you welcomed a new cat into your family? It can be traumatic to lose a friend, and inversely, it can be hard making new friends, even among cats. If you lost a cat recently, don’t put the cat’s toys and belongings away — just merge them in with your other cat’s things. And if you’ve brought a new cat into the home, be sure to buy some new toys for him.
  • Have you been redecorating your home or moved to a new home? Just like children (and adults too, really), cats need time to adjust to their new surroundings. It’s not unusual for your grown cat or kitten to feel unsettled and revert to spraying to find a sense of calm and belonging. One trick to consider is a pheromone transfer. Rub your cat’s face with a soft cloth to pick up on any natural pheromones, then wipe furniture and other items with the cloth to transfer the pheromones and increase your cat’s feelings of being surrounded by space he owns.

Medical Reasons for Cat Spraying

Not all instances of indoor spraying are related to behavioural issues or emotional problems in cats. Sometimes a medical problem lies at the root cause of indoor spraying. A vet can find out for sure if your cat is sick with any conditions, such as the treatable yet potentially fatal feline lower urinary tract infection or FLUTD. 

Cleaning Up After Cat Spraying

It is often the case that cats spray the same area over and over again, which can be helpful in cleaning up after a bout of spraying. Remember, cats tend to spray at the nose level of other cats, so focus cleaning efforts on the bottoms of walls and clean with a ready-made enzyme cleaner or a solution of 10% washing detergent and water. Clean the area thoroughly, then rinse the area in cold water and give it time to dry. Finish off your cleaning work by spraying the area with alcohol. 

Now that you know why cats spray, learn more about curious ancestral behaviour in cats.

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