When cats spray urine in the home, humans consider it a problem behavior, but for cats, spraying is a normal means of communication.
Domestic and wild cats use spraying to mark their territory. “It’s found throughout the feline kingdom,” says Mikel Delgado, Ph.D., of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s a way to communicate with other animals without having a face-to-face conversation.”
However, just because it’s a natural behavior doesn’t mean it’s a good thing: for indoor cats, especially in multi-cat homes, it’s probably a sign of stress. “Spraying typically reveals some underlying anxiety about relationships or territory in the home,” Dr. Delgado says.
Is Spraying Really What’s Happening?
Before you try to address the problem, it’s important to figure out if what you’re seeing is actually spraying. Cats who are eliminating outside the box may be spraying, or they may simply be urinating in places we don’t care for, usually referred to as “house soiling.” “They’re two functionally different things,” says Delgado. “One is elimination; they’re going to the bathroom. The other is marking territory.”
The difference is important because they are the result of different underlying problems. A recent study that compared sprayers and house soilers in multi-cat households found that all the cats in a household where a cat is spraying have higher levels of stress.
Delgado says studies of medications that are effective in reducing spraying also tell us something about the cause: what works are hormone blockers and anti-anxiety medications. “That tells us that there are two probable functions of spraying. One is hormonal – advertising ‘I’m ready to mate’ and the other is, ‘I’m anxious about my territory, so I’m trying to protect what I have by claiming it.'”
So how do you tell the difference? First, you should make sure the cat does not have any medical issues, such as a bladder infection. Then you need to do some observation and detective work.
Watching the cat can help. Typically, if it’s house soiling, you’ll see the voiding of a full bladder, not just some squirts. Position can be informative, but not always. “It can be confusing because some cats don’t fully squat when they urinate – some urinate in an upright position,” she says.
Spraying leaves a distinctive pattern, so get a blacklight and do a little forensic investigation: does it look like a spray?
Where spraying occurs can also clue you in to the problem. Delgado suggests drawing a map of your house and marking all the places you find evidence of spraying. If something outside is stressing the cats, such as seeing other cats or dogs outside, you will often see perimeter marking, near doors and windows. If the problem comes from relationships with other cats in the home, cats may mark internal doorways or resources shared with other cats.
What to Do
First, if the cats are not already spayed and neutered, that will help. (Note that while spraying is most common in unaltered males, both male and female cats spray.) Clean the affected area thoroughly with an enzymatic cleaner. If odor is left behind, the cat may mark the area again or other cats may be attracted to mark the same spot.
Then make sure the environment is set up to reduce conflict. The study showed that if one cat is spraying, all are stressed, so the household needs to meet the needs of all the cats in it. “You need to make sure you have enough resources to support the number of cats you’re living with, and they are distributed throughout the house, so cats don’t have to get in conflict to access the litter box or food and water or resting spots,” says Delgado.
Difficult cases could require separating the cats for most of the day and/or anti-anxiety medication. But also important are what Delgado calls “nature’s anti-anxiety treatments”: things that reduce stress and anxiety such as increasing exercise and activity. This can include mental and physical stimulation: food puzzles, climbing structures, window perches, and interactive play with humans and toys.
“People should always offer those, even in addition to medication,” she says. “Medication isn’t a replacement for behavior modification, because it doesn’t relieve the underlying problem; it just helps the cat cope. We want to stop the spraying behavior, but we also want to address the reason the spraying started in the first place.”
Think About the Box
A litter box that cats really love is important no matter what the problem is, or even if you don’t have a problem yet. If your cat is house soiling and does not have a medical problem, that probably means something about the litter box isn’t suiting their needs. And a box that cats find just barely tolerable is a source of stress.
“People confuse using the box with liking the box,” says Delgado. “If we went camping together, we’ll both use an outhouse. Should I assume you like using an outhouse? No. You don’t have other choices.” So a cat might be unhappy with the box, but might use it until some new stressor enters the picture, or some nice new surface to go on.
Cleanliness is vital, but the type of litter, style of box, and location are all important. Hiding boxes away in basements, garages, and closets is understandable from the human point of view, perhaps, but this can make the box inconvenient and hard to access for the cats. Delgado is also not a fan of furniture designed to enclose litter boxes. “I don’t think they work for the cats. They are designed for the humans,” she says. “People have some misinformed ideas that cats want privacy when they eliminate because we want privacy when we eliminate. But what cats want is safety, and often that means they want to be able to see what’s around so they don’t feel vulnerable and like they might get trapped.”
So an enclosed box can feel unsafe for cats, and prompt them to look for a more open place – like the middle of the living room. So provide cats what they really want to start, and they won’t have to come up with other ways to cope.
Finally, in response to any kind of litter box issue, remember that punishment is never appropriate. “It’s going to increase stress, and it’s not going to fix the problem,” she says. “It’s not humane, and it also doesn’t address the why. Why is your cat doing this behavior in the first place? That is what you need to address.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.
Published January 4, 2021