As cat owners, it can be difficult to remember that our beloved furballs have roots in the wild. Way back when, cats used to have to exclusively hunt for their food. As competition developed between them, cats eventually learned that they could claim hunting territory by marking surfaces with their urine.
While we can appreciate the genius of this idea, it gets remarkably less cool when it starts happening in our houses. We don’t know about you, but we want to minimize the amount of cat pee we have to smell at any given point in time. So, when you realize that Whiskers is spraying all over your furniture, what are you supposed to do?
What is Cat Spraying?
Before trying to understand why cats spray or how to stop spraying, you first need to ask whether or not your cat is actually spraying or just urinating. It seems like a silly distinction (they’re both pee, after all) but it’s an important one to make because a cat spraying problem has distinct causes that dictate how it should be treated.
Spraying is when a cat ejects a small amount of urine onto a vertical surface, such as a wall, table leg, couch, curtains, or other areas of your household. When a cat decides to spray, they’ll stand up, raise their tail, shake, back up, and spray the targeted surface. They may even happily rub the surface with their behinds if they’re feeling extra spry. Hoo-ray! 😑
This is different from regular urination, which is when the cat squats down in a selected area and voids their bladder with a steady, constant stream of urine.
Why Do Cats Spray?
There are several things that might cause a cat to spray. These range from spraying to exert territorial control, to using spraying as a communication method, or is the result of an underlying medical condition that induces spraying. Regardless of what is causing it, getting to the root of the issue is the first step in effectively stopping the behavior from continuing.
Cat Spraying as a Form of Territorial Control
Any cat lover knows that, while adorable, cats are control freaks. They find all sorts of little, loveable ways to show you that they’re in charge. But having such large desires for control means that cats don’t have an innate mechanism to handle face-to-face disputes with other cats in their vicinity.
Accordingly, what do they do when they feel conflict or anxiety caused by the presence of other cats? They may deal with it by staying as far apart from one another as possible! And, instead of running the risk of being caught in a potentially dangerous cat fight, cats may communicate indirectly with one another via messages– written in urine – which is pretty catty behavior, honestly.
By marking a surface in urine, a cat can communicate to other cats nearby that the marked area/surface is theirs, it’s been theirs for X amount of time, and this is when nearby cats can expect to see them again. In essence, it’s like a much smellier way of puffing out their adorable little chests to competing cats in the house or neighborhood.
Cat Spraying as a Form of Communication
Cats aren’t limited to only being able to communicate territorial feelings through their pee. Some cats may begin spraying as a response to the introduction of any number of environmental stressors. Environmental stressors that can induce spraying include: a new animal in the home; a change to your working hours; boredom with its feeding or playing regimen; construction going on in or outside; or they may just feel generally stressed out! But, when environmental stressors are the cause, the cat who’s spraying isn’t trying to communicate with other cats; they’re trying to communicate with you! in other words, they are trying to get the attention of the human who can actually help them change up their environment! Of course, we’d probably prefer that they would just meow differently. But —that’s just us.
Additionally, cats can use urine spraying to indicate to other cats that they’re looking for a mate. How very romantic! The distinctive and acrid odor of adult male cat urine tells any potential lovers nearby “Hey! I’m looking for a good time!”. After taking a good whiff, an adult female cat will be able to identify that scent on the sprayer’s body and decide whether or not they want to participate/mate.
Cat Spraying Caused by Medical Conditions
As one can imagine, any medical conditions that might cause a cat to spray are likely to concern the organs that facilitate urination; namely the bladder and the urinary tract.
Feline Lower Urinary Tract Diseases That Can Cause Spraying
A very common medical condition that can cause cat spraying is Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD). This is a broad term that’s used to describe a number of urinary tract disorders and conditions that affect the urinary organs.
Besides spraying, cats who have any disorder related to FLUTD may present the following symptoms:
- Difficulty or pain while urinating
- Straining while urinating
- Increased frequency of urination
- Urinating in small amounts
- Crying out in pain while urinating
- Excessive licking of the genitals
- Bloody or cloudy urine
- Urinating in odd places such as on the floor or on furniture
- Irritability (more so than usual)
- Hard, distended abdomen
Idiopathic Cystitis in Cats
The most common form of FLUTD is idiopathic cat cystitis, which is a diagnosis of exclusion used to describe generalized inflammation of the bladder. The name idiopathic indicates that this condition can arise spontaneously and without any singular, traceable cause. This is partially because any number of inflammatory conditions affecting a cat’s urinary tract or bladder can produce the same symptoms. Oftentimes, young and old cats are affected by idiopathic cystitis as a psychosomatic response to being unable to handle stress rather than as a result of underlying medical troubles. Unfortunately, idiopathic cystitis is often a recurring problem for cats, which makes it a very frustrating condition for the pet, owner, and veterinarian alike.
Bladder Stones in Cats
Cats who suffer from bladder stones may also begin spraying. Bladder stones are small deposits of minerals, crystals and other substances that build up in your cat’s bladder. After accumulating, these materials can begin to rub against their bladder walls and cause inflammation. Over time, this inflammation can cause immense discomfort which can force your cat to adjust their urinary behavior, resulting in spraying.
Some unlucky cats with this form of FLUTD may even have proteins and blood leak from their inflamed bladder and accumulate in their urethra, resulting in a blockage. These blockages prevent them from peeing altogether and present a life-threatening complication which must be treated immediately by a vet.
Urinary Tract Infections in Cats
Typically affecting senior cats who are more than ten years old and diabetic cats, urinary tract infections are caused by bacteria that makes its way up the urethra and into the bladder. Once inside the bladder, these microorganisms begin to interact with and reproduce inside of the urine that’s stored in the bladder, causing infection and inflammation. The presence of certain small bladder stones, called uroliths, may increase the risk of your cat developing a urinary tract infection. Besides being uncomfortable for your kitty, the resulting infection can also induce spraying.
How to Stop Cat Spraying
In order to effectively stop your cat from spraying, you’ll need to first determine what’s causing them to spray in the first place.
Neutering Your Cat to Stop Spraying
First things first: if you haven’t already done so, get your cat neutered. The earlier the better. While urine marking isn’t a behavior that’s exclusive to unneutered male cats, they have the most (romantic) reason to engage in the behavior of all their feline counterparts. By removing the romantic reason why your cat might spray urine via neutering your male cat – you cut down on the likelihood of the behavior ever even occurring. Makes pretty good sense, right?
Getting Medical Conditions Treated to Stop Cat Spraying
If your cat is already neutered, the next step is to determine if there are any medical conditions that may be causing your cat to spray. If you suspect that a disorder affecting the urinary tract, the bladder, or kidney may be to blame, schedule an appointment with a veterinarian. Once you’re at the vet’s office, they’ll likely begin by conducting a full physical exam. The purpose of this exam is to check for any abnormalities on their body function, as well as to determine their body condition score and physical fitness.
After the physical exam is complete, your vet may order a series of tests or labs such as a urinalysis, urine culture, complete blood count (CBC), or imaging tests. A urinalysis will be used to uncover crystals, bacteria, or blood that are present in the urine. A urine culture, on the other hand, will expose specific bacteria that may be infecting your cat’s urinary tract or bladder. A complete blood count will tell your vet how well your cat’s organs are functioning and help them determine if they’re likely to be suffering from diseases such as chronic kidney disease or diabetes. Imaging provided by procedures such as X-rays or ultrasounds can provide critical insight into whether blockages in the kidney, bladder, or urethra are causing the problem.
If an underlying medical condition is determined to be the cause of your cat’s spraying, your vet will craft a specific treatment plan aimed at eliminating the condition. The kinds of treatments that may be recommended depend entirely on what the cause is determined to be. Potential treatments may range from something as simple as an antibiotic course to treat a urinary tract infection all the way to surgery for urethral blockages. Additionally, your veterinarian may recommend certain diet or lifestyle changes, such as exercising or going on a special low-calcium diet, to limit the potential for recurring urinary or bladder irritation. Many cat foods are especially formulated to deal with cats that are prone to various FLUTD conditions.
Other Methods to Stop Cat Spraying
If no medical condition is determined to be the cause of your cat’s spraying, then environmental conditions and external stressors must be considered. If your cat has already begun spraying, there are a number of steps you can take to minimize the chance of recurrence.
The first step is to keep your cat as far away as possible from the area they sprayed on. Next, you’ll want to vigorously clean the area using a quality enzymatic, bio-based cleaner to eliminate leftover urine from the space. And don’t be afraid to really get in there and scrub. You don’t want to leave a single trace of urine for your cat to sniff out. If they catch a whiff of the spot, they may be encouraged to spray there again. But do remember: do not use ammonia-based cleaners. Urine is partially composed of ammonia, so using an ammonia-based cleaner may instead attract more attention to a spot instead of deterring a cat.
On the subject of cleaning, be sure to keep your cats’ litter boxes sparkling clean. In the words of Dr. Cathy Lund of River Valley Veterinary Services, you should “make the litter box like the Ritz Carlton”. (PetMD) This is because a dirty or unkempt litter box can make it an unattractive spot for your cat to do their business. This then causes them to seek out other areas to do their business – such as your curtains, couch, dirty laundry, your bed and more!
After cleaning the sprayed surfaces and tidying up your litter box, you’ll need to determine if your cat is anxious due to other cats in the house or animals outside.
If the latter, close the blinds or shades to reduce the chance of your cat seeing other animals. If the problem persists, you may have to move your cat’s perching areas away from the window (though we know she’ll miss the view). Also, if you notice another cat mozying into your yard from time to time, shoo it away and out of your yard. If you recognize it as a neighbor’s cat, diplomatically let them know that their cat is causing your cat to feel anxious.
If your other cats are causing one of their siblings to spray, you should aim to minimize the chance for conflict between them. In general, the mantra of “More cats, More space” is a good rule-of-thumb to follow.
For example, if there are too few litter boxes for each cat to use, this may cause silent conflict which can lead to spraying. Make sure to have one litter box in your house for each cat you have, plus one more. Be sure to place any additional litter boxes in spots by where the marking cat spends the majority of his time. It’s also a really good idea to place the litter boxes away from food bowls, water dishes, or other areas that might spark territorial behavior.
In that same vein, making multiple perching areas available ensures that all your cats have their own spaces to rest. Cats also should also have multiple sources of food, water, and things to keep their minds busy like toys or scratch posts with a little catnip sprinkled on it from time to time, as well as multiple ways to access them. Moreover, don’t forget to spread the love! Each of your kitties craves a certain amount of affection and attention from you. Lay the snuggles on thick with your cuddliest cats and give your more aloof buddies some good head scratches. And play with them, too! My cat loves to play hide-and-seek with me—honestly!
Finally, if your cat’s spraying is caused by general anxiety, you may want to consider bolstering all of the efforts above with an anti-anxiety medication treatment plan. You may, with your vet’s help, want to administer supplements such as L-theanine, whey protein, or colostrum to calm your cat’s nerves. It’s also been shown that spraying certain pheromones within your cat’s living spaces may help them feel safer and more secure. Pheromones are a variety of a chemical communication between members of a particular species. The vomeronasal organ, found between your cat’s nose and mouth, receives pheromones. Jacqui Neilson, DVM, DACVB, owner of the Animal Behavior Clinic (Portland, OR) says “certain pheromones, called calming or appeasing pheromones, can sometimes help relieve stressed pets. Pet pheromone products are said to mimic natural cat or dog pheromones and come in various forms, including sprays, plug-in diffusers, wipes, and collars.”. These are just some ideas; be sure to involve your Vet in any of these treatment options.