Cat Behavior, Cat Care

When Cats Spray: Why They Do It and What to Do About It

When Cats Spray

Though not every feline does it, some do... and when they do... it can be a dreadful thing. What am I talking about? Spraying. When cats spray, it can turn your whole household upside down, causing stress to everyone, and leaving your home a less than inviting place. So if you've noticed this behavior in your cats, then read on to find out why it happens, what to do about it, and how to clean up the mess when it occurs.

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Why Cats Spray

What It Is and What It Looks Like

When cats spray it can mean a number of things, and these things can vary quite a bit depending on gender, health, and environment. Before we begin, it's important to know what “spraying” is. When most people hear the term, they think of big wild cats who spray urine from a vertical position. This image is pretty accurate for our domesticated felines. Like their untamed counterparts, our sweet little house cats lift their tails, and spray on any vertical surface they feel compelled to claim. You may also notice him treading his paws, backing up to the surface, closing or narrowing his eyes, arching his back, or twitching his tail. Finally, you will likely find that the amount and quality of sprayed urine differs somewhat from regular litter box deposits. On the plus side, there's less of it. On the negative side, the scent is stronger, as it contains a sort of concentrated chemical cocktail made up mainly of pheromones.

Why They Do It
Territory Marking and Dominance

Now that you know what spraying is, we can get into the whys. It's important to remember that, despite domestication, our felines are essentially tiny wild cats – or rather, they have retained many of the same instincts that their larger peers use to survive in the wild. Despite the fact that our kitties are well cared for in our homes, they still maintain an instinctive territoriality. Domestic felines use a variety of marking behaviors as a means to make claims on what they deem to be theirs. Some of these behaviors are charming, like head bumping and cheek rubbing, while others are a little more unsavory.

All cats use marking behaviors to claim their territories, but when cats spray, it is generally a sign that they feel their space is truly being threatened. In order to deal with this habit, it's important to identify why your kitties are feeling compelled to act on it. Have you brought a new cat or kitten into the home? Have you recently relocated? Do you clean litter boxes frequently enough? Are there any stray cats around your property?

Stress and Health Issues

It is also important to note that what may seem like spraying may be something else entirely. Females and neutered males typically spray for reasons other than dominance and territory marking. If you answered yes to the first two questions above – new cat or new home – your kitty might be a little freaked out right now, and the familiar scent, while unpleasant to you, might just be comforting to him. Think of it like a nightmarish version of your own lavender essential oil! Additionally, inappropriate urination might be due to underlying medical issues, like urinary tract infections or arthritis.

Spray-Mimicking Marking

Lastly, if you notice some of the hallmarks of spraying – slightly arched back, twitching tail – but there's no actual urine being released, your kitty might be marking in a different way. Cats have two small anal sacs that contain a dark, pungent-smelling liquid. This liquid is usually passed during defecation; however, when used for marking, instead of releasing the liquid, cats will simply waft the scent of it to anyone nearby. Though harmless, it's easy to mistake this gesture as an attempt to spray, given that the body language is quite similar.

How to Break the Habit

Identifying the Cause
Start With a Check-Up

When cats spray, most people panic. I mean, this is unquestionably a bad habit, and one that is notoriously difficult to break. But not to worry! It can be done! The first thing you need to do is rule out any hidden medical issues. Your vet will likely check for a UTI or other urinary issues, joint pain, vision problems, or issues with paw pads or nails.

Follow With a Check-In

If your kitty comes back with the all clear, you must seriously ask yourself what could be bothering your fuzzy little friend. Think about some of the things mentioned above: Have there been any major upheavals in your household – new pets, family members, or roommates; a change of location; a redecoration or major house renovation – or anything else that might have upset his regular routine? Are there cats roaming within sight or smelling-distance from your doors or windows? Have you started regularly visiting a location where there are a lot of strange cats? This last one gets overlooked by many people, but cats have a keen sense of smell, and your kitty can easily catch the whiff of other felines from the scent of your shoes.

Narrowing it Down

If there's more than one potential cause, you can start narrowing it down. For instance, if you've brought in a new critter, make sure your cat has plenty of space of his own – his own litter box, bed, cat tree, etc. If you're dragging in the scent of other cats, wipe your shoes with baby wipes prior to coming inside. If you've recently moved or changed up your home, start establishing a regular routine for feeding, play, and quiet times.

Time to Re-Train!
Start Simple

The narrowing process alone might be enough to break an acute habit. However, if spraying has become a chronic habit, you might need to follow a few extra steps. You'll likely notice that your kitty sprays in one or two particular areas. Initially, you will want to keep him away from that area if at all possible. Once you've taken the time to clean up his marked spots, you can then allow him back into the room where you will then begin the process of re-wiring his attitudes toward this space. Start positively interacting in this location – if he's a big player, bat around his favorite toy; if he prefers a good cuddle, sit with him near the formerly-sprayed spot. Whatever makes him feel relaxed and content. If you notice him nosing the old pee spots, divert his attention by waving around his toy or creating a short, sharp noise – like a clicker or a finger snap. Just remember, these noises are not meant to punish, only to distract.

Bring in Some Back-Up

Re-training can take some time, so you might want to have some reinforcements on hand. When cats spray out of fear or from stress, they may need a little help calming down. In some cases, a vet may prescribe medications; however, most of us would prefer to keep our kitties off the hard stuff. Instead, you can try natural remedies, like including the amino acid L-Theanine or vitamins B1 and B6 in his diet, or letting him bat around some Valerian or Hops toys. Just be sure to check with your vet or a holistic practitioner before you start, as they can provide you with proper recommendations and dosage instructions that are tailored to your feline. Synthetic pheromone sprays may also be used around the sprayed areas to help keep your buddy calm; however, it is important to make sure that the area has been thoroughly cleaned before you use the pheromones.

Reduce Outside Feline Interference

When cats spray as a show of dominance or to mark their respective territory, you can be all but sure that there is another feline somewhere in the equation. If that “offending” kitty is another household dweller, as mentioned above, you will want to ensure that each cat has his own dedicated space. Place food dishes and water bowls in different areas of the house. Provide extra litter boxes in other areas. Offer extra scratching posts, cat trees, or even wall or window shelves. Though you can't exactly assign these items, your kitties will eventually work out their respective claims on their own – usually with less repugnant marking behaviors.

If the objectionable cat in question happens to linger outside of your home, it is important to discourage his coming around. If he belongs to a neighbor, ask your fellow human to steer him away from your yard. If that doesn't work, start a small cat-repellent garden – or at least keep a few potted plants near doors and windows. This garden should consist of fragrant plants that are especially unpalatable to felines, like Lavender, Rue, or Rosemary. As an added precaution, in addition to planting your pet-repellent garden, you might also try adding fresh catnip plants to the outer perimeter of your land – thus pulling them away from nearby areas.

If gardening isn't your thing, you might want to invest in motion-activated sprinklers. For a more low-cost option, you could also line the areas surrounding your windows with chicken wire or eggshells, as these materials are relatively safe, but certainly unpleasant for most cats to walk on.

How to Clean Up After a Cat Sprays

Why You Need to Act Fast

It goes without saying that when cats spray, the odor is both profound and appalling! But that's not the only issue with it. Because sprayed urine may be chemically concentrated, the scent – if left to linger – will likely encourage your cat to mark again. And if you have other cats in the house, it might also get them started. So, even if the stink were somehow a non-issue with you personally, it's easy to see why it is still mandatory to get it all cleaned up. Unfortunately, the whole thing can be a tricky business, but with some time and effort, it can, in fact, be achieved.

It's important to get to the stain as quickly as possible. In addition to the hormonally-charged odors left by unneutered males, cat urine contains bacterium that die off and decompose. This decomposition process creates a variety of unique stinks – from an ammonia-like stale urine funk, to the skunky scent released by mercaptan compounds. Although it isn't always possible, it is best to start the cleaning process immediately after your cat sprays.

Finding the Right Cleaner

You need the right cleaner, as your go-to all-purpose stuff probably won't do the trick. If you're cleaning hard surfaces – walls, floorboards and tiles, etc. – a solution of one part water, one part white vinegar will generally be pretty effective. Although vinegar itself has a strong smell, it will lift away the aroma of cat urine, and go away itself in a day or two. This inexpensive solution doesn't just mask the odor, but instead works by neutralizing the alkaline salts that can form in drying urine. If you're working with softer surfaces like the couch, carpet, or pillows, your best bet is an enzymatic cleaner – though, to be fair, enzyme cleaners will work with either soft or solid surfaces. These cleaners contain, of course, enzymes, as well as beneficial bacteria that help to break down acids and destroy organic materials.

Getting the Job Done
Hard Surfaces

After you've chosen your product, it's time to start cleaning! If you are working with a hard surface, wipe down any actively wet spots with a disposable rag or paper towel. Next, liberally spray the area with your chosen cleaner. Repeat this process several times, being sure to get into any nooks, crannies, cracks, or crevices. Repeat if necessary.

Soft Surfaces

If you're working with a soft surface, use a disposable rag to blot up any damp spots. The next part I really have to stress: Do not simply give the stain a quick spray. Soft surfaces are generally pretty absorbent, so although you might get the top layer, you'll be neglecting the urine that will almost certainly have seeped down into the material. Instead, open up your bottle and pour a heavy dose onto and around the stain. It is a good idea to follow the manufacturer's instructions at this point, but as a general rule, let the enzymatic cleaner sit for a minimum of 10 minutes. After you've waited an appropriate amount of time, blot up the cleaner and let the spot dry. You might need to repeat the process a time or two more to get everything up.

Tougher Cleaning Jobs

In extreme cases, you may have to take some major steps. Carpeting, for example, can be problematic, as urine can leak through to the padding and down into the floorboards. Unfortunately, even the heaviest cleaning job will not suffice when that happens, and you might be left with pulling up the carpet and replacing the whole mess. Cushions, towels, clothing, and other absorbent materials can also be tricky. Machine washable fabrics can be run through with either vinegar, enzymatic cleaner, or baking soda; however, if after multiple washings the odor still lingers, you will want to consider simply replacing the items altogether.


When cats spray, it can disrupt your whole living arrangement. Not only does it create a rather unappetizing environment, it can also create tension in the home, and tension between you and your feline friend. Thankfully, there are plenty of things that you can do to remedy the situation, and I hope that this article has provided you with some useful tools.

Are you dealing with a spraying cat? What methods have you tried? Comment below and let us know!

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"Russian Blue kitten 6 months" by Lunde via Wikipedia under CC BY-SA 3.0. Image lightened and cropped from original.

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