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If you’re a cat parent, at some point, you’ll probably have to deal with inappropriate urine elimination or spraying. These can be frustrating issues, especially if you have an indoor cat.

Urinary issues in cats are complex and can be caused by underlying health or behavioral issues. Peeing outside the litter box is different from spraying in terms of causes, smell, and even the way it’s done.

Determining which your cat is actually doing—urinating or spraying—and why can help you and your vet address these issues with your cat.

What Is Cat Spraying?

With urine marking (spraying), cats will back up to a vertical surface such as a wall and release a small amount of urine. Cats can also spray horizontal surfaces, although it’s less common. Thanks to additional pheromones, sprayed urine is usually more pungent than urine in the litter box.

Cat Spraying vs. Peeing Outside the Litter Box

When a cat urinates outside the litter box, there tends to be more urine, and you’ll usually find the pee on horizontal surfaces like a rug or bed. Inappropriate urination is often associated with lower urinary tract disease or litter texture aversion. Cat spraying is more likely caused by underlying stress or anxiety.

Why Do Cats Spray?

There are a number of reasons your cat might spray. Here are some of the more common causes.

Cats spray to communicate with other cats in the household.

Cats communicate with each other through urine spraying. In general, a lot of cats are very solitary creatures, and even with multiple cats in a household, they will seek out areas to claim as their own. If one cat in the household feels like another cat is moving in on their space or trying to take their resources (food, toys, cat trees, litter boxes, etc.), they may spray urine.

Cats spray to communicate with neighborhood cats or stray cats.

Indoor cats that live where there are neighborhood cats around may also spray. The presence of cats outside the house creates a territorial threat to the indoor cat, who will spray to tell the outdoor cat this the territory is occupied. The idea is to discourage the outside cat from hanging around.

Cats spray when they are stressed.

Changes in a cat’s routine or environment can contribute to stress. Some stressed cats may urinate outside the litter box, while others will spray urine on vertical surfaces in the house. Stress may be caused by any changes in daily routine, new pets or people in the home, or things like remodeling or construction.

Cats spray to attract mates.

Urine spraying is more common with intact (not neutered or fixed) male cats, but female and neutered male cats can do it as well. Intact male cats spray to attract mates or communicate with female cats in the vicinity.

It’s normal behavior for cats living outdoors, but it creates some issues if you have an intact male cat living indoors.

Urine spraying is more likely to occur in both male and female cats when they reach sexual maturity, around 6 months of age.

While spayed and neutered cats can also spray, it’s less likely if the cat is in a stress-free environment and feels that their social and emotional needs are being met.

How Can I Stop My Cat from Spraying?

Most importantly, never punish your cat for spraying (yelling, hitting, spraying with water, etc.). This will not reduce the behavior and will make them scared of you and more stressed.

If your cat is spraying, here are some techniques that may stop the behavior.

Rule out underlying medical conditions.

If your cat is spraying, the first step is taking your cat to the veterinarian to rule out an underlying medical issue.

Your veterinarian will likely recommend testing that includes a complete blood count, chemistry, and urinalysis. The purpose of the testing is to look for possible medical conditions such as urinary tract infections, crystalluria, bladder stones, kidney disease, or other conditions causing inflammation of the urinary system.

If one of these conditions is diagnosed, treating the issue should help reduce the spraying.

Have your cat spayed or neutered.

If you have an intact male or female cat, getting them spayed or neutered can also help reduce urine spraying.

Help reduce your cat’s stress.

Stress can trigger urine spraying in indoor cats. To help your stressed cat, start by identifying and eliminating stressors in your cat's environment. Any small changes can create stress for your cat, including changing feeding times or moving the litter boxes.

You can also use pheromone sprays such as Feliway sprays and plug-in diffusers, and provide additional hiding places and elevated areas such as cat trees. 

Anxiety-reducing supplements such as Zylkene or Purina Calming Care can also help manage your cat’s stress. If you feel that your cat has severe anxiety and none of these things are helping, ask your vet about anxiety medications.

Address conflict between cats.

Tension between cats in a household can contribute to urine spraying. If spraying is an issue in your multi-cat household, make sure that each cat feels like they have the necessary resources available to be at ease.

Be mindful of the number of litter boxes, food bowls, and elevated areas—each cat should feel like their needs are being met. Make sure you have as many litter boxes as the number of cats, plus one. If you have two cats, you should have three boxes, and they should be located in different areas so one cat can’t guard both boxes. Each cat should have their own eating areas and bowls, and their own perches or cat trees.

Always gradually introduce new cats to give the resident cat a chance to adapt. If the inter-cat tension turns into physical fights, consult with your veterinarian for further resources such as prescribed medications.

Keep neighborhood and stray cats away from your yard.

If your cat is spraying as a way to warn off outdoor cats, try these tricks:

  • Cover any windows with blinds or curtains to block your cat's view outside.

  • Install motion-detection sprinklers near windows to deter outside cats from coming into your yard.

  • Place Feliway diffusers inside your house in areas where your cat has marked.

  • Use white vinegar or citrus-based sprays in the yard where outdoor cats have marked.

Keep a log of your anti-spraying program.

Note the place and number of times your cat sprays, along with the steps you’ve taken to curb the behavior. This will give you a record so you’ll know if your strategies are working.

How to Get Rid of Cat Spray Smell

Any time you are cleaning areas that your cat has marked, use an enzymatic cleaner to neutralize organic debris and smell. Do not use an ammonia-based cleaner, which may attract your cat to continue to mark the affected area.

Featured Image: iStock.com/CasaraGuru

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