Cat Spraying: Why Cats Do It and How to Stop It

Christina Hawkins, DVM
By Christina Hawkins, DVM. Reviewed by Brittany Kleszynski, DVM on May 5, 2024
A cat watches their pet parent clean.

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In This Article

What Is Cat Spray?

If you’re a cat parent, you may have experienced feline behaviors like spraying or urinating outside of the litter box. It’s not always easy to distinguish the two as symptoms because they’re similar and urinary issues in cats are complex. 

As both behaviors can be caused by underlying health or behavioral issues, it’s important that you have your cat examined to rule out underlying medical causes.

However, being able to help differentiate these issues can help your veterinarian arrive at a quicker diagnosis and treatment.

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What Is Cat Spray?

When a cat sprays, they will usually sniff intently or rub on the surface (usually vertical, like a wall), back up to it, and raise their tail. Their tail then quivers (vibrates back and forth) and they release a small amount of urine.

A cat’s back feet may also tread on the floor. 

Cats can also spray horizontal surfaces—however, this is more commonly seen with normal urination.

As sprayed urine contains additional pheromones—usually oily secretions from the anal glands—the odor is typically more pungent than normal urine.

What Does Cat Spray Smell Like?

You may be wondering—what does cat spray smell like?

Well, if you’ve been the unfortunate victim of cat spray, you might have described it as an extremely foul odor, somewhere between a mixture of urine and feces; very pungent, it has been described as having a musky odor or fishy smell to it.

Why Do Cats Spray?

There are several causes of cat spraying. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • To communicate with other cats in the household. Cats communicate with each other through urine spraying. In general, cats are 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 encroaching on her space or trying to take her resources (food, toys, cat trees, litter boxes), she may spray urine.

  • To communicate with community cats. Indoor cats that live in proximity to neighborhood cats may also spray.

    • The presence of cats outside the house creates a perceived territorial threat to an indoor cat, who will then spray as a sign that the territory is occupied. The idea is to discourage the outside cat from hanging around.

  • Stress. 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 inside the home.

    • Stress may be caused by any changes in daily routine, new pets or people in the home, or things like remodeling or construction.

  • To attract mates. Urine spraying is more common with intact (not neutered) male cats. Intact male cats spray to attract mates or communicate with female cats in the vicinity.

Cat Spray Vs. Urine

When a cat urinates outside the litter box, there tends to be more urine, and you’ll usually find urine on horizontal surfaces like a rug or bed.  Even with urinary accidents, the urine itself should retain similar color, odor, and consistency to that of normal urine whereas urine from spraying has a more pungent odor, often smelling musky or fishy, may be an off-color and may be gritty in texture.

Additionally, 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.

Do Female Cats Spray?

Urine spraying is more likely to occur in cats when they reach sexual maturity (around 6 months of age). Both male and female cats spray although males tend to be the culprit often.

Female cats will often spray more so during times when they are in heat, signaling that they are in search of a mate.

Can Neutered or Spayed Cats Still Spray?

While most spraying is performed by intact males and females in heat, spayed and neutered cats can also spray. 

And while it’s less likely if the cat is in a stress-free environment and feels that their social and emotional needs are being met, approximately 10 percent of males and 5 percent of females will still spray once sterilized.

How To Stop a Cat From Spraying

Never punish your cat for spraying. This will not reduce the behavior—it will only result in negative outcomes, such your cat becoming fearful 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, it’s first recommended to have your cat examined by the veterinarian to rule out an underlying medical issue. Your veterinarian will likely recommend blood work and a urinalysis. Such testing is to look for possible medical conditions that can be detected from these tests include: 

  • 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 cat spraying. 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 their litter boxes.

  • Address conflict between cats. Tension between cats in a household can contribute to cat spraying. If spraying is an issue in your multi-cat household, make sure that each cat feels like she has the necessary resources available to be comfortable.

    • 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 in different areas so one cat can’t guard both boxes. Each cat should have their own eating area and bowl, and her own perch or cat tree.

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

  • Keep neighborhood cats away from your yard. If your cat is spraying to warn off outdoor cats, try these suggestions:

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

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

    • If noted, use white vinegar or citrus-based sprays in the yard where community cats have sprayed.

  • 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 Remove Cat Spray Smell

Any time you are cleaning areas that your cat has marked, use an enzymatic cleaner to neutralize organic debris and smell.

Clean as much of the mess as possible first, then apply the cleaner, work into the area and allow time required prior to blotting up with a clean cloth.  

Always follow the directions of the specific cleaner, if varied from above.  Do not use an ammonia-based cleaner, which may attract your cat to continue to mark the affected area. 

If not cleaned thoroughly, lingering scent can continue to attract the cat to spray in the area.

Christina Hawkins, DVM


Christina Hawkins, DVM


Dr. Christina Hawkins is a native of Miami, Florida, and her passion for animals developed as a young child growing up with numerous...

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