Why Your Cat Is Spraying — And How to Stop It

Spraying can be caused by more than just instincts or territorial urges. And if you think it’s just the boys, think again. Female cats can spray, too.

Cats spray for different reasons. By: A.Davey
Spraying is not about what kind of cat litter you use, or how often you clean the box. Photo: A.Davey

The posting horrified all of us. Ripples, a handsome silvery-gray, possible Abyssinian cross, was scheduled to be euthanized at a kill shelter in Brooklyn. The shy but sweet 8-month-old cat had been surrendered because he sprayed. And he probably sprayed because he hadn’t been neutered yet.

Spraying is one of the main reasons pet cats end up in shelters and/or are euthanized. We all rushed to share Ripples’s listing and prayed for the best.

Not a Litter Box Issue

Spraying is not about what kind of cat litter you use or how often you clean the box. It is normal behavior in the wild.

Cats communicate via scent, and this is one way for them to lay claim to territory. Lions spray, ocelots spray and feral cats spray. It’s the territorial imperative at work, their way of saying, “Keep out — this means YOU!”

House cats, however, don’t usually spray without a good reason.

First, rule out any medical problems. Sometimes spraying is a sign of a urinary infection or blockage, especially in male cats. See the veterinarian right away. “A cat whose urinary tract is blocked can die in hours or suffer irreversible organ damage from the build-up of toxins in his systems,” warns the Humane Society of the United States.

Playing Detective

OK, so now we’re talking behavioral. There are a number of reasons your indoor cat might suddenly have started spraying, and it’s up to you to figure out what he’s trying to tell you.

The spray locations will explain a lot:

  • Marking near doors or windows means that Tigger has just “spot an outside interloper on his or her territory,” according to Jacque Lynn Schultz, CPDT.
  • “A marked suitcase can indicate stress over an impending vacation, signifying the owner’s absence, an ‘invading’ pet sitter, a change in routine, or worse, a stay at the boarding kennel,” Schultz says.
  • Actually, any kind of change can trigger spraying. A new pet, a new baby, even new furniture — all these things constitute stress in your cat’s eyes.

Topaz, our flamepoint Siamese, came to us as a happy-go-lucky kitten. He was neutered at the appropriate time, and all was well with his world.

Then I began dating again. And Topaz began spraying. It wasn’t just the dating that upset him, though that probably figured into it.

The first guy I dated had 2 male cats. I knew that. I didn’t know his cats weren’t neutered. Topaz had, however, checked out the guy’s shoes and figured that part out for himself.

In theory, Topaz never even should have begun spraying. Clearly, though, the situation upset him on a couple of different levels.

If you’re not sure what spraying looks like, this video shows an example:

YouTube player

Girls Do It, Too

If you think female cats don’t spray, think again. It’s not as common with them as it is with males, but it does happen.

In the wild, a female cat sprays to let toms know she’s kitten-free and available. Indoors, she “may begin marking as a normal instinctive behavior,” explains Applied Ethology. “This behavior may be reinforced and eventually become habit.”

Pretty much the same things that upset male cats will set off the females as well, and that includes bullying by another cat. At one point, Merlyn, our tabby female, began thinking outside the box because she was being bullied by some of the other cats. Of course, this was complicated by the fact that Star, the main bully, decided to start spraying to prove that she was Chief Cat.

Outside cats may be observed as a threat. By: A.Davey
Outside cats may be seen as a threat. Photo: A.Davey

Dealing With the Problem

  1. Cleaning Products: Have a well-stocked cleaning arsenal. Don’t use cleaners that contain ammonia. “The smell of ammonia attracts cats since it is similar to their own urine,” according to Applied Ethology. A homemade vinegar and water solution will work much better.
  2. Move the Food: Move your cat’s dishes near the area he/she has been spraying. Cats won’t generally mark where they eat.
  3. Medications: Medications such as diazepam (Valium) are often prescribed for repeat offenders. There can be side effects, though, as writer and former shelter worker Pat Miller discovered when she tried diazepam on her cat Tinsel. “It stopped the spraying,” she recalls, “but we hated how badly it drugged him out. Besides, as soon as we tried to reduce the dosage, he started spraying again.”
  4. Natural Remedies: Homeopathic and herbal remedies can also help. Miller strongly advises talking with your vet before going herbal. The “herbs may be natural, but they are not necessarily harmless — they work because they have active ingredients that affect your cat’s system in some manner.”

We were lucky. Over time, Topaz’s spraying lessened, although it never completely stopped. We dealt with it because we loved him, and we got almost 15 years of loving companionship in return.