Dealing with Feline Spraying

By Dr Joanna De Klerk

Have you ever got home to find a wet patch on the wall or a curtain drape, only to take a closer look and realise the pungent, unmistakable odour of cat pee? Feline spraying can be a real nuisance and is one of the most common behavioural problems that cat owners have to deal with. As for your cat, he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with it; it’s just his natural way of communicating to say, ‘this is my territory’. 

What is the Difference Between Spraying and Urinating?

Spraying and urinating in inappropriate places are two very different things. It’s easy to think that they must be related, since both end up leaving puddles and a terrible smell in your house, but to effectively deal with feline spraying, you must first make sure your kitty truly is spraying.

In most situations, spraying is the process of leaving urine on vertical surfaces, such as walls, furniture or curtains. If you spot your cat in the process, he might also quiver his tail while doing it.

Urinating, on the other hand, usually is leaving urine on horizontal surfaces, such as the floor or carpet.

The key to differentiating between the two is the location, rather than the actual surface itself. Spraying is a way of communicating with other cats that ‘this area is mine’, so the surfaces are likely to be in obvious areas. On the other hand, inappropriate urination will often be on surfaces which your cat likes the feel of, such as the laundry or carpet, and may even be quite secretive.

Both spraying and urinating can be performed by males and females, although males have a higher tendency to spray.

The confusing thing is, some causes of inappropriate urination might also increase the frequency of spraying, such as urinary tract infections, stress, or underlying health issues, like diabetes or hyperthyroidism. So, it’s important to get your cat checked out by a vet if spraying is a new thing in his life.

Why Do Cats Spray?

Spraying is one way for your feline friend to mark their area. It can be exacerbated if there are other cats nearby, either in your house or walking through your garden. Sometimes neighbouring cats take a chance with a cat flap, which can stress out your kitty if they are coming into his house.

Even multi-cat households, where cats have lived together for years, can have cases of spraying. It’s a way for the cats to establish their pecking order and settle conflicts.

Another common reason for feline spraying is change. Cats get highly stressed by change. It can be brought on by situations like moving to a new house, home renovations, a new human or pet in the house, or the loss of a family member. Sometimes simply moving furniture around can upset a cat. Stress can be alleviated by spraying, as your cat is trying to make their surroundings more familiar.

Finally, hormones play a large role in spraying. Even though both males and females, neutered and unneutered will spray, unneutered males are the most likely culprits. It’s their way of attracting the ladies. 

What Other Ways Can Cats Scent Mark?

Cats can also scent mark using their body, and therefore spraying is not always necessary to mark their territory. 

Your kitty has scent glands in his cheeks and flanks, so while you think he’s being cute and affectionate by rubbing himself on your leg, he is actually laying claim on you as his person.

Cats also have scent glands in the pads of their feet and can leave their scent by scratching on objects. This can obviously be quite annoying when your furchild is busy damaging your new sofa, so try to redirect it to a scratching post. After all, it’s a natural instinct, and so you cannot punish him.

Encouraging rubbing and scratching is a way of redirecting his marking, and therefore can decrease the frequency of spraying.

How to Prevent Your Cat from Spraying

Even though spraying is a frustrating behavioural issue, there are many things you can try to stop your cat from spraying:

  • Get him neutered: Hormones play a huge role in spraying, and therefore getting your cat neutered (or spayed) will decrease his need to mark his territory and leave his calling card for the opposite gender. Unfortunately, this is not a fail-safe solution, as once the behaviour is learned, he will never completely forget it.
  • Keep your house clean: Cats have millions of olfactory receptors in their nose, so if they smell even the smallest amount of urine, they are likely to want to spray in that spot again. Read on to find out how to clean an area where your cat has peed.
  • Pheromones: Calming pheromone diffusers have been proven to aid in reducing stress, particularly in multi-cat households. 
  • Cat-proof your garden: If it’s the neighbour’s cat which is causing the issue, first start by talking to your neighbour. Maybe they will have a solution to keep their cat close to their home. Alternatively, cat-proof fencing is highly effective at preventing cats from jumping into your garden.
  • Microchip or tag activated cat flaps: If another cat is making themselves at home in your house, you can change your cat flap to a microchip or tag activated cat flap, so that only your cat has access.
  • High-sided litter boxes: These litterboxes give your cat the option to spray a vertical surface in a controlled manner.
  • Calming supplements: You might wish to try L-tryptophan supplements, which increase the levels of serotonin in the brain, resulting in your cat feeling happier and less stressed.
  • Lots of litter boxes and bowls: If you have a multi-cat household, put out more litter boxes and water bowls than there are cats, so that your felines never have to come into conflict when they are thirsty or need the toilet.
  • Enrichment: Increase the amount of exercise and entertainment your cat gets by providing them with more play time, toys, climbing areas or catnip. This will boost their mood and decrease stress.
  • Rub their scent yourself: If you’ve moved around your furniture, anticipate it will upset your cat.  Rub a soft cloth on your cat’s face, and then rub it several times a day on the furniture. It might be enough for your cat to feel they have already marked the newly placed furniture.
  • Talk to your vet: Spraying can be worsened by medical conditions, so if nothing is working, have your cat checked out by your vet for underlying problems.

How to Clean an Area Your Cat Has Sprayed

If your cat sprays (or urinates) in the house, he’s likely to continually return to the same area once the smell begins to fade. So, it is vital to thoroughly clean the area. The following methods can be used in combination with each other:

  • Prevent your cat from accessing the area for as long as possible. You can do this by closing access to that particular room or placing some furniture over the spot.
  • Wash the area with enzymatic cleaner, or if it can be removed (such as curtains), put it through the wash with enzymatic laundry detergent. 
  • Spray a solution of 1:1 white vinegar and water on the area.
  • Spray and scrub the area with rubbing alcohol (although, test a small area first).
  • Purchase a ‘stain and odour’ remover from your vet or local pet store to clean the area with.

The most important thing is, do not clean the area with an ammonia-based cleaner. This will achieve the opposite result and attract your kitty right back to the spot, because urine contains ammonia.

Take Home Message

Spraying is frustrating, but it is important to remember it’s your cat’s natural instinct. Therefore, do not punish him for it, but instead try to get to the root cause of the issue and deal with that directly.