Let’s Talk About Spraying

Few things are less welcome than discovering your cat is peeing outside their litter box. Luckily there are ways of dealing with this problem. After a vet visit to rule out medical issues, the first question you need to ask might surprise you:

Is the pee on a vertical surface or a horizontal one?

A cat that squats and pees, leaving a puddle, is dealing with a biological need. To handle the issue, we need to figure out why the cat is avoiding their litter box.

A cat that leaves pee on vertical surfaces or leaves a straight line of urine on the ground is spraying. Spraying isn’t about a need to urinate; instead it is about communication.  As difficult as it is, when you see pee on a wall, cabinet, or side of the furniture, think “what is my cat communicating?”

Silver Teaches Us a Lesson

A couple came into the shelter to surrender one of their cats. They had a female cat at home and had recently gotten a beautiful male Bengal named Silver from another rescue. This handsome spotted boy was quite the charmer but since he had come into the home there was one big issue – pee on the sofa. The rescue wasn’t able to take the cat back so the couple, feeling like they had tried everything, came to us.

I spoke with the owner for a little while, asking if they were interested in getting some behavior recommendations and getting some clarifying information but he felt this cat was just “one of those full-of-himself tom cats” and “you can’t really change that”. Though I disagreed, I finished getting the necessary information and the shelter took in Silver. One of the questions I had asked was “are you sure Silver is the one urinating on the sofa and not the female cat?” The owners were quite sure that it was obviously the male cat.


Silver kitten in kennel, prevent behavior problems early.
Not Silver but a cute stand-in

Fast forward to the next morning and, surprise, it wasn’t Silver! The owners came back to get him after they realized that their female cat had peed on the sofa during the night (again).  They took with them a new understanding of spraying and some recommendations for working on this behavior.

The Basics of Spraying

The first lesson we can take from Silver’s story: both male and female cats can spray. The second: it’s important to identify the offending cat and not make assumptions! Since spraying is about communication, any cat can do it and there could be many reasons behind this behavior. Confident cats may spray to communicate to perceived threats about their territory. Fearful or insecure cats may spray to provide information to other cats without having to interact. Cats that are unsure of each other or actively in conflict may spray to learn about one another or try to settle territory concerns. Blaming spraying on “dominance” or a fixed personality trait doesn’t give us anywhere to go to change the behavior. Recognizing it as communication gives us a place to start.

Change the Conversation

Spraying can be a tricky to resolve so you may need to try a few things before completing eliminating the issue.

First Steps

Address Conflict Between Your Cats

If your cats aren’t getting along, their communication will be complicated and is more likely to include spraying. Help them get along by increasing vertical space, decreasing competition over shared resources, and building positive feelings using play and food.

Cat conflict can be subtle. This post will help you answer the question: Are your cats really getting along?

Turn Your Indoor/Outdoor Cat into an Indoor Only Cat

Cats that go outdoors are exposed to the sights and smells of other cats, dogs, and wildlife. When they come inside, their natural urge to protect their territory can lead to unfortunate habits, including spraying. It will likely be very difficult to stop spraying if a cat is still confronted with the unknowns of outdoor life.  

Deter Outdoor Visitors

Imagine there are strangers visiting your yard every night. You don’t know them, don’t know why they are coming, and don’t know if they will try to come inside some day. You might start building a fence, adding locks, and putting in alarms. Your cat feels the same fear when strange cats and wildlife come into your yard. Their only option for protecting their home is to try to tell the strange visitors that they live there and hope they’ll get the message.

Give your cat a break from protecting their turf and deter those outdoor cats and other animals. There are many humane ways to make your yard a no-go zone including motion-triggered water sprayers. Your cat will thank you.

Promote Better Communication

Spraying is just one way cats communicate about their territory.  Rubbing on objects and scratching are two other communication tools that can be channeled to reduce a cat’s desire to spray.  Pheromone-based products, like Feliway, mimic the signals that cats leave when they rub their cheeks and chin on objects. By spraying these products on furniture, you can encourage your cat to rub against it instead of spraying.  These products can also create a calm feeling and relieve stress (in cats only, not their owners) but they aren’t magic so don’t expect to spritz some around and solve the problem instantly.

Scratching also provides a cat with a way of communicating, both visually and through scent glands in their paws. Try placing a scratching post near your cat’s preferred areas to spray, especially around doorways.  

Whether your cat is spraying or peeing outside the box, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation. 

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