Why do cats spray?

26th Apr, 2018

Question: Having lived with six cats at one (wonderful) point in my life, we had to deal with spraying (one of the females did it too). They were all neutered and sterilised. Is this a common problem?

Hester Burke – Margate, KZN

Hazel King addresses this cat behaviour and what you can do about it…

Spraying urine is an unpleasant issue that sometimes develops with cats for various reasons. Before one can deal with it, it’s important to identify the cause – and to be sure the cat is indeed spraying and not urinating or leaking urine where it usually wouldn’t do so.

Spraying vs urinating

As a long-time cat “owner”, I’m sure you know the difference between spraying and urinating (weeing), but let’s quickly sort that out for the readers:

If a cat is spraying, it will stand with its behind pointed at a vertical surface – a bush, cupboard, electrical plug socket, etc. – with the tail upright. It will tread with its back feet and the tail will probably quiver before a small quantity of urine shoots out. 

If a cat is weeing, it will squat and simply pass urine as we do. It’s in a cat’s nature to go in a clean, safe area, and they usually go to the same places.

If your cat is weeing outside of the litter tray or wherever it usually goes, first check that the litter is clean and that the tray is in a private, quiet place where the cat feels safe. Then, consult your vet – it could be a medical problem (for example, a urinary infection) or a behavioural one. 

All cats can spray – but not all do

The first thing to know is that ALL cats can spray. It’s most common in sexually active cats – those who have not been spayed or neutered. 

Entire/intact (unneutered) male cats do it to mark their territory; to tell all the other male cats: “Keep out, this is MY space and all the female cats here are MINE.” The smell, when an entire male cat sprays, has a particular quality and is very strong; if he does it inside your home, it’s going to be very hard to live with.

Unspayed females often spray when they are in heat, to tell all the male cats: “Here I am, come and get me!”

As you will realise, this is yet another good reason for sterilising all cats before they reach puberty. 

When sterilised (spayed or neutered) cats spray it’s usually because they feel threatened within their own territory (for example, another cat coming onto the property).

They spray to put out their own scent, which makes them feel more secure, and also to warn off other cats. It won’t work if the invading cat is a big, mean unneutered male – he’ll outrank a neuter any time. If your neighbours don’t sterilise their cats, you could have a nasty situation. 

Space case

In the case of six cats in one home, it could be that there is simply too much competition for resources. You didn’t mention how large or small your home and grounds were; even a large home could feel cramped if one of the cats is rather domineering, and a small house or flat would definitely be crowded with six cats.

The natural territory for even a sterilised cat would cover several suburban gardens (more if it’s intact). This wasn’t a problem just a few decades ago before so many of us moved into complexes with tiny gardens, or flats with no garden at all, and when there were fewer cars on the road. 

Now we’ve realised that free-range cats face many dangers and may very well not survive for long in a city or suburban setting; we’re taking steps to keep them on our property. This is excellent, but it does put stress on the cats in that they’re limited to an unnaturally small territory.

Put more than one cat into this space and there could be trouble. The problem is that there is no way of knowing how many cats will be too many as each cat is different. Sometimes if you have only one cat and add just one more, that will be too many. Other homes have five, six, or even ten cats living quite happily together. But it’s something to consider before you take in that extra cat…

So unhappy that it sprays

There could be many reasons for a cat to be so unhappy that it sprays. If it’s a rather insecure character, it could simply be that you’ve moved the furniture around, making its secure, familiar home unfamiliar. It could be that you’ve had a baby, or your partner moved in; your relationship with your cat has changed, and it feels insecure and unhappy.

One of the most likely reasons is that there’s a “free-range” cat that’s trespassing on your cat’s territory, possibly completely without your knowledge. If your cats go outside, watch them when they first go out: do they sniff very thoroughly at a particular place? It may be that, during the night, a trespassing cat put its scent there.  

What to do

What can you do about a cat that sprays? The first, most important thing is not to get mad. Your cat is doing this because it’s stressed, unhappy, or insecure. If you are angry, it will make the situation worse. This is his way of telling you he needs your help.  

If your cat is not sterilised, get it done right away. With adult males, this may not stop the spraying completely (remember, we said at the beginning of this article that cats should be sterilised before they reach puberty), but it should help, especially with the smell.  

If they are already sterilised, you need to identify why your cat is so stressed in order to try and calm or rectify the situation. If you can’t change it (for example, you moved house), ask your vet about calming remedies to help your cat – there are many options, from homeopathic remedies to plug-in diffusers or collars, and even medications that your vet can prescribe.

Stop trespassers

If the problem is trespassing cats, you need to keep them out of your property (and your own cats in, if you’re not already doing so, for their own safety). Unfortunately, keeping other cats out is very difficult, especially if you have a lovely garden with lots of trees, etc. 

The first essential is fencing that cats cannot walk through. Many of us have walls topped with electric fencing, which helps a lot, but the sliding gate is often a weak spot in your defences. Have a look at it: is there space for a cat to walk through? Can you block those gaps somehow?

If you don’t have electric fencing, I suggest running about three wires along the top of the wall, at right angles to the wall. This makes it more difficult for other cats to jump in and if your own cat tries to jump out, it will hit a “solid” barrier.

Trees that grow close to the wall are an escape route or entry point. You can also put a “collar” around the tree so that the cats can’t climb up or down. 

Cleaning solutions

If your cat has been spraying in the house, you’ll obviously want to clean up. Remember that you need to clean extremely thoroughly, not just to make your home smell better but because cats will keep urinating where they can smell that they’ve gone before. The fact that you can’t smell it anymore doesn’t mean that your cat can’t – remember, his sense of smell is much better than yours.

Don’t use anything that contains ammonia or chlorine. These actually make the place smell (to the cat) even more like a toilet, and will encourage it to spray there again in order to top up its scent. You can use dishwashing liquid or laundry soap and then rub the spot with surgical spirits or white vinegar. I find that the best thing is Pro-Bac toilet cleaner.

For more professional help when it comes to any behavioural problems or concerns you may have about your cat(s), email Hazel at yangon@mweb.co.za or contact her on 021 715 4042 (evenings only).