Published on June 4th, 2015 | by Debbie Martin0
Why do cats spray? What can I do to stop it?
Cat owners may be familiar with spraying – a strange behavior whereby a cat will spray urine against a wall or floor – sometimes they might even defecate as well. Why do they do this? In this article we’ll take a look at some of the motivating factors asking why do cats spray? And look at ways through which this behavior can be discouraged.
The importance of smell
To understand spraying, we must first understand how important smell is to cats. A cat’s sense of smell is superior to that of a humans by many orders of magnitude. This allows them to communicate with one another using subtly different chemical markers. While to us, every cat odour smells broadly the same, to a cat they are as distinct from one another as the words on this page.
Smell is so important to cats, in fact, that they even have an extra organ to help them identify different chemicals. This organ was only identified in the early 1700s and it is called the vomeronasal organ. It connects to the brain in a slightly different way to the nose and helps the cat to differentiate between different pheromones. This organ is situated just behind the cat’s nose and it draws in air by way of two holes in the roof of the cat’s mouth, just behind its front teeth. When adjudging the pheromones of other cats, the cat can simply open its mouth to draw in air, thus making an expression is known as the Flehmen response.
What causes spraying?
Since a cat’s sense of smell is so keen, they can use it as a means of communicating with one another. There are several reasons that they may wish to do this.
Cats spray to mark their territory, in order to dissuade other cats from inadvertently wandering in. If a cat smells the scent of another cat, then it knows that wandering further may cause a fight. This adaptation allows cats to avoid needless conflict and only fight with one another when necessary. Of course, these boundaries are meaningless if the cat which has drawn them does not defend their territory when it is encroached upon and so cats will respond aggressively to intruders, even if they are not naturally inclined toward aggression.
Territorial disputes are often driven by a dominant cat, which will mark a larger territory for themselves. More passive cats will then be forced to respond by marking their own, smaller territory in order to warn the larger cat away.
Cats may feel that their territory is threatened when they see another cat. It is for this reason that spraying behavior often occurs beside doors and windows – an indoor cat may see another, outdoor cat and perceive it as a threat. They will then mark their territory in order to dissuade them from approaching, often at a prospective point of entrance.
Spraying is more common in neighborhoods with dense cat populations. If there are a lot of cats in a small space competing for territory, then it follows that the boundaries must be drawn as clearly as possible. Cats will do this by spraying a great deal.
Cats who feel insecure about their territory will mark it more often. Cats often spray when they feel that they need to indicate where their territory lies. This may be because they feel that it has been impinged upon – perhaps by the introduction of another, new cat; perhaps by the introduction of a baby. For similar reasons, households containing more than one cat will be more likely to suffer from problems with spraying. In fact, there is a remarkably close correlation between cat numbers and spraying behavior – the more cats you have in the house, the more likely they will be to spray.
Spraying is also heavily linked to the animal’s sex drive. Cats of both genders will use it to advertise their willingness to mate and their fertility – though the behavior is more common in males than it is in females. It is for this reason that neutered animals are far less prone to spraying.
If your cat is young and has only recently begun to spray, then this can be taken as a sign that it has matured sexually. This is often a good point to have the cat neutered. Your vet will be able to offer advice on the decision and most will recommend neutering for health reasons. Not only will neutering reduce spraying behavior, but it will also limit a number of other troublesome behaviors associated with sex. A neutered cat will be less aggressive, less nomadic and completely sterile. If you do not wish the cat to have kittens, then neutering is strongly advisable.
Cats often spray when they are stressed. This may be caused by disruptions in the home, such as those caused by painting and decorating, an extension, the introduction of new pets or children; or simply by moving furniture around. If you are absent from the home for a period, or you have changed your schedule so that you are absent at different points in the day, then this may distress the cat and this can in turn lead to spraying. Cats will not understand if you are not home at a specific time – they may even fear that you will never come back. This is obviously a source of great stress. You should therefore try to keep your schedule as rigid as possible; at least until the spraying has stopped.
Unfortunately, cats are very good at hiding their stress and so owners need to be very perceptive in order to spot it. Often, spraying behavior can be one of the only signs that all is not well.
There are also some diseases whose symptoms mimic spraying behavior. If urination is painful, then a cat might limit pain by adopting a similar posture to that which they use to spray. For example, your cat may have contracted a urinary tract infection. Your vet will therefore wish to perform a urinalysis in order to rule out this possibility.
It is also worth noting that spraying behavior is distinct from urination. A spray will be just that – a spray. It should not be a puddle. If you notice that your cat has taken to urinating away from its litter tray, indoors, then it is time to take them to a vet.
What can I do to limit my cat’s spraying behavior?
The solution to spraying behavior will depend on the underlying causes. If your cat has taken to spraying in a specific place, then consider where that place is and why it triggers marking behavior.
In many cases, it will be a point of entrance, or a place from which the cat can easily see other cats. This is evidence of a territorial insecurity, which should be addressed by limiting your cat’s exposure to other cats.
You can do this by installing a high fence or hedge in front of any windows your cat likes to sit beside. This will block other cats from view. Similarly, if your premises contains an object which is drawing cats, such as a bird feeder, then you may wish to dispense with it.
It may be that strange cats are entering your house without you knowing about it. This experience can be very stressful to the occupant cat and so it is often best to gently shoo the interloper away – offering it attention and food will encourage it to return and thereby intimidate your cat further.
Where there are multiple cats in your household, you might wish to separate them. By placing their litter trays and food and water bowls in separate rooms, you can limit the interaction they have and thereby limit their spraying. You can then gradually re-introduce them to one another under supervised conditions. This way you can get them used to one another. When they no longer feel threatened, the spraying will begin to abate.
One trick often used to encourage social interaction between cats involves grooming. When cats are comfortable with one another, they often help one another with grooming – after all, there are many places on a cat’s body which are difficult to reach. This arrangement consists of ‘you lick my back, I’ll lick yours.’ You can encourage cats to groom themselves by wiping them with a damp cloth. When they have to groom themselves excessively in one another’s presence, they may become more inclined to groom one another.
There are also chemical solutions available which are designed to be sprayed around the cat. These consist of pheromones which will help to put the cat at ease and thereby reduce incidences of spraying behavior. If the problem is particularly bad, then these can represent an attractive solution.
Spraying behavior can often take a long time to eradicate; particularly if it has been ingrained for a long time. For this reason it is important to catch it as early as possible so that it can be discouraged. The longer the behavior is allowed to persist, the more difficult it will be to remove.