Friday, 11 September 2015

Behaviour focus: spraying

In this week’s behaviour focus post, Cats Protection Behaviour Manager Nicky Trevorrow explains why cats spray.

Why is my cat spraying round the house?

Last time I discussed why a cat might urinate or defecate on home furnishings rather than in their litter tray. Spraying is another very common behavioural problem. Most people are surprised to learn that all cats can spray, regardless of whether they are male or female, neutered or unneutered.

Urine spraying is a natural behaviour for cats and is different from normal toileting. When a cat goes to the toilet, they will generally urinate from a squatting position and usually produce a large puddle of urine in a private or secluded area. In contrast, cats will spray urine in order to leave a specific ‘scent message’ and will usually use this scent in areas of their territory in which they feel threatened. It is thought that the scent deposited acts as a ‘reminder’ for the cat to be wary and for this reason the scent must be renewed every time the smell begins to fade, in order for it to remain an effective signal. In an unneutered cat, the spraying of urine not only signals the cat’s presence but also their reproductive status. Cats also leave scent signals by rubbing and scratching and this scent communication system allows a cat to leave signals to them and other cats that last over time.

While many are aware of unneutered toms spraying, female cats can also spray when they are in season. Getting your cat neutered can help to reduce, if not eliminate, spraying for sexual reasons. Cats Protection recommends neutering kittens before they reach sexual maturity. To find a vet in your area that will neuter by four months, check out our Kitten Neutering Database.

There can be other medical reasons that can cause spraying, other than not being neutered, so do get your cat health checked by a vet to rule these out.
Spraying cat
There are many motives for spraying; photo from CP's feline behaviour visual guide - why does my cat...?
Behaviourally, the reasons that can cause cats to spray list can be endless. The most common reason is stress. Cats always seem so relaxed, especially as they spend a lot of time sleeping, so what could possibly stress them out?

The most common stress factor in cats is in fact, other cats! It could be cats in the local neighbourhood or other cats within the household, or both. Cats are extremely good at hiding stress unfortunately so it can be pretty tricky to pick up on. The other problem is that cats won’t show obvious signs of aggressive behaviour towards other cats. It comes down to their very sensible nature of not wanting to get injured! Therefore cats will time share a favourite armchair or spend most of their time in separate parts of the house to one another. Such avoidance techniques keep them safe. It can be very revealing for owners to draw a simple house plan of their property and map out the different areas that their various cats spend their time. I’d recommend using different coloured pencils to easily differentiate between the cats.

One way to reduce competition in the house is to ensure that each cat has a set of their own resources, plus one extra set as a spare. Ideally, place a set of resources in each cat’s separate zone (as previously identified by the house plan). As frustrating as spraying is, please resist the temptation to tell your cat off, water spray the cat, or do anything else that your cat may find aversive or scary. It will only make the problem worse.

Cat sleeping in armchair
Cats may time share a favourite armchair to avoid each other. Photo courtesy of Connie Ma via flickr / Creative Commons
Once a cat has sprayed, if the area is not cleaned appropriately, their sensitive nose will draw them back to spray the same area again in an attempt to top up the faded scent. Many household cleaning products contain ammonia which is also found in cat urine, so using these can make the problem worse. A cheap and efficient cleaning method is to wash sprayed or soiled sites thoroughly with a warm, 10 per cent solution of biological washing powder and then rinse with clean water and allow the area to dry. If the surface is suitable, surgical spirit can be applied after cleaning to remove all lingering traces of urine. It is worth doing a small patch test first to ensure this cleaning regime will not cause any damage. Carpet is extremely absorbent and the urine often soaks into the underlay and the flooring underneath. If the area is badly soiled over a long period it may be necessary to cut out the section of carpet and underlay and treat the concrete or floorboards underneath before replacing.

This blog post is not designed to solve your cat’s spraying problem, but just give you some background information about this issue. Therefore it is worth getting a referral to a qualified behaviourist such as a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors to help identify the cause and give you a tailored plan for your individual cat to help resolve or manage the problem.

For more information on feline behaviour, check out our CP leaflet called Managing your cat’s behaviour.


  1. Very helpful. Thank you. I'm going to try adding more litter boxes and providing more elevated sleeping spots. I would love to know your opinion on the "calming pheromones" that are sold in pet stores.

    1. Cats deposit pheromones (which are chemical signals of communication to themselves or other cats) from glands on their faces when rubbing objects such as the corners of walls or furniture. They leave behind different messages, one of these facial pheromones tells the cat that they are in an area they recognise and are safe. Cats regularly re-mark with these pheromones as they go around their home. You can buy a synthetic version of this facial pheromone – Feliway® - to help your cat during times of stress. Feliway provides on-going support and comfort to cats reassuring them and marking the area as safe and secure. It is available as a plug-in diffuser, which lasts up to four weeks, continuously releasing the comforting pheromone into the local environment, and a spray, that can be used around the home or when travelling, lasting up to 24 hours. Alternatively, you can try using a clean cotton cloth or glove to gently rub on your cat’s cheeks to collect the pheromone – and then rub this around on surfaces at cat height, such as onto new furniture, so that it smells familiar. Remember that the pheromone will need to be topped up regularly, until your cat either rubs its cheeks on the item or shows relaxed behaviour. Feliway can be a great support tool for helping stressed cats, however it is always recommended to rule out medical conditions first with your vet and it is important that the reason for your cat’s anxiety is also identified and dealt with. If your cat has a behavioural problem, then it is recommended to get a referral from your vet to a qualified behaviourist such as a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (