Cat Behavior 101: What is Causing My Cat to Spray and How can I fix it?
One of the most frustrating aspects of cat ownership can be when our beloved pet turns our house into their own personal litter box. As much as we love our cats having a house that reeks of cat urine is never a good thing. Cats are only a semi-domesticated species of animal and their behavior can be complex and at times completely baffling but that doesn't mean there isn't hope. Below I will be mentioning all the common reasons why cats spray and what can be done about each situation. I will also try and advise solutions that won't break the bank as we all know pet ownership is an expensive endeavor to begin with, if a cheap option is to be found for some of these problems the cats aren't going to notice or care. They're busy playing in the box the cat tree came in anyway!
Urinary Tract Infections, Etc
Of course the first thing we want to do when we are addressing a spraying problem is to make sure the cat isn't spraying because of a medical condition. The most common medical reason a cat would suddenly start peeing in odd places would be a urinary tract infection. These are most common in older male cats but it can be a problem in cats of any sex or age. If your cat has had perfect bathroom manners for years and without any changes to its environment or life it starts peeing outside of the litterbox then this should be something to suspect. Cats with urinary tract infections often like to pee on smooth cool surfaces. This could be your bathtub, your sink, your kitchen counter, or anywhere else that is smooth and cool. If your cat appears to be straining to pee, yowling while trying to go, or gets a fever, a vet should be sought out immediately. A UTI can kill a cat if it goes on too long and a vet can give you the needed antibiotics to fix the problem. However cats who get UTI's often get them over and over again. A change in diet may be needed to prevent future issues and a keen eye will be needed to monitor your cat for future flare ups.
Bad Litterbox Training
Most cats like a clean environment and part of that is having a specified area, a litterbox, to use as a potty. With that being said cats are very individualistic creatures and some of them never get this memo. It is a fairly common problem for rescued ferals to find the idea of a litterbox a bit confusing. Even worse still these same cats can teach their kittens the same bad manners if they're allowed to run around. In this case prevention is actually much easier than retraining. If you happen to be raising a litter of kittens please consider keeping them in an appropriate cage with their mom until they are weaned. This will allow only enough space for sleeping, eating, and using the litterbox, and will hopefully ensure that they learn what the litterbox is for and won't forget! (This is not to say you can't let them out for supervised exercise from time to time!) If you happen to have an older feral who is showing this problem sometimes caging them for a few weeks resolves the issue, sometimes it doesn't, but I would try it first before doing anything dramatic.
Sexual Maturity & Spraying
Almost all unaltered male cats will begin to spray when they reach adulthood. It's not their fault. This is inherent in their biology and they are only doing what cats have been doing since the dawn of catdom. Males will spray, leaving a scented calling card, in case a female in heat comes into the area. It's like the cat version of setting up a dating profile! It doesn't matter there are no females in your home and may never be, a tom must live in hope! This is another one of those prevention is better situations. If you adopt a male cat that you do not intend to breed please have them neutered before they hit a year of age (and six months would be ever better!) Sometimes unaltered female cats will display this same behavior so make sure she's spayed as well. And if you find yourself with an old cat who was neutered too late you can still try to curb the behavior by washing down any marked areas really really really well. I mean clean it until there's practically a black hole left in it's spot. If the scent is no longer there they shouldn't have the need to remark it. If the scent is still there, even the tiniest bit, it won't matter if the cat is altered or intact, they likely will keep spraying on the spot. Keep in mind cats actually smell better than dogs do so the removal of carpet and the use of some pretty hefty cleaners is likely to be needed. In the meantime you may have luck spraying vinegar in the area. Most cats really don't like the smell of vinegar and may try to avoid the area. I realize vinegar in and of itself smells but this might not have to be a permanent thing.
Just like the tomcats in the previous paragraph most cats mark something to claim their territory. This doesn't have to be about a mate, it can just be a big sign reading, "Private property, get out!" This is most often a problem when a cat who has been kept by itself for a number of years suddenly has to deal with the arrival of a new cat or kitten. Just think about that for a moment, how would you feel if you lived the good life completely alone only to one day come home to some stranger living in your house that you couldn't get rid of? Another common scenario is with a multi-cat home who adopts another cat who is, to put it lightly, a bit of a bully. At that point it doesn't matter they are used to living in a group home, the newcomer is just annoying and hostile, and who wants that?? In these situations I actually suggest finding the bully a more suitable home, it's not worth the stress to your older residents. This is not to say new cats should never be introduced, it only is to say that if you are going to do that take the cats feelings into mind and do the introductions as slowly as possible. Start off with the new cat in a cage, accessible to the resident cat or cats, and then watch their behavior. Are they hissing? Spitting? Puffing up their hair? Then leave the new cat in the cage until the resident stops doing these things. When everyone seems comfortable let the new cat out of the cage into only one room of your house. Observe reactions and move on from there, slowly, and slower if needed! Now if you are in the situation where prevention is too late there's still things you can do. Obviously furiously clean the sprayed spots, also invest in a can of . It is a synthetic scent, completely odorless to humans, that mimics the smell of a cat's head rubbing. Cats have scented glands behind their ears and when they rub their head on things it marks it as their own territory. Obviously for us humans this is a much more socially acceptable way to mark territory. FeliWay comes in a spray which can be applied manually to problem spots (linked above) or in diffusers you plug in the wall. Diffusers are better at prevention unless you can plug them into the exact spot that has been sprayed. If you really don't have the money or prefer a more natural method you can collect your cats scent yourself on a damp washcloth by stroking it behind the ears and then transfer that scent onto the problem areas around your house with the towel. This takes time and a lot of repetition - at the very least once a day, the more the better. FeliWay
Just as with any animal some cats can be virtual geniuses while others can leave a lot to be desired in the brains department. I had a cat once who was so dumb she'd just stare at you with a blank expression all day and you could almost hear the static running through the space between her ears. She spent her kittenhood breathing in crack fumes before being placed in a more appropriate home. Maybe it was the drugs that fried her brains or maybe she was just a moron at birth. It's impossible to say. What I can say is that every time she used the litterbox she'd literally back up until her butt was hanging over the edge and leave a nice fresh turn on the floor just outside the litterbox every time, scratching and pawing at the sand to cover up a treasure which never made it to the box to begin with. Be patient with these creatures, this is not an act of malice, they really are just numb. I found the best way to deal with this issue was to make a very high walled litter box so she couldn't hang her butt over the edge. The photo here shows a nice DIY example made from a tote.
Would you believe me if I said OCD is something cats sometimes suffer from too? At least in the sense of hypercleanliness. Some cats just have to have a clean litter box, period. And if they don't get what they want they'll just turn your living space into a litterbox until you get the hint. These cats usually need their box cleaned at least once daily, if not after every usage. These cats are as prissy as they come and have you wrapped around their little paws! Lucky for us and toilet training do exist! self-cleaning litterboxes
Changes in the Enviroment
Cats can get very set in their ways and changes to their environment can be very stressful to them. Things like a new dog, a new baby, sudden loud noises, or a move to a new location, can upset them greatly and they can start marking as a way to comfort themselves that they do have a territory. If at all possible prevention is best. When you bring a cat to a new home try using the FeliWay plug in diffusers to ease the transition. I am also a big fan of getting a cat used to a kennel or cage, someplace it feels safe to go to when changes in the environment are a problem. This should be set up with a comfy bed and maybe food and it can be a place you can lock them when fireworks or festivities are going on outside your door, when guests are over and you don't want them running out, where they can go to be away from a new dog or baby, or when introducing them to a new location. Comfort is key here and if your cat is relaxed he or she will be much less likely to spray.
Part of the reason people like cats so much is they are very similar to us in many ways. Sadly this doesn't just count for their intelligence and playful manners but also in the way they age. Sometimes despite our best efforts senility kicks in and our geriatric pets lose their ways along with their knowledge. It's a sad descent but if you have a cat who is getting up there in years who is suddenly going in odd places this is likely the reason why, especially if it is accompanied by other signs of senility like wandering the house at all hours yowling at nothing, or just acting bizarrely. My first cat lived to be fourteen and the last year of her life she was clearly going out of her mind. She stopped pooping in the box and for no reason started using the middle of the floor. It's a hard and heart breaking situation because there is no cure. Sometimes caging can be implemented but then it becomes a question of quality of life since the cage is not a temporary retraining measure but a permanent band aid. I can't offer much help if you are in this situation but if you happen to have younger cats please know that keeping a cats mind and body active in their young years has great preventative qualities when it comes to getting senility in their older years. An older cat who is still playing with toys and is not obese is far less likely to suffer this problem. Besides this playing with your cat, hiding their food in treat balls, and interacting with them more has to be one of the happiest remedies to any of the issues we discussed today!
Spraying is a big issue but it can be combated with knowledge. Today we learned that unaltered adult male cats are by far the most guilty of any of the categories. This is something to consider when adopting one but something else to consider may be breed. Some breeds have a pretty bad reputation for marking - especially hybrid breeds like Bengals and Savanahs who have wild cats in their recent family trees. This makes this very undomesticated behavior all the more likely. Even so the hybrids aren't the only breeds that are said to be problematic. Even the wistfully beautiful and very domesticated Egyptian Mau sometimes gets a reputation for this ungainly behavior and they are not the only ones! So do your research and in the end we hope you and your kitty will spend a happy lifetime together.
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