Urine spraying in cats

What is urine 'spraying'?

Urine spraying is a form of territorial marking behaviour, performed by adult cats.

There is still some debate about the purpose of urine spraying but it is suggested that it facilitates communication between cats from a distance, to coordinate different cats' movements in a territory to enable 'timesharing', and for the avoidance of aggressive encounters.

There is however no evidence to show that any cat investigating the spray marks of another cat avoids or retreats from them. Information about the timing of when these marks were made may be present because sniffing and flehmen response varies depending on the age of the urine deposit. Odours are so important to a cat's survival that they have a second organ of scent called the vomeronasal or Jacobsen's Organ enabling them to 'taste' significant smells. 

This organ consists of two small apertures behind the front teeth in the roof of the mouth that connect to the nasal cavity. The cat opens its mouth and draws the air into the apertures; the facial expression adopted at this time looks like a kind of grimace and is referred to as the Flehmen response (see picture right).

Urine spraying has also probably adapted to fulfil other functions in the domestic neutered pet cat, reflecting the emotional state of the animal. Cats spray during socially stressful situations, possibly to increase their self-assurance, or as a coping strategy for stress or even as a form of displacement activity. You will often see other cats outside spraying urine against bushes, fences and other objects. It is normal behaviour for a cat to spray urine under these circumstances, however, if a cat starts to spray urine indoors this indicates that it doesn’t feel secure and that something is causing it to become stressed.

See our information on identifying and addressing the signs of stress.

What does it look like when a cat sprays urine?

The classical presentation for urine spraying involves the cat backing up to a vertical surface, often after sniffing the area intensely and showing a flehmen response. The cat stands with its tail erect and quivering and raises its hindquarters. The cat may or may not tread with its hind paws while squirting a stream of urine (usually less than 2ml). Some urine marking can take place on horizontal surfaces (usually objects or items of clothing on the floor), either in a squatting posture or by standing and spraying. The spray marks can be quite hard to find, you may just be aware of the smell. Sometimes all you can see is a small trickle of brown, sticky substance on a skirting board, radiator or door. Other favoured targets for urine spraying include electrical equipment, full-length curtains, plastic bags and clothing.

Is it only male cats that spray urine?

Males and females are capable of urine spraying although the frequency is higher in males. The incidence is much higher in intact animals (those that have not been neutered), suggesting it may be facilitated by sexual hormones, providing information about the sprayer’s presence and reproductive status. Approximately 90% of intact males and 95% of intact females show a significant decrease in spraying after castration/spaying. 

Is it a common problem?

In the neutered population it is estimated that 10% males and 5% females engage in urine spraying. The incidence of urine spraying in a household is directly related to the density of the cat population. The likelihood of urine spraying increases in direct proportion to the number of cats within a household, to as much as 86% with 7+ cats (some studies show a figure of 100% with 10+). 

What should I do if my cat sprays urine indoors?

The first thing you should do is contact your veterinarian. If your cat is young and has not yet been neutered then the most likely cause would be that your cat is becoming sexually mature. Neutering at this time would probably prevent the spraying from recurring and would avoid roaming, fighting and unwanted pregnancies; your vet will advise.

Caution should be taken in presuming all urine spraying has a primary behavioural motivation as diseases causing localised pain or discomfort may result in a cat adopting a spraying posture to urinate. Research indicates that up to 30% of cats that present for spraying may have an underlying medical problem, for example cystitis, also referred to as feline lower urinary tract disease. Your vet may therefore recommend analysis of your cat’s urine or other tests to rule out disease.

Once medical causes have been ruled out your vet will refer you to a behaviour specialist.

My cat doesn’t look stressed?

The domestic cat is a self-reliant species (responsible for its own survival) and it doesn’t readily show emotion as this may make it vulnerable to attack. This means that cats are excellent at hiding signs of illness, pain or stress. The signs are there however but are very subtle; often stress can only be established by looking for changes in patterns of behaviour. Urine spraying would certainly indicate that all was not right with your cat’s world.

What could be stressing my cat?

Not all cats respond to the same pressures by spraying urine as it does depend on the individual’s temperament. Broadly speaking, cats can be stressed by other cats, humans or the environment within which they live. Some specific stress triggers, for example, are:

  • Conflict with other cats in the household
  • Dense population of cats outside the home
  • Invasion of your home by a strange cat (eg, coming in through an open window or a cat flap) 
  • Decorating or extending your home (ie, disrupting your cat’s territory)
  • New additions to the family (eg, new baby, lodger, dog)
  • Owner absence or change of work schedule
  • Inappropriate punishment
  • Excessive or intrusive contact from humans

See our information on identifying and addressing the signs of stress

Is there anything I can do while I am waiting for a referral?

Once you have seen your vet about this problem then the best advice is to wait for the behaviourist to assess your specific situation and recommend changes that are tailor-made to suit the needs of your particular cat and its circumstances. However there are a few general things that may help in the meantime:

  • Clean sprayed areas with 10% biological washing powder solution, rinse thoroughly before drying and spraying with surgical spirit
  • Place new feeding stations at sprayed sites and put a portion of your cat’s normal daily ration in these areas
  • Alternatively, use Feliway® spray to treat sprayed sites, according to the manufacturer’s instructions
  • Use Feliway® diffuser to help reduce stress and anxiety
  • Provide safe indoor litter trays - one for each cat in the household plus one extra. Distribute these trays in different locations in the home, away from food, water and cat beds
  • If you have a multi-cat household, ensure ALL resources (beds, food and water bowls, scratch posts, litter trays, high places to sit, hiding places, toys) are provided to the same formula (1 per cat + 1 extra in different locations)
  • If full-length curtains have been targeted, once cleaned, consider pinning them up temporarily to avoid repeated spraying
  • If your cat has ever seen strange cats outside through full-length glass doors or windows then place static, opaque plastic film, or cardboard, over the lower section so they can’t see out and cats outside can’t see in

My cat has stopped spraying now after a few weeks - do I still need to see the vet?

Urine spraying can come and go, depending on the presence or absence of whatever it is that is stressing your cat. Often the problem returns and the longer you wait before tackling the problem, the more complicated it can become. Urine spraying is difficult to resolve as it is a normal behaviour for the species and often the identified stress triggers may be outside your influence (such as cats outside). However prior to a known and anticipated stressful event, it may be beneficial to use a Feliway® diffuser for those cats which have a history of urine marking during times of increased anxiety.

The problem can be reduced or contained to your satisfaction but guidance should be offered regarding the long-term wellbeing of the individual cat. 

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