One of the most common behavior complaints about cats is inappropriate elimination. There are two kinds:
- Eliminating outside the litter box on horizontal surfaces: when the cat squats and pees or poops outside of the box
- Spraying (aka marking): when the cat sprays a fine mist of urine on a vertical surface
When cats eliminate outside the box, they produce a quantity of urine because they need to relieve their bladders. When they spray on a vertical surface (e.g., a wall, fence or tree), the purpose is to communicate with other cats and mark their territory, so it’s a small amount of urine.
Urine spraying or marking by cats is a normal, instinctive behavior. Cats who urine mark will urinate mostly on vertical surfaces, though they sometimes mark horizontal surfaces, too. They deposit small amounts of urine, and display a typical posture while marking, which includes backing up to the object, lifting and often quivering the tail, and treading with the back feet.
As mentioned above, urine marking is used as a means of communication between cats, and also serves to make other cats aware of their territory. In a multiple-cat household, competition over resources may be a source of conflict, and could trigger urine-marking behavior.
The first step in tackling the problem is to take your kitty to your vet for a thorough physical exam to rule out any medical issues. Even though cats who urine mark have been shown to be no more likely than cats who do not urine mark to have abnormalities on a urinalysis, medical causes can contribute to the underlying stress or anxiety that a cat may be experiencing. Urinary tract infections, metabolic diseases, and neurological disorders may play a role in a cat starting or continuing the behavior.
Spay or neuter
Second step: Are all your cats spayed or neutered? We've learned that kitties who aren't neutered may be more likely to urinate inappropriately. Spraying is a far more common behavior in animals who are not altered, male or female. Neutering is the best way to stop a male cat from spraying, and in females, only a small percentage will continue to spray after being spayed. (Some of these cases are due to remnants of the ovaries being left behind or testicles that haven't descended, so it might be a good idea to check with your vet.)
If you have questions about spaying or neutering your cat, read "Spaying or Neutering a Cat: Reasons to Fix Your Cat" or talk to your veterinarian. You can check the SPAYUSA website to see if there's a clinic or veterinarian in your area that offers low-cost spay/neuter services.
Litter box management
Proper litter box management and cleaning can have a significant effect on decreasing urine marking in cats. First, make the litter box as attractive as possible. Keep the litter box immaculate by scooping daily and cleaning the entire box every week or two with mild soap and water, rinsing completely. The box should be large enough to accommodate the cat; most litter boxes on the market are too small. The plastic storage boxes designed to fit under a bed are often a better choice. Don't use covered litter boxes, since many cats find them too confining.
Second, make sure you have enough litter boxes. The ideal number of litter boxes is one per cat, plus one. Spread the boxes around the house. Cats don't like to be disturbed while in the litter box, so put the boxes in quiet, less trafficked areas (not next to the washing machine and dryer, for instance). Don't put a litter box near the cat's food and water dishes.
Next, try placing a litter box in the area where the cat is spraying, and gradually, inch by inch, move the box to a more appropriate area after the cat is using it consistently. You can also try placing the cat's food or toys over the area where she was spraying.
Another option is to make the inappropriate area inaccessible, at least for a while. If it is not feasible to block off the area, there are ways to make the area aversive to the cat. Try using one of the following on the spot: plastic carpet runners placed upside down, heavy plastic, contact paper with the sticky side up, or citrus peels.
If your cat "misses" the litter box and sprays nearby areas, there are a few strategies that can help. You can create an L-shaped litter pan by placing a second box at a 90-degree angle to the first, so they form an L shape. With this configuration, urine is more likely to be confined to the box and not deposited on an inappropriate surface. Another strategy is to use a large, deep plastic bin as a litter box. Cut a hole in the front of the bin so the cat can enter and exit; the high sides will keep the cat from spraying on your wall or curtains.
The odor left behind in the soiled area should be removed by using an enzyme-based cleaner, since they are designed to eradicate the odor-causing bacteria. Avoid using anything containing ammonia, or any other household cleaner.
Incidences of spraying increase in multiple-cat households. If you have a multiple-cat household, and you think competition over resources may be a source of conflict, try creating an "atmosphere of plenty." Place food, water and litter boxes in multiple areas throughout the house to give your cats access to these resources without having to enter another cat's "territory." Adding more cat trees or towers is a great way to expand the vertical territory available to your cats. Providing your kitties with more places to hang out can reduce some of the tension that comes from sharing living space.
Another idea to consider: Install an outdoor cattery to enlarge your cats' living area. Catteries come in all sizes and shapes; you're limited only by your imagination. They can be large open enclosures with shelves and cubbies where cats can relax and play (and you can relax and play with them), small covered enclosures just big enough for a litter box, or something in between. For more info, read "Catteries and Catios."
When you bring a new cat into your multiple-cat home, spraying can occur as a method of establishing territorial boundaries. To reduce this possibility, confine the new cat for a while to a room with food and a litter box, away from the other cats in the household. A new cat needs time to adjust to the new house and smells of the other cats, without confrontation by them. This separation period also gives the other cats time to adjust to the smell and sound of the new cat. Read Introducing a New Cat for more specifics.
Other causes of stress
Other factors can cause stress in your cat and consequently influence urine marking: new cats or people in the neighborhood or household; a change in the daily routine; or anything else that causes stress or anxiety in your cat.
Cats who spray near a door or window usually are doing so in response to seeing outdoor cats roaming near the house. Indoor/outdoor cats can get so over-stimulated while they are outside that they spray when they come in the house.
To deter this behavior, try to block visual access by closing curtains, pulling down shades or even physically barring the cat's access to the door or window. At the same time, use some "creative sabotage" techniques to keep strays and outdoor cats away from the house. Try some or all of the following:
- Get motion detectors that release a spray of water, which repels cats without harming them.
- Remove bird feeders and garbage, which attract cats.
- Spread orange or lemon peels, cayenne pepper, coffee grounds and pipe tobacco in your yard. Cats don’t like the smell of these substances.
If a new person enters the household or if you have moved recently, your cat may start marking the area or objects associated with the new element in his/her life. Use these methods for cats who are spraying in response to something new in the environment:
- Temporarily confine the cat to a room by himself with food, water and a litter box. Let him get adjusted to that smaller space, then after a few days, open the door and allow the cat to explore at his own pace.
- Don't force the kitty to be sociable with the new person. Let the cat approach on his own terms. It can also help if the new person starts feeding the cat or playing with him using a favorite toy.
Finally, for any of the situations described above, try using Feliway, a synthetic pheromone that mimics the "feel good" pheromones cats produce and is often successful at defusing stress in cats who are marking their territory. Also, in some cases it may be worth talking to your veterinarian about using some behavior-modifying medications. These meds can be helpful tools while trying to train your cat to urinate in an appropriate place and can help reduce the stress your cat feels.
Cat behavior can be quite complex. If you'd like to know more, the following books can be very helpful:
- Starting from Scratch: How to Correct Behavior Problems in Your Adult Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett
- Your Outta Control Cat by Christine Church
- No, Kitty! A Quick-Fix A-Z Problem Solver for Your Cat's Bad Behavior by Steve Duno
There is also a wealth of information about inappropriate elimination (house soiling) on the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine website.
If you've tried everything and you are still unable to resolve your cat's spraying behavior, consider consulting a cat behaviorist. Here are several options:
- You could consult a veterinarian who has undergone extensive training and education in animal behavior. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) lists their members here.
- You can find a behavior consultant through the International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).