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Why Do Cats Spray?

By: Virginia Wells

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You may have witnessed this scene too often: Your cat backs up to a vertical surface with the tail lifted vertically, and directs a small amount of urine in a fine spray from beneath his tail. The spray hits the surface approximately one to two feet from the ground. This activity is accompanied by an intense quivering movement of the tip of the tail, sometimes treading, and a look of intense concentration on your cat's face.

Spraying is not a litter box problem; it is an important part of nonverbal communication among cats, helping to establish and define boundaries and reassure cats whose area is whose.

Cats mark their territory by spraying urine in order to deposit pheromones. Pheromones are substances produced animals to serve as a form of chemical communication. In cats, several different pheromones are secreted by different regions of the body. By signaling to other cats they affect a number of behaviors, including attracting a mate. Some pheromones are used to mark objects and boundaries, whereas others send a signal of familiarity and well being. Pheromone combinations are unique, like human fingerprints, and their deposition acts as a calling card of sorts.

Cats use a variety of methods to mark their territory, such as scratching, rubbing against things, and leaving their feces uncovered. Spraying is the most common method of urine-marking. Intact males have the greatest motivation to mark because of their testosterone-driven territorial agendas, but neutered males also spray if aroused. Though females can spray, especially intact females in heat, they urine-mark more commonly from the squatting position.

Urine-marking can be performed with the cat in a standing position or in a squatting pose. The volume of urine passed ranges from small and almost insignificant to a regular flood, and vertical surfaces or strategic locations are often the target. There is also a type of "virtual" marking behavior in which no urine is passed at all, so-called phantom spraying, though owners do not usually regard this as a problem.

If your cat is spraying, there are several things you can do:

  • Have your veterinarian examine your cat to rule out the possibility of a medical problem.

  • If your cat has not been neutered, consider having it done. This may solve the problem completely.

  • Clean urine marks thoroughly with a special product designed to neutralize the odor. Avoid ammonia-based products, which smell like urine. The smell of urine or ammonia encourages the cat to spray on the same spot again.

  • If your pet is in a stressful situation, try to identify and eliminate the cause of the stress.

  • Use a commercial pheromone product such as Feliway® to discourage your pet from spraying.

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