Cat Behavior Problems: Marking and Spraying Behavior

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

What is urine marking or spraying?

Urine marking refers to the deposition of urine for the purpose of communication. The term urine spraying is used when the urine is deposited onto vertical surfaces. In most cases, the quantity of urine is small. A spraying cat postures by backing up to the surface, usually quivering his tail, and then, with little or no crouching, sprays urine onto the surface.

Although spraying is the most common type of urine marking, some cats mark by urinating on horizontal surfaces. Cats can also mark by depositing stool, scratching objects, and rubbing their face along surfaces.

Why do cats “mark” with urine?

When a cat marks, he deposits chemicals known as pheromones. Animals can use pheromones to communicate with other members of their species. A cat’s pheromones contain personal information; cats mark to intentionally leave their messages in socially important locations within their territory, particularly along commonly traveled pathways.

As cats move about, the scent glands on their feet leave pheromone deposits – identification stamps. There are also scent glands in the cheeks, the chin, the top of the head, and the base of the tail. Cheek rubbing (bunting) and scratching are also forms of marking. When a cat scratches a surface, the glands in his feet release pheromones and, in addition, the claw marks serve as long-lasting visual communication. Territorial marks can signal “ownership” and also advertise sexual receptivity and availability. Free-roaming, unneutered male cats mark many times per hour.

"Territorial marks can signal “ownership” and also advertise sexual receptivity and availability."

Indoor cats also have a need to communicate, so they may be inclined to mark surfaces with their cheeks, claws, and urine. To a degree, marking is therefore a normal behavior, but it can also be an indicator of distress, and it is always unpleasant for the people that share their homes with cats!

Urine marking can be triggered by the sight of an outdoor cat through the window – a response to a threat to the cat’s territory. When two or more cats share a home, they may attempt to establish territories within the home by leaving marks in prominent locations.

Any time an indoor cat feels threatened or distressed, he may leave a mark to affirm the location of a safe territory. A change in household routine, the addition of a person or pet, or even a remodeling project can trigger anxiety and marking. Cats sometimes deposit urine onto new objects brought into the household, presumably to create a common scent and/or mask an unfamiliar one.

Frustration can also trigger marking. It seems that cats are soothed by the presence of their own pheromones. For example, a hungry cat that is faced with an empty food bowl or an indoor/outdoor cat that is waiting for a door to open may spray urine, usually close to the source of frustration. Cats that live indoors without sufficient access to social and environmental enrichment may experience stress that is manifest by marking.

Finally, physical discomfort can trigger marking behavior. If your adult cat suddenly begins marking or suddenly stops using a litter box or begins to spray inside the box, be sure to have him examined by your veterinarian.

Which cats are more likely to urine mark?

Both male and female cats can mark with urine. Urine marking is most common in intact (non-neutered) male cats. When an intact male sprays urine, it will have the characteristic “tom cat” odor that is strong and pungent. Castration or neutering changes the odor of the urine and may reduce the cat’s motivation for spraying, but approximately 10% of neutered males and 5% of spayed females will continue to spray. Cats in multiple-cat households often exhibit spraying behaviors, but cats that are housed alone may spray as well.

I am finding small amounts of urine in multiple locations. What does that mean?

Most cats that mark indoors do so by spraying urine in many locations, but if you notice multiple small puddles on horizontal surfaces, this urination may also represent marking. You may find horizontal urine marks near doorways, on windows, on newly acquired possessions, or even on piles of clothing.

"Any persistent urination or defecation outside the litter box is a signal to have your veterinarian examine your cat."

Any persistent urination or defecation outside the litter box is a signal to have your veterinarian examine your cat. Lab work may be needed, including a urine test. Medical conditions such as infections, gastrointestinal disease, and arthritis can cause a cat to urinate or defecate outside their litter box.

Some behavioral illnesses other than marking can also lead to avoidance of the litter box and/or preference for an alternative elimination area. If there is no physical explanation for the behavior, it is important to consult with a veterinary behaviorist for an accurate assessment and an effective treatment program.

How do I treat a spraying or marking problem?

Treatment for marking focuses on decreasing your cat’s motivation for spraying. Therefore, the first step is to investigate some of the details of the behavior to determine the underlying cause. The location of the urine marks, the frequency, the timing, and number of locations can help with diagnosis or assessment. If you have more than one cat, then the relationship between the cats will need to be explored - there may be underlying friction triggering the behavior.

  • Try to recreate the timeline and recall whether there have been any changes in the household. Cats are very sensitive to their physical and social environment. Remodeling, purchasing new furniture, adding or losing a pet or person may be important. A veterinary behaviorist will consider all these factors, as well as your cat’s physical and emotional health, when determining the reason for the behavior. 
  • If you discover your cat is marking because he is agitated by a cat he sees through the window, then it is important to deter outside cats from getting close to your house. If the offending cat lives nearby, try talking with your neighbor about the situation. You may also set a motion-activated water sprinkler near the window. Since many cats find the odor of citrus to be unpleasant, you can try leaving citrus rinds scattered near the window.
  • Meanwhile, try to limit your cat’s view. Depending on your home’s layout, you may be able to simply close off rooms that provide a close-up view of other cats. Another option is to apply opaque window coverings that attach to your window panes and mask the view of the outdoor cat. It may be necessary to keep certain windows closed to prevent the intruding cat’s scent from wafting in.
  • If your cat’s marking is related to uncomfortable social interactions, perhaps friction with another household cat, then it is important to work on that relationship. Cat communication can be subtle – it can be difficult to identify significant aggressive or fear-related postures. A veterinary behaviorist or other qualified professional can assess the social interactions and design treatment to reduce marking by reducing conflict. 
  • Talk to your veterinarian about whether your cat is a candidate for neutering. If your cat is healthy and will not be used for breeding, then spaying or neutering can sometimes cure marking behavior completely.
  • Finally, it is always important to provide clean, appealing litter boxes. Be sure all cats in your home can easily access the boxes and that there are plenty of boxes – one box for each cat and one extra. Also, clean any sprayed sites with a product that neutralizes odor, such as Urine Away™.

I’ve cleaned up the spot, but the cat keeps returning to spray. What else can I do to reduce the problem?

Cats mark to leave a message, so it is not surprising that, when the odor is cleaned up and the message is erased, a cat might immediately refresh the area with more urine. Cleaning is still recommended, but on its own, it does not usually eliminate marking.

For cats that only leave marks in one or two areas, changing the purpose of the area can sometimes resolve the problem. For instance, since most cats do not leave urine marks near their feeding or resting places, placing a feeding dish or cozy bed in the marked area could be curative.

It is also possible to change the type of mark to a more socially acceptable format. For example, since cats can mark with their claws, placing a scratching post near the spot where urine-marking occurs may encourage your cat to scratch rather than spray.

Similarly, cats that rub surfaces to mark with their cheek glands are less apt to spray urine in the same location. Furthermore, the pheromones found in the cheek glands seem to have a calming effect on cats, so encouraging facial marking can be an effective treatment for spraying.

Applying Feliway® Optimum, a commercial product containing a synthetic phermone, to areas where cats have sprayed urine may reduce urine and can encourage cheek gland marking rather than urine spraying. The product is available as a room diffuser that covers about 700 square feet for cats marking multiple sites or as a spray to be used directly on the area where your cat sprays.

Some cats can be encouraged to spray in a modified litter box placed in a prime marking location. A backsplash such as a plexiglass panel can protect the wall. Alternatively, two plastic litter boxes can be nested to make an L-shape (with the upright surface to catch the marked urine).

What should I do if I catch my cat spraying?

If you catch your cat about to spray, the best tactic is to distract him. A novel sound can often be used as a distraction. Or, you may be able to lure your cat to engage in a different, more appropriate behavior by waving a toy on a wand or using a treat trail.

Do not scold or otherwise try to frighten your cat. Cats are very sensitive to any form of punishment, even verbal reprimands. Punishment can cause fear and can permanently damage your cat’s trust in you.

Are there any drugs that are available to treat this problem?

Though marking can be a completely normal form of feline communication, for many house cats, there is an emotional component to the behavior. Medications that address anxiety and frustration can be helpful adjuncts to treatment.

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