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Cat spraying is normal but gross — here's what you can do about it

Ally Hirschlag is a producer/actor/writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY and buys way too many toys for her cats. She contributes to several publications, including Bustle, and The Nerve, and enjoys writing about all things woman. In her spar...

If your cat has a spraying problem, trying this might help

Spraying is a common problem in male cats, especially those that haven't been neutered. While it's usually not indicative of anything serious, the act itself is pretty unpleasant for the owners of said cats.

Why they do it

You might see spraying as a sign of aggression toward you and/or other cats, but most of the time it's actually just a form of communication. According to the ASPCA, cats are territorial, just like most other animals in the wild, but they don't go about laying claim to their "land" by being aggressive. Rather than lock horns with an intruder, they play a more manipulative game — they leave messages in the form of urine.

Cats will do anything to avoid conflict, so they developed a pretty fool-proof system by which they can work out disputes without having to be in the same room together. Think of it like a frenemy sending you passive aggressive texts to alert you to a transgression you made. While not the most effective, it at least clues you into the fact that you've crossed a line.

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Is it a litter box problem or spraying?

It's common to confuse a litter box problem with a spraying problem because both involve inappropriate peeing. If your cat is using its litter box regularly, that doesn't necessarily mean it won't also spray from time to time because the purpose of each act is different. The way that you can tell if it's purposefully spraying, or not clear on how to use the litter box, is in the specifics of its actions.

If your cat is spraying, it'll usually pick a vertical surface like a wall, plant or furniture on which to urinate. It also won't completely eliminate all the urine in its bladder. According to the Cornell University Veterinary College, a cat that's about to spray will lift its tail and quiver, then urinate in short bursts, leaving little puddles of urine. If left undisturbed, it'll usually continue doing this in the same place or few places. Spray urine also smells more intense than regular urine because it's mixed with chemicals that the cat is dispelling to announce itself to the threat it perceives.

Threats to cats

Here are some of the most common things cats often see as threats and thus may in turn cause them to spray. Cats not only spray to claim territory, they do it to make themselves feel safer when there's a new stressor around. The smell makes things feel familiar when something is out of the ordinary.

  • Conflict with other cats — this is why spraying tends to happen more in homes with more than one cat
  • New baby
  • New roommate
  • Construction or restructuring of house (adding or changing furniture)
  • Moving
  • Leaving for long periods of time

How to stop the spraying

  • If your cat hasn't been neutered yet, this may be the quickest and easiest way to solve your problem. According to Drs. Foster and Smith, 90 percent of cats that are fixed before they mature past adolescence will not spray.
  • Cat conflicts are a bit more difficult to solve because sometimes cats just don't get along. You can try giving them their own litter box far away from the other and even feeding them in different places so they don't feel crowded.
  • If an outdoor cat is teasing your indoor cat, you can get motion detector-triggered sprinklers to scare it away.
  • If a change in the household is causing the spraying, try using a pheromone plug-in like Feliway to calm your cat. If it's just a temporary visitor or change, keep your cat separated in another room until the "intruder" is gone.
  • Make sure you clean any sprayed spots really well with enzyme-eating cleansers like Nature's Miracle. You want to make it hard for your cat to get into the habit of using the same inappropriate spot over and over.

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