By Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
All cats can spray. This is more common in male cats; female cats usually need more motivation to express themselves in this way.
Spraying is the equivalent of the cat writing a message in large bold font. We need to ‘read’ that message and address the underlying reason that prompted the message. Trying to stop the behaviour without addressing the cause, generally leads to larger, bolder, and more insistent messages from the now-stressed cat.
Is the cat spraying or urinating? Spraying is a small amount of liquid squirted from a standing position against a vertical surface, while urinating is a larger amount of liquid on a flat surface. However, these ‘rules’ are not fixed, and cats can urinate with a full bladder in a standing position or deposit a small amount from a squatting position!
Make sure you know which cat is spraying, and if it is more than one. This can be tricky to determine but is necessary to finding the right solution. Separating cats, or restricting their movement, can give false information as it can change their behaviour. Movement-sensitive cameras give the best evidence.
Look at the message and determine who the message is for – other cats/animals, you, or the cat herself. This provides a direction for further investigation. Other information that can be helpful includes the place(s) sprayed, time of action (day, night, morning, etc.), where other cats/pets were, who was home/away at the time, what was happening in the home at the time (what was the trigger?).
Messages for other animals are mainly ‘Keep Out! My Space!’ messages. This implies a real or perceived threat to her safety and/or resources. An exception is a female on heat, or coming into heat, where the message is to advertise her availability to other cats.
The messages for you, as owner, carer and general support person, display a need for something. This may be an indication of pain, failing organs, or a call for more litter trays, more safe hiding places, better food or any other need she may have. Begin with a full vet check-up to eliminate any medical causes – these are not limited to the urinary system as this is a message to gain your attention, so look for any possible medical issues and tell your vet of any other behavioural changes. Spraying is not a typical attention-seeking behaviour, but it could become a habit, depending on the ‘reward’ for the action.
Lack of safety, real or imagined, or a low feeling of ownership or permanence, may lead a cat to spray in order to feel at home. Much as we would hang pictures and place favourite ornaments around in order to make a space feel like home, cats leave scent messages that they can read to feel safe. Blind and deaf cats may exhibit this behaviour more than other cats.
Any cat who sprays is asking for help. Once the message is decoded and a solution to the cause is implemented, this behaviour should stop. It is best to resolve issues as soon as possible to prevent the spraying becoming a habit.