Why Do Male Cats Spray?
Urine marking is normal behavior that nearly all cat owners must deal with at some point. To cats, it’s just another form of communication that has been a part of their behavioral repertoire for millennia. To humans, though, it can be a huge inconvenience.
Why do male cats spray? Male cats spray for many reasons, including territorial defense, sexual arousal, as a stress response, and to communicate with other cats in the area. The pheromones in cat urine tell other animals a great deal about the individual that left the mark, such as its sex and reproductive status.
Despite how valuable this form of communication can be in the cat community, it's not so great for their human companions. Luckily, there are several options available for you to control this behavior. First, you’ll need a better understanding of it to help you manage it effectively.
Why Is My Male Cat Spraying?
Urine marking is a natural behavior seen in all felines, domestic and wild. Above all, cats do this because of their territorial instinct. When they spray their urine on an object, be it a wall, toy, or plant outside, they effectively mark it as their own. In a sense, urine marking or spraying is the equivalent of a human writing their name on something that belongs to them.
Male cats’ spraying communicates to other cats in the area that they shouldn’t mess with the item he’s peed on. Otherwise, there will be consequences (the spraying cat will most likely act defensively over his territory or possession, namely in a fight). Yet, how do neighboring cats know these things belong to the marking cat, particularly?
Of course, as a human, you can’t smell the identifying features in your cat’s urine. To you, it’s probably just a stench that’s so terrible that your nose just might fall off. However, this smelly liquid is packed with chemical compounds that signal to conspecifics (animals of the same species) which cat they’re dealing with.
Other cats can easily pick up on this because of their powerful sense of smell, which is 14 times stronger than humans’. Their sensitive noses detect the urine’s chemical compounds known as “pheromones,” which help the felines identify each other by scent alone. These pheromones allow for an incredibly efficient means of communication between the animals.
By merely sniffing a few blades of grass here and there, the animals never even have to make eye contact with one another. This allows them to significantly reduce the risk of physical conflict, keeping themselves and other cats safe. Apart from territorial defense, cats depend on urine spraying and scent recognition to:
Identify related cats in their colony
Get familiar with other cats (and vice versa)
Announce their readiness to mate
Strengthen bonds with other cats in the area
Evolutionary Purpose of Urine Marking
As discussed above, urine spraying has a deeply rooted role in cats’ wellbeing and social interactions. It is essential to the foundation of communication between cats that aren’t in direct contact with one another (critical in marking large expanses of territory). Plus, it’s a crucial factor in coordinating mating behaviors, also mentioned previously.
For one, female and male cats can use urine marking to “announce” to their neighbors that they are in a reproductive state. However, the effects aren’t limited to mere communication. Cat spraying can actively influence a potential mate’s physiological state, too. For example, in 2013, scientists discovered that the pheromones in snow leopards’ urine induced other cats to enter a reproductive stage.
Another of the domestic cat’s wild cousins, the African lion, displays the need for urine marking in reproductive contexts, too. In their case, pheromones are central to determining which lionesses are of the correct age group to reach estrous (when they’re “in heat”) simultaneously.
No matter what the purpose of the urine spraying, cats rely heavily on this form of communication to spread important messages to one another – and they don’t even have to sniff the spray right away. Identifying pheromones can remain in the urine for a surprisingly long time, thanks to lipids and proteins that keep them locked in. The odor might change slightly as the marking gets older, but this just helps the animals determine how long ago the spray was deposited. It doesn’t interfere with identifying the cat.
When they come across another cat’s pee spot, they pick up the chemical compounds with the “Flehmen grimace.” This behavior, described below, is prevalent across cat species, as it allows the animal to take up the chemical information in one of their many scent glands.
How Cats Use the "Flehmen Grimace" to Break Down Urine's Information
Cats aren’t the only animals that perform the Flehmen response (more popularly known as the “Flehmen grimace”). Yet, since it looks so silly and adorable on their faces, many people attribute it to these beloved fur babies. The term “flehmen” is German for “lip curl” or generally describing the act of curling the upper lip.
When the cat opens its mouth, curling those upper lips and extending the tongue, it exposes one of its scent glands for better pheromone analysis, allowing it to do what the Wildlife Conservation Society describes as smelling in “high-definition.” The gland the cat is exposing is the “Jacobson organ” or the “vomeronasal organ,” located in the roof of the mouth.
This organ is home to receptor cells that form a direct connection to a brain region associated with:
Sexual behavior (it may also be functionally related to courtship)
Scientists believe that this organ not only enables cats to recognize one another but humans, too. In any case, once the cat has exposed their Jacobson organ more thoroughly, they can utilize their 200 million scent receptors (compared to humans’ 5 million) to pick up on all possible identifying information in the sprayed urine.
When Do Male Cats Start Spraying?
Male cats’ spraying can be a response to many behavioral, physiological, or social pressures. For one, it can be a sign of a male cat reaching sexual maturity. This is made clear by the fact that urine spraying is most prevalent in males versus females, especially neutered males. For this reason, veterinarians often suggest that cat owners have their cats neutered as early as possible (by five months old is best).
Still, neutering your cat isn’t an end-all-be-all solution. Reports have shown that 10% of cats that were neutered before they were 10 months old persisted in their spraying behaviors as adults. On the other hand, 77% of neutered cats either stopped or “significantly reduced” this behavior within six months of the procedure. So, there’s a strong chance that neutering will help mitigate this unwanted behavior.
Additional Circumstances that Might Cause Your Cat to Start Spraying
However, sexual maturity isn’t the only thing that will inspire your male cat to start spraying. Another reason it might start doing this is because of stress. If your cat has felt threatened by another animal in the area, it might feel pressured to mark its territory (i.e., your house). So, if you’ve noticed a few tom cats roaming around your house on occasion, they might be the perpetrators behind your cat’s stress.
Cats might also start urine spraying their territory if you introduce other kitties to the household. Again, this is an expression of territoriality. Since all the cats must share their living space, they might feel a bit more pressured to claim something as their own. After all, if a cat doesn’t have something to call its own, does it really have anything at all?
In the case of multi-cat households, you’ll most likely see this affecting litter boxes. A male cat might spray the side of a litter box or a scratching post, hoping that the others in the house will steer clear. Although spraying urine on a scratching post seems a bit strange compared to a litter box, it makes complete sense when considering cats’ natural behaviors.
Urine spraying is only one of many scent-based communications between cats. Since there are so many alternatives for a cat to leave its scent behind, it might use more than one at once. For example, scientists have observed semi-feral cats using the following methods to mark their territories, in addition to urine spraying:
Tree-scratching: Researchers noted that cats preferred trees with soft bark, especially those located along paths that either marked their territories’ boundaries or stretched randomly throughout their home ranges. The scratches provide two simultaneous means of communication: visual and olfactory (the sense of smell). The scent gland on their paws leaves behind their identifying odors for potential trespassers to pick up on.
Pooping: Yes, pooping. Just like the identifying chemical compounds in cats’ urine, a cat’s feces can provide information on the individual, too. This is due to the substance produced in their anal sacs, which they use to mark territorial boundaries in addition to, or instead of, urine.
Note: Interestingly, this scent-marking secretion isn’t synthesized by the cat itself but helpful little bacteria that live in the sacs. The secretion represents fifty-two of 67 volatile organic compounds the bacteria synthesize.
Do Male Cats Spray if They're Not Neutered?
Male cats are much more inclined to spray their urine to mark territory if they are not neutered. This is because intact males are more prone to displays of dominance due to hormonal influence. Veterinary experts state that the only behaviors that are normally affected by castration (neutering) are sexually dimorphic behaviors, meaning those driven specifically by male hormones (e.g., testosterone).
This is why studies show that neutered males are less likely to spray, as they are not as dominant or aggressive, neither are they as instinctually motivated to defend a territory. However, it stands repeating that neutering is not 100% effective. Since the brain’s masculinization begins at birth, castrating the cat when it’s older won’t entirely rid it of the behaviors typical of intact male cats.
For this reason, a fraction of fixed cats still feels the need to mark up their space, as mentioned above. If your cat is already relatively hyper-territorial or aggressive toward people or animals, neutering is unlikely to stop those tendencies. Still, cat owners that manage to get their cats neutered before sexual maturity can expect secondary sexual characteristics like dorsal glands near the tail to halt development.
Even though neutering doesn’t come with a guarantee, here are a few details that may inspire greater confidence in this procedure:
Studies have shown that neutering reduces urine spraying behaviors in about 85% of male cats.
Intact males tend to establish much larger territories when allowed outside. This means they’re more likely to get into fights and will take more opportunities to spray. Neutering helps reduce fighting by lowering aggression and instinct to claim vast territories.
Speaking of large territories, roaming behaviors are more prevalent during mating season. Neutering has helped reduce cats’ roaming tendencies with a roughly 90% success rate.
Urine from intact males often has a powerful odor. Neutering can help fight the “tom cat” scent, in part, by impeding the development of overactive tail glands and reducing the chances of abscesses forming from fighting.
How to Recognize Urine Spraying
It’s not always immediately apparent when your cat sprays. Even if you catch it in the act, you might be confused about whether it’s urinating normally or marking territory for any of the above reasons. A few of the telltale behaviors of a cat that is urine spraying include:
Standing upright with its tail erect, usually up against the wall or another vertical, flat surface. Its tail might quiver, too.
The cat may take a different posture but stands still for a moment, lifting its tail to mark horizontal surfaces. It may do the same when marking objects on the floor, such as bedding or pieces of clothing.
You might not get a chance to see your cat when it sprays urine. If this occurs when you’re not around or not looking, you can still determine whether the pee spots came out of a need to defend territory or if they’ve arisen from normal problematic potty behavior. A few of the major signs to look out for when assessing your cat’s urine marks are as follows:
You find pee spots on vertical surfaces. Have you ever found a pee spot outside the litter box and wondered how the heck your cat managed to lift its butt high enough to accomplish that? Well, it’s unlikely that your cat did some strange acrobatics to get their pee up high. There’s a much higher chance that it sprayed its urine instead.
There’s a small amount of pee on each mark. When a cat sprays, it tends to release a lot less urine than it would if it were relieving itself normally. After all, when marking its territory, the cat needs to retain as much liquid as possible to spread its “This is mine” message as far and wide as possible. If it seems like your cat is peeing a lot less than usual, it might be urine marking.
Their cat smells a lot worse than it normally does. Remember all those pheromones that cats use to identify themselves and one another? Well, those compounds tend to make the urine’s smell a lot stronger than it usually is. If your house or the litter boxes has been stinking lately, your cat’s urine sprays might be the culprit.
How Do You Stop a Male Cat from Spraying?
There are many steps you can take to stop a cat from spraying inside and outside the home. Before you commit to a specific method of eliminating or mitigating this behavior, you’ll need to first narrow down what the causes might be. Then, you can select a technique that’s most suitable for your circumstances. Here are a few tips to get your male cat to stop spraying.
How to Determine Why Your Cat's Urine Marking
To find out why your cat might be urine spraying, you’ll want to evaluate its home environment first, then talk to a veterinarian. When you study the house’s conditions, take note of these critical details:
Are there other cats in the household? If so, the spraying cat might be reacting to new or changing territorial dynamics in the group. This could definitely be the case if you’ve introduced a new cat to the household or have begun encouraging interactions between cats that haven’t socialized very much.
Have you rearranged anything in the house recently? Of course, your cat still recognizes that it lives in the same residence. However, the new layout might be a bit jarring and may make your cat feel as if its personal space is compromised. To make itself more comfortable and reaffirm its boundaries in the house, it’ll resort to spraying.
Are any of your cats intact? Experts warn that cats that are not spayed or neutered (intact) are the most likely to engage in urine spraying. Still, recall that this behavior is not exclusive to them, as neutered males might continue to spray. If there’s an intact female in or near the household, it might start spraying from an urge to mate.
Note: Females will spray, too, to signal their readiness to reproduce. Spaying isn’t a guaranteed solution to the problem, as 5% of females continue spraying after the procedure.
Note that when you are searching for an explanation behind your cat’s urine spraying problem, there might not be a clear, singular answer. All these issues can build on one another and push your cat to behave this way.
Further still, sometimes you simply won’t be able to find the root of the problem on your own. In these cases, you’ll need to reach out to a veterinarian. A vet might find that the behavior arose from a medical problem, such as a stress disorder or urinary tract infection. Your cat’s vet will guide you in the best practices for reducing household stress and may provide pheromone products like Feliway to discourage the behavior.
How Pheromone Products Can Help Stop Urine Spraying
Cat pheromone products were first introduced in the United States in 2001. These were quite revolutionary, as they tapped into an entirely new level of behavioral modification techniques for cat owners. By changing your home's chemical environment, you can influence your cat’s stress levels and ultimately behavior, without the need for extensive training.
Admittedly, though, the way these pheromone products work is a bit confusing. First, they target a cat’s olfactory system. As noted so far, cats use their scent glands and receptors to communicate all sorts of things with their fellow felines. Solutions like Feliway take advantage of this by mimicking the natural hormones that reside in a cat’s urine.
However, this is where it can get a bit confusing. If a cat detects the pheromones of another cat in the area, it’s expected to get stressed out and want to mark its territory for fear that another cat is trying to impede on its turf. These pheromone products have quite the opposite effect. Artificial pheromones can help soothe your cat and relieve its stress instead of getting it riled up and defensive.
The owner of Portland, OR Animal Behavior Clinic, Jacqui Neilson, DVM, DACVB, told Fetch by Web MD that she trusts it “for almost any anxiety-related condition.” These products accomplish such consistent calming effects by mimicking a cat’s F3 facial pheromones. This is what cats deposit when they rub their faces on furniture, scratching posts, and other items around the home.
If your cat walks by a spot that’s marked by this pheromone, it categorizes the area as “safe” and can consequently relax. This mechanism is incredibly effective. Several studies showed that cats’ urine spraying decreased up to 90% of the time after applying a pheromone product in the home. Still, as remarkable as these results are, it’s not a catch-all solution. You’ll still need to train your cat and modify the environment to reduce stress for long-term improvement.
Behavioral Approaches to Stop Male Cats From Spraying
So, let’s say you’ve taken the chemical and physical approach by using pheromone products around the house and taking your cat to the vet for neutering. Yet, you’re still dealing with your cat leaving urine everywhere. Not to worry, this is normal.
Remember that this is a deep-seated, instinctual behavior that is essentially embedded in your cat’s DNA. Calming pheromones and giving your cat the “snip” may not be all you need to undo millions of years of behavioral adaptation. So, your next option is to take a behavioral approach to your cat’s behavior.
If you followed the tips from the section above, you’ve likely narrowed down the precise triggers that have led to your cat’s spraying behavior. So, here are a few things you can do to modify the home environment and train your cat to stop urine spraying according to each possibility:
Stop cats from spraying in a multi-cat household. The first thing you need to do is identify the problem cat. Remember that both males and females engage in urine spraying, so consider all possibilities. After you find the culprit, make it feel more comfortable by giving it its own space. Add an extra litter box in another corner of the house, and help the cat form new associations with the urine marking spot using the tips below.
Prevent stressful outdoor stimuli from influencing your cat. Your cat’s sense of smell is impeccable. Even if you don’t allow it outdoors unsupervised, it might still be driven to mark its territory if it smells other cats doing the same outside. If you suspect tom cats are roaming around in your neighborhood, the best thing to do is close the windows and doors. Your cat might still pick up on other animals’ scents, but it’ll take some of the edge off.
Don’t allow your cat outside unsupervised. When you let your cat roam around outdoors without supervision, it’s more likely to feel the need to create and defend a territory. It’ll come across more cats and other animals that may make it feel threatened, feeding into this behavior even further. Restrict your cat’s outside time by either disallowing it entirely or only taking it on leashed walks.
Use a spray bottle. This is the most direct technique for stopping your cat’s spraying behavior. It works best when you put a bell on its collar to alert you of its whereabouts. Listen for the bell and catch your cat in the act, then spray a stream of water to startle – not scare – it. If you scare your cat, you’ll only traumatize it, increasing its stress and making the potty problems worse.
Change Your Cat's Association with Marked Areas
A critical step in achieving long-term success in stopping urine spraying is preventing repeat offenses in the same spot. If your cat can pick up on the smell of past pheromones, it’ll continue to spray the same site to either reinforce its ownership of the area or assert its dominance over the cat that originally left the mark.
To establish a new psychological association with the soiled spot, you’ll first need to clean up the urine, of course. Here are some tips on how to do that:
Surface Type: Carpet
- Soak up as much of the urine as possible with a paper towel or cloth.
- Mix a few drops of dish cleaning solution with water and saturate the spot. Let it sit, and do not scrub.
- Rinse by gently blotting up the area with a wet cloth or sponge.
- Saturate the spot with club soda, then blot it up with fresh towels.
- Place clean towels over the spot and weigh them down with something heavy. Keep it in place overnight.
- Spray the area with an enzymatic cleaner and clean according to the product’s directions.
Surface Type: Linoleum
- Soak up as much of the urine as possible. Use a paper towel or a mop saturated with a cleaning solution.
- Clean and rinse with warm water.
- Soak a sponge in white vinegar and wipe down the area.
- Allow it to air-dry.
Surface Type: Hardwood and Cement
- Soak up as much urine as possible.
- Use an enzymatic cleaner on the problem area.
- If the smell remains, you may have to refinish hardwood surfaces.
Urine spraying is a natural behavior that all cats, male and female, use to communicate with each other. Fortunately, there are many techniques for fixing this issue. By reducing stress and making your cat feel secure and at home with its own litter box, scratching post, and feeding bowls, you can stop urine spraying in your household.
About the Author
My name is Jazmin "Sunny" Murphy, and I am a science communicator and web content writer. Since 2015, I've been producing scientific content that is written in plain English. My love for life science has influenced my professional and academic aspirations since I was a kid. I hold a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and 21 units of a Master's education in Environmental Policy & Management (concentration: Fish and Wildlife Management). You can learn more about me and my science writing and reporting work at my website, Black Flower Writing Services.