Why Cats Spray | Why Male, Female + Neutered Cats Spray


Jul 22, 2023
Why Cats Spray | Why Male, Female + Neutered Cats Spray
Although this article has been written by a veterinarian and is based on scientific research and expert knowledge, it is intended for informational purposes only. It does not replace consulting your own veterinarian and establishing a patient-doctor relationship. To support our efforts, this site contains affiliate links to products we recommend and find helpful, which may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Read more.
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As wonderful as cats are, they can also exhibit some undesirable behaviors, one of which is spraying, also known as urine marking or scent marking. As a veterinarian, I have encountered many frustrated owners of spraying cats who don't understand why this behavior is occurring. It's upsetting to live with as it creates an unpleasant smell in the home, and it's also expensive and tiring to clean and replace items continuously. 

In this article on 'why do cats spray,' we will explore the following:

  • The signs of urine spraying
  • Cat spraying meaning
  • Why male and female cats spray
  • Why neutered cats spray

If you're dealing with cat spraying in your home, understanding why cats spray is the key to stopping it. Once the underlying cause has been identified, appropriate solutions can be implemented to prevent further spraying incidents. So before you can effectively stop this unwanted behavior, it's important to take the time to understand the reasons behind cat spraying and why it happens in the first place.

Also Read: How to Stop a Cat From Spraying Indoors

In this article, 'neutered' refers to a cat who has been castrated (male-specific term) or spayed (female-specific term), also known as 'fixed'. 'Intact' refers to a cat who has not been castrated or spayed, also known as 'entire'.

What Are the Signs of Cat Spraying?

Spraying is when a cat releases urine backward onto a vertical (upright) surface, such as a wall or corner of the couch. The signs to look for include the following:

  • Standing up
  • An upright and quivering tail
  • An arched back
  • Some cats tread with their back feet
  • Once they have finished, they walk away without sniffing or covering the urine

Video: A Cat Spraying (Urine Marking)

Cat Spraying Meaning

The domestic cats wild ancestors are most likely the African wildcat, a territorial and often solitary species that still exists today. Spraying is a normal behavior of the African wildcat. Urine marks left in the environment function as chemical messages, conveying information that helps cats attract a mate or mark their territory, which allows them to communicate without coming into close contact and, therefore, avoiding unnecessary confrontation.

Urine is typically sprayed in prominent locations and at head height so that it is easily noticeable. When another cat passes by, they will investigate the mark via sniffing and using the Flehmen's response to gather information. As the scent starts to fade, marks will be resprayed and topped up. As well as for communication purposes, when a cat leaves urine marks, it may also increase their sense of security and belonging.   

Cat Flehmen Response
Flehmen response - a cat with a slightly open mouth inhales a scent that's processed via their vomeronasal (Jacobson's) organ, located in the roof of their mouth. From the chemicals present, such as pheromones, they gather information. For example, when a male investigates urine from a female, he may know if she's in heat.

Is Spraying the Same as Peeing?

Although both involve depositing urine into the environment, spraying and peeing are different behaviors. While spraying urine serves as a form of communication between cats, peeing is the physiological process of eliminating excess water and waste products from the body.

When peeing, a cat typically digs a hole, squats, empties their bladder, sniffs, and then covers the urine. Cats may start to pee outside their litter box if they don't like the litter box set up or have an underlying medical condition.

It's essential to distinguish between a cat spraying or peeing in inappropriate places as they are two distinct problem behaviors with different causes and treatments. If you are unsure if your cat is spraying or peeing everywhere, for example, some cats pee standing up rather than squatting, which can look like spraying, or you only find the urine, read Is My Cat Spraying or Peeing Outside the Litter Box?

Does Cat Spray Smell and Look Like Pee?

Whether a cat pees or sprays, they are expelling urine from their bladder, which is yellow with a pungent ammonia-like smell. Some owners find that urine from a spraying cat is darker, thicker, and smellier than regular urine, but this may be due to the urine being more concentrated if the cat didn't have a full bladder at the time of spraying. It has also been suggested but not proven that sprayed urine contains anal gland contents. 

A tomcat's (intact male) urine is particularly strong and intense, whether he pees or sprays, partly due to high levels of an amino acid called felinine. The higher a male cat's testosterone levels, the more felinine is present in his urine.1

cat spraying vs peeing
It should be noted that some cats pee standing up, and others spray squatting.

Why Do Cats Spray and Urine Mark?

Cats spray to communicate their availability to mate, mark their territory, or if they feel stressed and anxious. Less commonly, cats spray urine due to an underlying medical condition.2 

There is always an underlying behavioral or medical cause for urine marking in cats, and it doesn't mean your cat is upset with you 

1. Cat Mating Behavior

Intact male cats frequently spray to attract a mate. However, intact females may also spray, especially when in heat (estrus), to communicate they are receptive to mating. When in heat, as well as potentially spraying, a female cat will often seek attention, meow excessively, roll on the floor, and raise her hind end in the air. 

Neutering (sterilization) dramatically reduces the chance of a cat spraying. However, 10% of neutered male cats and 5% of neutered female cats will still spray.3 Even if an animal is neutered before spraying behavior begins, they may still start later in life. 

2. Cat Territorial Behavior

It is speculated that male and female cats spray urine throughout their territory to indicate their whereabouts, therefore, avoiding unnecessary meetings and confrontations.   

Neutered cats may spray indoors for territorial reasons, such as: 

  • By doors and windows due to neighborhood cats outside their home, for example, if they see them in the garden.
  • In a multi-cat household, they may mark with urine to delineate their territory if there is a lack of space or resources. Having to share resources, such as litter boxes, scratching posts, food and water bowls, and areas for resting, sleeping, and playing, can create stress and competition between cats, especially if they do not view each other as being part of the same social group.
  • The introduction of a new cat could initiate spraying behavior.
  • Some cats may start spraying when they are older and become behaviorally mature (around 2 years old) since they tend to be less tolerant of sharing their living space with other cats. 

Cat outside staring at another cat inside the house

3. Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are the most common reasons neutered cats suddenly start spraying indoors. The trigger is often an event that causes them to feel unsafe, insecure, or threatened in their core territory (the safe zone where they eat, sleep, and play). 

Urine marking may help them relieve their anxiety, identify familiar objects, remind them to be wary at a location they previously experienced a threat, or provide reassurance and a sense of safety as the home smells like them. 

Causes of stress that can trigger a neutered cat to start spraying include: 

  • Conflict between cats. Either with another cat they live with or neighborhood cats. Signs of aggression may be obvious, such as hissing, growling, and chasing, or more subtle, such as staring, blocking access to a resource or area, or forcing a cat to move from a space they were using. If an indoor cat sees another cat outside the window, marking behavior may be triggered. Conflicts and aggressive interactions with other cats inside or outside the home are the most commonly reported potential causes for spraying.4
  • Introduction of a new person or pet. This may include a new cat to the house, a new cat in the neighborhood, a new dog, a new baby, or visitors staying in the home. 
  • Changes to their routine. For example, if your work schedule changes, you travel, or change how you interact with your cat. 
  • Disruption to their environment. Disturbances include redecorating or building work, relocating to a new home, moving furniture, or extreme weather. 
  • New odors. Sense of smell is extremely important to cats. Anything that has an unfamiliar scent or if the scent changes can cause stress, such as the smell of another cat on your clothing, visitors' shoes and bags, shopping bags, delivery boxes, or new furniture. 
  • A lack of resources. Forcing cats to share space or resources, such as sleeping areas, food and water bowls, scratching posts, or litter boxes, can create competition and lead to spraying. A cat can also become frustrated and spray if they can't easily access resources. 
  • Negative interactions. Unfavorable interactions with humans can cause stress, such as rough handling or yelling. Punishing a cat in response to them spraying can further exacerbate the behavior.   

Why Does My Cat Spray Me?

A cat may urine mark you or your belongings, such as your bag or shoes, if you have been away traveling or your work schedule changes. They may also mark you if you come home smelling of another cat or animal. In some cases, cats may spray people who make them feel uncomfortable. 

4. Medical Causes

The cause of urine marking in cats is usually behavioral and less commonly the result of an underlying medical condition.5 However, it's always important to consult your vet to rule out any medical issues before determining whether the spraying is a behavior problem. A urinalysis is often performed to check for urinary tract disease. Additional screening tests, such as bloodwork and imaging, will depend on your cat's history and physical exam findings. 

Medical causes of urine marking in cats include: 

  • A urinary tract infection (UTI) or cystitis. Infection or inflammation of the bladder are possible causes, especially if blood is noted in the urine.  
  • Hyperthyroidism. A condition in which the thyroid glands in the neck produce too much thyroid hormone. It has been associated with behavioral changes, including sudden urine marking in older cats who have never previously sprayed. Other symptoms include an increased appetite, weight loss, increased drinking and urination, and diarrhea.  
  • Exposure to sex hormones. If a neutered male or female cat starts spraying urine but also shows other sexual behaviors, such as increased meowing, humping, aggression, smelly 'tomcat' urine, or signs of being in heat (attention seeking, rolling on the floor, raising their hind end in the air), exposure to hormones, such as testosterone or estrogen, should be considered. A vet can also check a male cat's penis for spines or barbs, indicating he is exposed to testosterone. The source of hormones can be an adrenal tumor (rare and typically seen in older cats), hormone cream (that's licked off the owner or is accidentally rubbed onto the cat after application), a retained testicle (if a male cat is a cryptorchid, which is when one or both testicles did not descend and are still in the abdomen or groin area), or an ovarian remnant (a piece of an ovary was left behind in a spayed female cat).    
  • Any underlying illness. Any condition that causes your cat to feel unwell can increase their anxiety and vulnerability, contributing to marking behavior.  

Penile spines in a cat
Penile spines - If a neutered male cat starts urine marking but also has other signs, such as excessive meowing, aggression towards other cats, pungent 'tomcat' urine, or penile barbs (little spikes on his penis), he may be exposed to testosterone. The source could be a retained testicle (one or both of his testicles did not descend properly and are still located in the abdomen or groin area), an owner's hormone cream, or a hormone-secreting adrenal tumor.

How to Stop a Cat Urine Marking in the Home

To stop a cat from spraying urine, it's essential to understand the reason for the behavior. If your cat is not neutered, the first step is booking them in for their castration or spay surgery with your vet. Other feline marking solutions we recommend include:

  • Consulting a vet to rule out or treat underlying health conditions
  • Resolving conflict between cats (inside or outside the home)
  • Increasing litter box appeal, such as litter box size, location, cleanliness, and litter type
  • Encouraging other forms of marking in the target area, such as scratching and facial rubbing
  • Creating a positive environment
  • Minimizing disruptions and changes to their environment
  • Completely removing the smell of urine from marked areas
  • Deterring them from remarking the area
  • Calming medications and supplements for emotional support
  • Using a Feliway (pheromone) diffuser in the room they spend most of their time

To learn more, read How to Stop a Cat From Spraying Indoors.

Discover 11 Proven Solutions to Stop Your Cat Spraying

Case Study

Jeff is a 10-year-old, male neutered, Domestic Shorthair

Jeff the Cat

Two months ago, Jeff started spraying urine around the home, and the owner noticed that his urine had developed a strong odor, similar to a tomcat. He had also become more aggressive towards the owner and the other cats in the household. This behavior was unusual for Jeff, who had always been affectionate and never urinated outside the litter box.

On physical examination, he had penile barbs (tiny spines on his penis), which are usually seen in intact male cats and indicate testosterone exposure. Jeff had been neutered when he was six months old. The procedure had been straightforward, and both testicles were removed. No one in the home used hormonal cream, so accidental exposure was unlikely.

An abdominal ultrasound was performed, and a mass next to his left adrenal gland was found, suspected to be a testosterone-secreting tumor. He was taken to surgery, and the tumor was not invading any major blood vessels and was removed. Over the next two months, Jeff's urine marking and aggression gradually decreased, and he reverted to his usual affectionate self.

Summary: What Causes a Cat to Spray?

Intact Cats: Mating and Territorial Behavior

Urine marking is a normal feline behavior for intact cats. The purpose of spraying is to allow cats to communicate with each other by leaving chemical messages (urine) in the environment without having to come into close contact and avoiding unnecessary confrontations.

Intact cats will spray in the house and outside. Uncastrated males spray the most to attract a mate. Unspayed females will also spray, especially when in heat, to signal they are receptive to mating. Males and females both spray to mark their territory and indicate their presence to avoid unwanted conflicts. 

Neutered Cats: Conflict with Housemates or Neighborhood Cats

Some neutered cats may spray outdoors to mark their territory. If a neutered cat sprays in the home, there is usually underlying stress or anxiety related to a territorial issue. The most common potential reason a neutered cat starts spraying indoors is conflict with another cat inside the home or outdoors, although any perceived threat to their territory can initiate spraying.

Less commonly, a neutered cat will mark in the house due to an underlying medical condition. However, it is important to always consult your vet to rule out any underlying health issues before deciding it is a behavioral problem. Your vet may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist who has undergone extensive training in cat and dog behavioral problems. 

With the right approach, you can help your cat stop spraying and maintain a happy and healthy home environment. To find out how to prevent your cat spraying, read, Stop Your Cat Spraying Urine | Proven Solutions + Deterrents


  1. Tarttelin MF, Hendriks WH, Moughan PJ. Relationship between plasma testosterone and urinary felinine in the growing kitten. Physiol Behav. 1998 Aug;65(1):83-7.
  2. Tynes VV, Hart BL, Pryor PA, Bain MJ, Messam LL. Evaluation of the role of lower urinary tract disease in cats with urine-marking behavior. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2003 Aug 15;223(4):457-61.
  3. Hart BL, Cooper L. Factors relating to urine spraying and fighting in prepubertally gonadectomized cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1984 May 15;184(10):1255-8.
  4. Pryor PA, Hart BL, Bain MJ, Cliff KD. Causes of urine marking in cats and effects of environmental management on frequency of marking. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2001 Dec 15;219(12):1709-13.
  5. Tynes VV, Hart BL, Pryor PA, Bain MJ, Messam LL. Evaluation of the role of lower urinary tract disease in cats with urine-marking behavior. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2003 Aug 15;223(4):457-61.

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