A veterinary expert says this behavior is one way for your cat to send a multitude of messages, so listen closely!

Many kitty lovers know that unfortunately, a quick tail flick against a wall means more than hello. Cat spraying is a nuisance behavior communicating how your cat is feeling and why something in his environment might need to change.

Usually, you'll notice a male or female cat spraying when they back up to a wall, near a door or window, or close to other exit points and release a small amount of urine. And yes, sometimes they twitch their tails and bodies as they do so.

While it's easy to think at first that kitty is doing something naughty, it's actually a cue to you (the pet becomes the teacher!) to look more closely at overall health and what daily life is like for him.

Cool-toned photo of grey and black striped cat walking on top of couch cushions
Credit: Purple Collar Pet Photography / Getty

Why Do Cats Spray?

Spraying is different than inappropriate toileting, says Tarina L. Anthony, DVM, a longtime practitioner of feline-exclusive medicine, and owner and medical director of Aurora Cat Hospital and Hotel in Aurora, Colo. "Spraying can happen on vertical or horizontal surfaces, is usually a smaller amount than a 'normal' pee, and is used for marking," she says. Whereas inappropriate toileting is on a horizontal surface, a larger amount of urine, and typically done when the cat perceives something is wrong.

"This could mean they feel poorly, don't like the litter, the litter box, or the location of the litter box, or that they prefer the area or substrate they are choosing to urinate on," Anthony says. "I always tell people, 'urination is communication'." 

If cat spraying started after adverse change, the introduction of another pet, or conflict because a clowder (group) of kitties isn't cohabitating peacefully, think about consulting a cat behaviorist. They'll be able to assess the situation more clearly and work with your veterinarian to come up with more targeted solutions as to why your cat is feeling stressed, fearful, or uncomfortable—and spraying to get his point across.

Do Both Male and Female Cats Spray to Mark Their Territory?

Anthony says any cat has the potential to spray, but males are much more likely to do it than females, and unneutered males even moreso. It's a pheromone calling card. "Marking is basically sending messages to other cats—the most common being, 'This is my area, get out!'" she says. However, neutering doesn't automatically take care of the issue, she adds, especially if it's been going on for a while or there are other cats in the household. So she recommends investigating the cause of cat spraying with the guidance of a professional.

When do female cats spray? VCA Hospitals indicate some cats in heat also use this behavior to convey certain signals. But since their urine during estrous (reproductive cycle) is packed with higher levels of hormones and pheromones, it's more of a 'come hither' beacon. Which might bring more male cats to the yard, as it were, and they'll definitely begin territorial marking again!

Anthony says if indoor female or male cat spraying is due to outdoor felines in the area, motion-activated sprinklers can help keep them from roaming too close to the house cat's territory.

How to Clean and Get Rid of Cat Spray Smell

Cat spray looks and smells like urine, to a point. A well-hydrated kitty produces light yellow urine with its typical acidic odor. But because of pheromones in cat spray, it's often darker yellow and smells particularly more pungent. If you haven't actually seen your cat spray and are just following your nose, it's likely some areas are highly concentrated. This makes cleaning more challenging.

"It's imperative to clean immediately and completely to destroy any scent cues," Anthony says. Using an enzymatic cleaner (not ammonia, as it has a similar scent to urine and defeats the purpose), she advises you to apply a volume of cleaner equal to the amount of urine, according to package directions.

If the stains are severe, you might need to call in professional services or, in extreme situations, replace soiled items entirely.

How to Stop a Cat from Spraying

Although some cats meow to let you know exactly how they feel, behavioral changes—just like other non-verbal actions—are additional forms of communication.

While staying indoors is healthier for your kitty overall, if he's spraying, it might be a signal he really wants you to pick up on. "Cats have a lot of evolutionary needs—such as hunting, marking, roaming, climbing, and hiding—that aren't often met when they're kept indoors," Anthony says. "This can result in scratching, urine spraying, aggression, and other unwanted behaviors." 

However, she adds that spraying isn't abnormal or unable to be fixed. With the right enrichment tools, you can let your furry friend know you understand what he's trying to say and provide an engaging environment he's sure to love! "It may seem strange to give a cat who's scratching your couch a puzzle feeder, but often mental stimulation in one area provides relief of the behavior we, as humans, don't like in a completely other area," Anthony says.

Here are some things to try:

Your frisky feline can also be trained to do cool things (Agility and obstacle course? Whaaa?) to not only adjust behavior, but also tickle his natural curiosity in rewarding ways. Use a clicker to teach him to claim territory with more approved methods, keep him entertained with new tricks, and even encourage him to play fetch!