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Cat Spraying vs Peeing: What’s The Difference?

If your struggling with your cat peeing outside the litter box, the first question should be, "Are they peeing or spraying?" We cover the difference between the two and offer idea for resolving each behavioral issue.

Tara Maurer holding cat smiling

Last Updated: January 18, 2024 | 10 min read

A norwegian forest cat male marking its territory

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There is no subject more frustrating to cat owners than the litter pan. You spend hours choosing the correct box, litter, and mat in hopes that you’ll prevent odor and litter particles from permeating the house. After all of this, you hope your kitty faithfully uses the box. Successful litter box habits make for a peaceful home; however, life in the household is dramatically altered should your kitty begin rejecting their box. Tensions run high, punishments may be enacted, and in many cases, the feline is given away to a shelter. Research shows that behavioral issues account for the most returns of cats to shelters

You’ll never “win” a battle against your kitty. Instead, it would be best to come from a place of understanding. Consider your feline’s point of view and the signals they may be sending. Your furry friend isn’t being lazy or spiteful, but their change in litter pan habits may have an emotional cause.

Understanding the behavior your cat displays is crucial for retraining or treatment. You must first understand if your feline is urinating or “marking their territory.” From there, use our troubleshooting tips to remedy the problem.

How To Identify Spraying Vs Peeing

Inappropriate elimination is defined as a cat’s discontinued use of a litter pan for urination and/or defecation. House soiling may be due to a medical issue, a behavioral disorder, or a combination. Felines typically squat while urinating, and you’ll notice a large amount of urine in a horizontal space, such as the floor or carpet.

Alternatively, urine marking or spraying is usually done against vertical surfaces like walls, curtains, or furniture. When spraying, a feline stands stiff-legged with their hindquarters facing the target. Their tail stands upright and twitch as they mark. Some kitties will tread in place with their front paws while marking. The urine will be a fine stream as opposed to a puddle.

Both male and female cats can spray whether they have been neutered/spayed. If your male cat hasn’t been fixed and is spraying, now would be a fantastic time to take him to the vet. Neutering will remove the spraying behavior in most cases.

Stopping Feline Inappropriate Urination

If you’ve determined that your feline is peeing outside the box, the next question you must ask yourself is, “Why?” 

The following are potential reasons for indiscriminate peeing in felines:

  • Aggression between cats or other pets
  • Anxiety/fear
  • Aversion to litter texture or scent
  • Change in litter or litter box location
  • Covered litter box
  • Dirty litter box
  • Geriatric-related problems
  • Inadequate number of litter pans in a multi-cat home
  • Inappropriately-sized litter box
  • Inconsistent litter levels
  • Medical conditions
  • Negative association with litter box
  • Unacceptable litter box location

Visit Your Vet

Schedule a veterinarian visit to dismiss any potential medical issues. The following medical problems may be causing inappropriate elimination:

  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes 
  • Kidney disease
  • Feline urinary tract disease (FLUTD)
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Neurological diseases
  • Postsurgical conditions that can cause pain or discomfort while urinating

Your vet will determine if it’s a medical, behavioral problem, or a combination of the two. From there, you can develop a treatment plan.

Litter Box Troubleshooting

When retraining your furry friend to use the litter box, first consider the pan itself. As a general guideline, the length of a litter pan should be 1.5 to 2 times the length of an adult feline, and the box’s width should be your cat’s approximate length. If you have more than one kitty, use the measurements of the larger feline.

Keep your cat’s needs in mind when purchasing a litter box. For example, my cat sprays urine out the sides of an ordinary litter box, so I always buy a litter box with tall sides. For elderly cats, a box with a small rim will help them quickly enter the box without pain. If you have a tiny kitten, you don’t want to purchase a jumbo box that is difficult to climb into. If you have a large cat, the pan needs to match their size so they can move around comfortably.

Suppose your kitty is urinating outside the litter pan, but the accident location is close to the pan. This indicates that the cat can access the container but doesn’t particularly like it.

There are many other factors to consider when troubleshooting your litter box woes. Consider the location, litter, and maintenance of the litter box. By setting up the box in the correct area, providing proper care, and understanding your cat’s signals, you stand a good chance of avoiding future problems.

Litter Box Location

Location, location, location. It applies to real estate, and it certainly applies to the litter pan. You could choose the perfect box filled with the best litter, but if you put it in the wrong place, your feline may reject it.

The most important rule for litter box placement is to never put the litter box near your feline’s food or water. In the wild, a cat’s instinct is to bury their waste away from their nest to prevent the attention of predators. For safety, felines don’t eliminate where they eat, sleep, or raise young. Your indoor kitty has the same instincts.

Placing your cat’s litter pan near their food is a recipe for disaster. Cats won’t eliminate near their food, so if you put the box by their designated food station, they will find a different location for their litter box needs.

Pick a spot away from heavy traffic and loud noises to give your cat a sense of privacy. A non-carpeted location is ideal for easy cleanup. Ensure your pet can see—don’t put the box in a dark basement and expect your cat to eliminate in total darkness.

While it’s tempting to hide the litter pan away in a remote home location, it’s essential to have a pan in an area that’s easily accessible and in an area where your cat spends their time. For example, if your kitty spends most of their time on the main floor, you shouldn’t place the box on the second floor or in the basement. The harder you make it for your feline to find the litter box, the less likely they’ll use it when their bladder is full.

If you live in a multi-cat household, the number of litter boxes should equal the number of felines. If your kitties aren’t super friendly with each other, keep the boxes separate to prevent territory disputes.

Choosing A Litter

Your feline may refuse to use the litter pan due to the substrate itself. As owners, we care about odor control, scoopability, and tracking levels. From a cat’s standpoint, litter should hit three requirements:

  • It must be a particle that they don’t mind standing on.
  • It should be loose enough to allow your cat to dig and cover afterward.
  • It shouldn’t have a strong odor. 

Just like humans, felines can have specific texture preferences. Your furry friend may be telling you they don’t like their litter. They may stand with their front legs on the box’s rim while eliminating. They may scratch the area outside of the litter box in an attempt to cover their waste. Your cat may not even cover their waste, instead using the pan and bolting out as quickly as possible.

 Consider switching between substrates if your cat is peeing outside the box. Remember that an abrupt change to litter may also cause a feline to stop using their pan. Cats are tactile creatures, and a change in litter texture too quickly may be off-putting. If you plan on changing litter, start slow. Gradually mix the new litter with the old, and gradually increase the new litter while decreasing the old over seven days. 

You can also try setting out different types of litter cafeteria style and see which litter your kitty chooses. In multi-cat households, some cats may prefer different textures, which is another reason to have multiple boxes.

We share our top picks for litter, including the best non-tracking cat litter

Cleaning The Litter Box

It would be best to scoop your litter pan at least twice daily. Daily scooping keeps the box clean and alerts you to potential health problems. The box itself will also need to be cleaned regularly. If your feline dislikes their litter pan, consider how often you maintain this space.

Take a look at the litter box. Have you been keeping it clean? If not, chances are that the poor litter box condition is driving your cat to find a tidier, less-smelly place. Your cat may refuse to use it simply because it’s not clean enough.

Check the amount of litter you’re adding to the box. Make sure there is an adequate amount for digging and covering. Keep litter levels consistently between three to five inches deep.

Our Personal Experience With Inappropriate Urination

Closeup side profile of calico cat face looking at mess on carpet inside indoor house

One of my two cats began peeing regularly on my dining room rug out of the blue. I took her to the vet to get checked out. She’s young and healthy and didn’t have a urinary tract infection. Because she was urinating fairly close to her litterbox, her vet suggested cleaning it out at least twice a day. I’d only been cleaning it out every other day, so we suspected she was simply picky about her bathroom conditions. Fortunately, I have a washable rug, so I took care of the mess. And then I kept redirecting her to the litterbox when I noticed her coming close to her old pee spot on the rug. So far so good!

Sally Jones, LYC writer and cat owner

Spraying Troubleshooting

Spray marking is a form of communication for cats. While typically seen as a way to mark territory, spraying can be performed by both confident and unconfident cats. If you have a male cat spraying, consider neutering them to eliminate spraying. Keep in mind that both female and male cats can spray. 

To correct spraying behavior, you must identify the cause of your cat’s fear/anxiety/territorial behavior and remove it or modify your cat’s association with the spraying trigger. 

Potential reasons for a cat to spray include:

  • Sexual maturity
  • The appearance of a strange cat
  • Addition of a new pet or family member
  • To patrol territory
  • The scent of an unfamiliar cat
  • Tension or aggression between animals
  • Too dense of a feline population in the household
  • Renovation/remodeling
  • Moving to a new home
  • To calm or self-soothe
  • Unfamiliar visitors
  • To relay information
  • Covert aggression

Our Personal Experience With Cats Spraying

My Siamese cat Ace was a sprayer. This behavior was much different than simply urinating. He would spray the wall and, most often, the laundry basket. When doing so, he would stand up, with his tail straight, and spray the urine on the wall or other objects. He still used the litter box normally. At first, I thought this was just male cat behavior and a response to changes in the household. We had just brought home a new baby, so there was a lot of unusual activity he was not used to. However, the spraying behavior continued for weeks.

I took Ace to the vet, and at the time, he did not have any underlying medical issues. After using different litters and anti-pee sprays, I was able to train him not to pee on the walls but had to hide the laundry basket permanently, as he never seemed to stop wanting to pee on it.

A couple of years later, we discovered that Ace had severe kidney issues, which eventually led to kidney failure. In hindsight, the vet shared that perhaps the spraying was due to discomfort or pain related to his kidneys. This is the only cat I have ever had that sprayed.

Danielle DeGroot, LYC writer and longtime cat owner

Retraining Your Cat

When retraining your pet to stop inappropriate peeing or spraying, it’s crucial never to punish your feline. Never rub your kitty’s nose in their mess. They won’t understand what’s wrong and may associate elimination of any kind—regardless of location—with punishment. Punishment of any form will only cause your feline to fear you. Instead, follow these retraining steps.

Clean Your Home

Clean up the entire stain using an odor-neutralizing cleaner. The produce should be labeled specifically for pet urine/feces odors/stains. These products contain enzymes to neutralize the mess effectively. Ensure you’re cleaning the whole area. Try using a black light close to the surface to ensure you’re treating the entire area.

Never use ammonia-based products to clean the accident; this smell could trigger your feline to revisit the spot.

Protect Your Space

If your pet tends to eliminate or mark a particular location, limit access to this spot during retraining. You can also cover specific areas with plastic protectors or washable blankets.

Create New Associations

You can create new associations once you discover why your kitty behaves a certain way. Use clicker training and rewards. If a feline walks over a previously soiled spot and walks away, click and reward them with a treat.

Feed your pet in the area they previously soiled (felines don’t like to pee where they eat, remember).

Create comfortable, safe spaces in your home for your feline. Consider supplements for anxiety and provide regular opportunities for playtime. Use a synthetic feline facial pheromone, like Feliway, in your home. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, facial pheromone spray decreases the likelihood of spraying in those areas.

Think Outside The Box

Consider allowing your feline to be an indoor/outdoor pet if all else fails. Fencing or a pet enclosure can keep your kitty safe while allowing them to pee or spray outside. For pets that must stay inside, consider diapers, including stud diapers for cats that spray.

Pee pads are another option. If your pet refuses to use the litter pan, use pee pads to avoid stinky messes while retraining. For felines that spray, try taping pee pads to the wall or furniture that tends to be marked. If your kitty is too big for their box or has a lousy aim, adding pee pads around the box will make accident cleanup a breeze. Pee pads are also excellent for elderly or injured cats who cannot use their box.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Spraying And Peeing The Same Thing?

No, spraying is not the same as peeing. When spraying, your cat’s tail will vibrate slightly, and they’ll deposit a small amount of urine on a vertical surface. You’ll notice your feline peeing on horizontal surfaces, and they’ll likely be squatting.

What Does It Mean When My Cat’s Tail Is Shaking But They Aren’t Spraying?

Phantom spraying looks like spraying, but no urine comes out. Phantom spraying can be a sign that your cat is extremely happy (my cats phantom spray when I get home from work and when it’s mealtime). A vibrating, shaking tail can also mean your kitty is anxious or stressed, so take in the situation and provide support if needed.

Does Cat Spray Smell The Same As Urine?

Cat spray is typically more pungent than urine because it contains extra scent chemicals.

Final Thoughts

Curious about other pet behaviors? Learn about why cats growlstare, and obsessively knead. We also cover ways to combat loneliness in cats (separation anxiety can cause soiling around the home). Finally, learn about the importance of wellness vet visits to prevent health and behavioral issues.

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