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Why senior cats spray

Urine marking – known as spraying in cats – can prove a common problem for owners. Behaviourist Inga MacKellar explains the reasons why older cats may spray and offers some advice for reducing it where it’s unwelcome

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Marking their territory

Why does my cat spray?

Just like younger felines, older male and female cats also scent mark in order to communicate with other cats and to lay claim to their territory. There are several ways they leave their scent: bunting and flank rubbing (rubbing against objects in the home, such as an owner’s legs), stropping (scratching against a vertical surface, such as the arm of a sofa), middening (depositing faeces in a prominent position, such as a doorway) and spraying (marking an area with urine).

Urine marking is known as spraying as the cat will typically sniff at an area and then turn and squirt (spray) urine, usually against a vertical surface. Often the back legs are ‘paddling’ on the ground and the tail is quivering. Cats usually stand to spray but some may squat. It’s important to recognise the difference between urination and urine marking – older cats may be more likely to experience urinary incontinence and some owners might mistake this for urine marking. Ask your vet if you’re concerned.

All scent marking is normal behaviour for cats, but figures from the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (a useful resource for pet behaviourists) show that spraying is the most problematic behaviour encountered by cat owners.

When your cat sprays in your home, it’s usually a sign that he or she is anxious for some reason, and is often triggered by a change in the home environment. The change may be a significant one, such as the arrival of a new baby, or something less obvious, like house decoration. In some cases subtle occurrences, such as another cat seen through the window, can be enough to trigger your cat into spraying around the home. If your cat is unneutered, the spraying could also be sexually motivated. It is vital to understand that your pet is spraying to feel secure by surrounding itself with its own scent, rather than because it is ‘misbehaving’.

Older cats are more prone to problems such as endocrine disorders, dementia or sensory loss, all of which can cause heightened anxiety and therefore increase the urge to spray. Older pets are sometimes more set in their ways, too, and can be reliant upon a routine. If this is disturbed – by the introduction of another pet or a move to a different house, for example – it may increase their anxiety and therefore their urge to urine mark.

What can I do about it?

If your elderly cat has suddenly started spraying, speak to your vet in the first instance, and ask them to rule out any potential underlying medical causes. If they’re happy that it’s not a physical problem, then you need to get to the root of your cat’s behaviour.

Try to find out what is upsetting your cat by watching them for a while – note down when they spray and what the possible cause might be. If there is something outside causing the anxiety, moving furniture so your cat can’t see out of the window can help. If the spraying is occurring well within the house, think about what may have recently changed in the home and consider whether there have been dog- or cat-owning visitors who might have brought in new scents. If the spraying is sexually motivated, then neutering can help (and has a range of other health benefits, too).

Never tell your cat off for spraying inside. Reprimand will only increase your pet’s anxiety and potentially make the problem worse. Instead, thoroughly clean away the urine your cat has sprayed with a solution made up of one part biological washing powder or liquid to ten parts warm water (don’t use ammonia-based products as these smell a little like urine to your cat and can encourage them to mark in the same spot again). Your cat needs to feel secure in order to stop spraying, so you might want to try a pheromone therapy to help soothe them. Sprays such as Feliway mimic the natural pheromones that cats produce, helping to reassure and calm them – your vet can provide advice on this. You could also try rubbing your cat’s cheeks with a soft cloth and then rubbing the cloth over previously sprayed (and cleaned) areas, replicating bunting marking; your cat may not feel the need to spray if it has marked by bunting. You can also place tall, solid scratching posts near previously sprayed areas to encourage your cat to mark by stropping rather than spraying.

Cats don’t always like to live with fellow moggies, and spraying can occur if the cats living in your home don’t get on. If your feline friends never sniff at or groom each other, this may be a sign that they are unfortunately not happy living together, and seeking professional behaviour advice can be a worthwhile option. Or, difficult as it may be, it might be worth considering alternative living arrangements for them.