An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Cat Sprays Walls and Furniture. What Can Be Done?

Dear Greyce,


Themselves are at their wit's end because of my interior decoration efforts over the past four years. According to Themselves my habit is driving them crazy, damaging furniture and impacting social visits. You see, Greyce, I enhance my home with urine - a lot of urine - in a lot of places. 

How It Started

My problem started when the Son of the household, who was no longer living with us, got Stevie - a lovely, tortoise shell kitten. When he was out of town, Stevie would stay with us. When she first came over, I would spray a bit; but as we became friends, I stopped. 

I would get very excited when she came over because she loved to play and wrestle. And when she would go home, I would be anxious and grumpy for a few days. Then Himself would give me an anti-anxiety pill.

Two years later, the Son got Nixon. I did NOT like him! He would take my toys and stand up to me when I hissed I him. I could not be the boss in my own home! When Stevie and he came over, I would play with Stevie but hide from Nixon. And I would spray.

Stevie and Nixon are no more. And the Son now has two other cats; but they do not come over much. And I don't care because they are both boys and I prefurr girl cats.

So my urine decoration efforts all started with cat visitors staying in my home. 

I began by peeing on beds (pillows and duvets are a favourite); I moved on to towels, jackets left on chairs, open suitcases and other cloth items.

My very favourite spot is at the top of the stairs outside Themselves' bedroom. The recently-purchased leather couches on the main floor have become a desirable target that I spray several times a day. I also douse the antique dining room furniture and have successfully stripped the veneer on the buffet and the hutch.

I'm largely a wall and furniture sprayer. I don't do carpet unless it's under a wall I spray and the urine trickles down. I continue to spray all my old spots even when I find new ones.

Every now and then, I climb the counters and spray the back of the stove. That makes Herself really angry.

And I have sprayed a visitor - a girl I liked who was visiting with others for dinner. While she was seated I sprayed her leg. That was a first! And it's likely the reason I'm writing you today.

How Themselves Deal with My Spraying

I do most of my spraying in the middle of the night when Themselves are asleep. Now Himself locks me in the basement at night so I don't have access to many of my spray spots on the other floors. They think I have retaliated by spraying the wall behind the couch in the TV room, because I never used to spray in the basement at all.

I think I am also put into the basement because I like to sing cat opera in the early hours of the morning which wakes everybody up. I think they should take courses in music appreciation.

If Herself catches me in the act of spraying, she yells at me. Sometimes she picks me up and makes sure I take a sniff of the spot I have sprayed. If she can move fast and find the spray bottle and catch me, then I get sprayed with water. So far, none of this has worked.

My purrsons have used many products in an effort to stop my spraying: pheromone plug-ins, Feliway, cayenne pepper, even an anti-spray product for dogs. No results from these, either.

Herself cleans up spray spots as soon as she finds them but some of them are too hard to get to right away. She uses disinfectants such as Mr. Clean.

I take Clomicalm (anti-anxiety medication). When I started, these pills made me groggy and mad and my back legs did not want to work. So Himself started breaking the pills to reduce the dose. I now get these pills when I get angry or agitated or my spraying increases; about once a week.

All About Me

Basically I am a loving and very vocal, neutered Siamese male of 12 years. I'm in purrfect health and extremely handsome. Yes Greyce, my urine and blood have been tested many times to there is no medical issue behind my behaviour. However, I am very anxious and have taken anti-anxiety medication from time to time.  

While I like to pretend that I am fierce, I will puff up my fur if I am embarrassed or threatened. I am afraid of loud noises. I run and hide when the doorbell rings. And I am very frightened of cars.

I am a purrson-cat, meaning that I adore purrsons especially of the female purrsuasion.  I have to know what my purrsons are doing at all times. I love being where the action is. If you are there, I am with you. 

I have my own rolling office chair in the middle of the kitchen so I can watch everything that's going on. And I always take advantage of available laps. When I'm not poking my nose into everyone else's business, I am sleeping on my warm tile floor or on a vent. Nothing feels as good as a warm bed and feet.

I enjoy being carried around like a baby with my face tucked up under a purrson's chin. I am thrilled when told I am handsome and will preen. I don't do crowds, so I hate parties. But if a few visitors are about, I will check everything out and try to sit on all the new laps.

I have energy to burn. I love to jump and wrestle and run. Running as fast as I can is another of my favourite past times. I prefurr this to climbing. I have full use of the house except for kitchen counters. No cat trees and my tower is in storage.

I like to play in the early morning and in the evening, generally by myself. My current favourite interactive toy is a rubber and feather bug on a long string that can be dangled over my head. I jump for it and chase it. But my very, very favourite is a pipe cleaner. I have lots of them and prefurr them to mice and catnip toys. 

I go outdoors, weather permitting or watch the outside from a window when it is too cold to go out. I enjoy observing wildlife but hate seeing other cats in my yard. I will fluff up my fur and howl and even resort to throwing myself against the window to get them to leave my property.

My Household

There are four adult purrsons in my household:  Herself, Himself, the Son (who lives elsewhere but visits) and the Daughter (who moved away and is now back), along with another cat called Chancey.

My very favourite purrson is the Daughter who broke my heart when she left to study away from home. I was so upset that I needed medication for separation anxiety. It would take a few days for me to warm up to her again, when she visited on vacation. 

I always recognize her voice on the phone. She calls me handsome and I like to preen when she talks to me. 

I was very excited when she moved back home recently. We play a lot and I get lots of cuddles. I like to nuzzle her face when she picks me up and I have been known to give her love bites. 

However the Daughter now has the nerve to work full-time which seriously impacts that amount of time I can spend with her. So I've become more aloof and angry. My vocalization has increased as has my spraying. She still plays with me when she is home.

I adore Herself because, truth be told, I love women. I try to sit on her lap every time she sits down. She likes me well enough but gets angry when I spray or when I sing or when she is trying to get things done and does not want me on her lap. I try to sneak on it anyway.

Himself is purrfectly fine especially since he is my primary feeder. But I don't like him picking me up because I then think I'm going to get a pill. However his lap is purrfectly fine. He taught me how to rough house as a kitten, and I like to play rough with with the males in the household.

The Son lives elsewhere. Even when he lived at home I didn't really like to sit on him as much as on the females in my house. I let him pet me and sometime pick me up, but eventually I bite him. Guess it's that history of rough housing in my younger days! It takes me time to warm up to him when he visits. He cuddles but he smells of different cats. I like to pee on his things when he sleeps over.

Besides purrsons, I have an older tabby companion - Chancey, who is 16. She likes to sleep a lot and steal the gravy off my food. I like to sit on her when she is sleeping and sometimes I will sit on her and yell. And sometimes I like to bite her for no reason. Sometimes she will hiss at me or hit me on the head. But sometimes when I'm being really quiet and good, she will wash my face. She doesn't like to play with me. But we do sleep in the same place together quite often. 

So Greyce, I'm counting on you. Could you please explain to Themselves that I don't spray out of spite? I do it because I must! It makes me feel better.

Help me and I will sing your praises - likely at 3 a.m.!


Dearest Indy,

I guess you recent adventure in spraying a visitor's leg was the the final straw and you felt compelled to write for help. Or purrhaps it was spraying to celebrate the arrival of those new leather couches?

My dear, after reading of your situation I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. You obviously live with purrsons who love you dearly and who have tried to better your situation. And yet everything they have done has not worked. Indeed in my estimation it has made it worse!

Your purrsons intentions are in the right place. They love you. They are bothered by your habit. And they want to help you to stop. But boy, have they got wrong ideas.

Here is a partial list of what has gone wrong:

You are an intelligent, high-strung cat of refined breeding. As a Siamese, you are wired to bond with humans and usually only one of that species. When that bond is broken, you are wired to have the feline equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Need I say that under the best of circumstances you are high-maintenance? My dear, this is part of who you are. You come by it honestly. And you need help.

There is your true love, the Daughter who broke your heart by going away to study - driving you, quite literally, to drugs. Now she is back. She toys with your affection to win you back and then takes a full-time job, seriously impacting the quantity and likely the quality of time you get to spend with her. Sure she loves you; but like most purrsons she isn't willing to put you first in her life. No Valentine for her!

There is Herself whom you adore. She cleans up your urine signatures using the wrong product - one inadvertently designed to increase rather than decrease your spraying. She disciplines in ways she thinks are right, but these are the very ways that are likely to increase your already-high anxiety levels. Need I suggest that she is frustrated and hasn't a clue that the very things she is doing with good intentions are actually reinforcing the very habit of yours she wishes to break? And to add to the situation, she brings in two new leather couches to take over the living area - new here meaning impregnated with strange smells and thus bringing the scent of threat.

There is Himself who medicates you on a sporadic basis - with a medication to which you have had negative reactions. Sure he has reduced the dose (I assume with veterinary consent and I do hope he is using a pill splitter rather than a knife because is it more exact) but I really question the sporadic pilling. How is that working for you? From what I can tell, not so well. And I truly wonder about other alternatives, for the drug you are sometimes using is far from the only one used in the urine-spraying repertoire.

And there is the Son who figures that having strange cats invade your territory for his convenience is somehow doing you a favour. You, who hurl yourself at the window when a strange cat enters the yard, is expected to welcome 'cousins'. And sure it worked out with Stevie. But I bet that when Nixon came to visit, no one enacted a time-sharing situation so that you wouldn't feel compelled to run and hide in your very own home. In other words, the very territory that should have been your safest place was made to be a place of insecurity and threat.

And they wonder why you spray?

Okay, enough of my rant.

In my experience, purrsons (especially those associated with the cats who write me for help) have good intentions. Many of the measures your purrsons have taken have merit. But . . . and this is a very big but, they are not implementing them properly. And as a result, they are making a bad situation worse - all the way thinking that they are doing everything they can to make it better.

My darling boy, we have our work cut out for us. And because it will be quite a load I'm going to respond in several blog entries. Because purrsons can usually only handle a bit of advice at a time, I don't want them overloaded.

They need time to recover from my stinging assessment.
They need time to read and understand what I will tell you.
And they need time to prepare to implement said advice.
And it won't be over then, because I will expect regular reports so I can monitor the situation and so we can refine your spraying reduction program.

So let's get started.

In this entry, I'm going to tell you about why you feel compelled to spray and assure you that it is not out of spite. I am also going to advise on discipline - when you are about to spray, are caught in the act of spraying, or have sprayed and your purrson is frustrated with you. And I'm going to get you started on monitoring - because without systematic observation we will truly not know what works and what does not. There will be a pattern. It will change. And we need to document these changes. Besides it will be useful when you have further discussions with your vet.

In the next entry, I'm going to advise you about medication - what your options how and how to deal with them. No, I am not a vet and do not pretend to be. But I want you to know about the full range of items that can be brought to bear in cases such as yours. And then you and your vet can decide what is best for you.

This will be followed by an entry on non-pharmaceutical measures to increase your resilience. You are fragile and stress-prone. It is part of your nature. We are going to enhance your native intelligence, superb energy and handsome-ness with an improved ability to roll with whatever life throws you. And we will do so, in part, by changing some of the ways in which you interact with your purrsons.

And then I'm going to get to the subject of clean up, a very important topic that is often missed. Because cleaning urine spray in an art that is to be mastered (and then put on the resume as a newly-acquired skill).

So let's get started with why you feel compelled to spray.

For the benefit of other readers, I'm going to describe what you do so they can tell the difference between spraying and other urine-based litterbox issues. In spraying, you back up to the object of choice, raise your tail which will start to twitch, and spew forth pungent cascades of urine, leaving your mark about eight inches (20 cm) from the floor. The mark you leave is always on a vertical surface (not on the floor).

Spraying urine is a form of communication. We have scent in our cheeks, paws, anus and through our waste products, that can speak volumes. And when we use urine for marking (as opposed to using it just to eliminate waste) we make it in a particular pungent form.

You may be surprised to know that most humans are ignorant about our hierarchy of marking. When we are comfortable, we mark with our cheeks (rubbing some of the 30 or so different pheromones from them onto the item or purrson in question) to help us incorporate items into our territory and orient ourselves. You'd think humans would understand this because the first thing they tend to do to a new space they occupy is to spread some of their own stuff around to make it feel like home.

If that isn't sufficient we mark by scratching, depositing scent from our paw pads along with visual cues from our nails, largely to tell other cats of our presence; the fact that we may be an only cat and always kept indoors makes no difference - it's some of the wild in us left over from our ancestors.

And if things are getting out of hand (or should I say, paw), we use urine instead. Since scent decays over time, we keep marking the same spot over and over again, to refresh it and make it feel like home.

For the most part, humans don't care what we communicate to each other or how. But when it comes to scratching their possessions or depositing our waste outside the litterbox, they can fly off the handle. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, they don't seem to find cascades of pungent urine at all useful, even though many of them like to waft through scents of their choosing, be they room fresheners or perfumes. Who said life is fair?

Why Spray

If you live with observant purrsons, they will soon figure out the cause of your spraying - even if they don't know what to do about it. But again, for the benefit of other readers, I will briefly review likely causes:

Many of us begin our pee fests when we reach sexual maturity (around six months of age). But since you have had your 'parts' removed, that is not the cause in your case. 

Some of us urine mark because of our purrsonality: We tend to either be hyper-macho and revel in a victory spray, or we are anxious and fragile and need the comfort of our own scent when something is amiss. Indy, you are the proverbial new-age-sensitive male. I think you spray when you are anxious - when you feel threatened or even when you get over-excited and just have to 'let 'er rip'. You need measures to ensure your sense of comfort; I'll get to these measures later.

Territorial Threat: As you know, territory is our most important possession. As domestic cats, our turf includes a large area although we can adapt to small spaces (and many of us have to), as long as there are enough resources (food, water, safe sleeping areas, etc.) available. In the wild, each cat's territory is sufficient to support himself and no other which is why none of us tends to take kindly to strangers. It's one thing to share your food because you have so much; but quite another to end up starving because someone else raided your pantry.

The core territory is where we sleep and eat and hunt. We may have several such spots. We also deposit waste(everyone has to toilet) usually at our territorial edges. Our key places are connected by scent trails laid down by our paw pads and reinforced by other marks (such as cheek rubs against corners or key pieces of furniture that jut out). And these are refreshed as needed.

Yes, we can share territory if resources are abundant and the other cat is not a threat.

Yes, we can time-share territory (outdoors, for example), meaning that one of us uses a particular area at a particular time and another uses that same area at a different time.

Now let's move on to the threats:

Territorial Threat #1: Changes in the number OR kind of territorial personnel. Examples - New family member (human or pet), either permanent or temporary (like the so-called visitor or weekend guest), either inside or outside (such as a strange cat at the window). The Son, Stevie and Nixon are examples in your case. This includes strange or unfamiliar scents brought into the house, usually on shoes or clothing (even if the being responsible for them is not about - because as any cat knows, feline etiquette requires that we meet new beings through scents first, rather than sight). This also includes crowding: No matter how many food bowls, cat trees and litterboxes about, there is a point in any cat's life where the addition of one more cat is just one too many. What that number is varies with the cat, the number of companions already there and the overall living arrangements.

Territorial Threat #2: Changes in territorial resources because of changes in furniture or its arrangement, moving to a new home, or renovation or remodelling. Those new leather couches fit here.

Territorial Threat #3: Changes in the timing of the use of our territory for example, by others with whom we live; humans call this scheduling or changes in routine. The Daughter's schedule change upon getting a full-time job thereby affecting your play sessions, is such an example.

Territorial Threat #4: Changes in our relationships with others in the home (often other non-human companions). The re-arrival of the Daughter and the Son's stayovers, are examples.

And lest you show this tract to your someone who reacts by saying, "But my cat does it out of spite!" or "Fluffy is just too lazy to use the box!" or some such thing - do NOT believe it. There are reasons for marking and none of them have to do with getting revenge, misbehaving, low levels of energy or intellect, or a desire to create havoc or extra cleaning for our human companions.

The usual culprit is THREAT!

If you did not regularly visit your veterinarian, that would be my first suggestion because 40% of cats who spray have urinary tract infections. And until they are cleared up, no amount of behavioural advice will solve the problem. But you have had the necessary tests and are in regular contact with your vet. So we will move on to the next step: discipline.

The Matter of Discipline

Especially once your purrsons are assured that you are healthy, many resort to disciplinary measures to keep your behaviour in check. The intention is to have us learn that a particular behaviour which, in cat society, is purrfectly natural and normal, is unacceptable in a human household.

The problem is that we do not learn the way humans do. For us to learn, our unacceptable behaviour must be intercepted within 30 seconds (yes, seconds) of its onset. Otherwise we cannot connect that behaviour with receiving the discipline and so we do not learn that it is the behaviour that is at issue.

Negative punishment does not work. Each of us has a distinct level of negative reinforcement (whether it be in the form of being yelled at, having a loud noise go off, being sprayed with water or even hit) that will work. But is it very individual. So one cat is fine if his purrson claps his hands and says,"No," in an I-really-mean-it voice and doesn't much care one way or the other, while another goes ballistic the minute the voice is raised and hides under the bed for a half hour. There is no way a human can know what level of negative reinforcement will aid feline learning. That is the reason why the only negative reinforcement I advise is the loud "no" or the hand clap, IF caught within the first 30 seconds of the undesired act and IF you are not the type to 'go ballistic'. And truth be told, I much prefurr distraction.

So tell Themselves NOT to bother with punishment (no matter how tempted they may be). All they will succeed in doing is having you think, "Every so often my beloved purrson yells at me or sprays me with water for no good reason. Their behaviour is erratic and I'm starting to not trust them."It's a great way to get your anxiety levels to rise.

Here is what I advise:

If you are about to spray - you have backed up to the wall or piece of furniture, your tail is starting to wiggle and you have a spaced-out look on your face, now is the time for your purrson to distract you. Throw one of those wonderful pipe cleaners in another direction for you to chase. Get out a wand toy and have a quick game. Anything to get your mind off the need to spray.

If you are already spraying, the best advice is to ignore you. When you are finished, have them clean up the mess and move on.

If you have sprayed and they have just found the site, the best advice is again: ignore you, clean up, move on.

To take you to the site makes no sense to any cat. You have sprayed. The scent gives you a sense of comfort. You are taken back to the site and made to sniff it. You sniff. You feel comfort - except that something is not right. Your purrson is obviously upset (s/he is breathing faster than usual, holding your more tightly or any such indication of her/his own anxiety). And so s/he succeeds in making  you even more anxious and you think, "That calls for another spray - just to calm the situation down."

Let's move on to monitoring.

Indy, I want to become an empiricist - someone who bases his actions on real data. So I want you to start keeping records of your spraying behavour.

According to the floor plans you sent me you have 12 different sites, three of which are recent:

The upper floor is important because of the bedrooms and Herself's office but to you, the primary importance, no doubt, is the heated tile floor on which you sleep in Herself's bathroom. You have 3 sites on this floor:
1) Herself's desk in her office (an important location relative to the door),
2) the area beside the bed and along the closet in Themselves' bedroom, and
3) the walls on both sides of the landing at the top of the stairs (absolutely prime area to deal with possible upper floor invasion).

The main floor has 8 sites:
1) the buffet and
2) the china cabinet in the dining area;
3) above the stove and
4) the dishwasher in the kitchen (new site);
 5) almost all the sides of one new couch and
6) two sides of the other new couch in the great room area; the couches are new sites;
7) the side of the fireplace nearest the back door (a key locale for invasion - thank goodness you litter box guards the other side);
8) along the wall behind the couch and chair in the TV room.

The basement has 1 site, which is new, in response to your being sequestered downstairs at night - behind the couch in the TV area. And no, this is not the result of your being angry. It is merely a way of your trying to calm yourself down when you are alone at night.
Use a sheet of paper or a blank calendar. Every day I want you to visit every spray site and mark whether or not you have sprayed it  that day. And if you have done it more than once that day mark it again, too.

Also make a note of anything else that you deem worthy. For example, if you usually spray this site at night, or after seeing a strange cat or anything else that you think might be related. 

I want you to send that information to me (weekly or monthly) so I can help look for patterns. This will also provide your baseline; and that way, when we start to change things around we will have hard evidence of whether or not it has made a difference.

Purrsons think this step is a pain under the tail. But really it is the best way to know whether or not something is working; or to start relating cause and effect.

For example, I just finished looking over several months of data provided by my colleague, Bear, who is a superb urine marker. My analysis was able to show him his improvement, over time. He now has a better understanding of his vulnerable periods (certain times of the year that stress him out), the role medication has played, and the changes that truly set him off.

Indy, knowledge is power. So I'm relying on you to start your data collection. We can work together and get this situation under control. Once we better educate your purrsons so they can help rather than inadvertently hinder you, you should be on the way to marked improvement.

With whisker kisses of encouragement,