What’s up with cat “spray”?

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Dear Cecil: When we came home this evening we found that a foul odor thoroughly pervaded our large apartment. We have reason to suspect that this odor (it’s still here) is none other than that of the “spray’’ commonly attributed to male cats — in this case, our three-years-neutered male cat Mudhead. What exactly is cat “spray’’? Is it different from cat urine? Is it possible that our neutered Mudhead was capable of such a feat after three years? World Gato Headquarters, Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Spray is but one of several odious secretions associated with cats, whose reputation for cleanliness is greatly exaggerated. Spray consists of urine mixed with a viscous, fatty material whose extraordinary pungency has been most charitably characterized as “musky,” although more colorful terms have also been used. The accepted method of application is for the cat to back up to some prominent domestic landmark, such as a door frame, sofa, or curtain, raise its tail, and let squirt. This is unquestionably a bit on the disgusting side, but things could be worse. The hippopotamus, for instance, is said to mark jungle trails by excreting a lethal mixture of urine and feces while twirling its tail like a propeller. This may explain the historically sluggish market for pet hippopotamuses.

Cats are motivated to spray principally by a desire to: (1) denote their turf, (2) exhibit their studliness (if the cat is male), and (3) be a pain in the nuts. Motive number 3 comes into play whenever the cat feels its precious self is being neglected, such as when its owner(s) changes jobs, has a baby, or what have you. In the case of a new baby, one of my cat manuals here urges that “guests who come to visit the infant should be encouraged to make a fuss over the cat first[!]” Personally I would be inclined to threaten the cat with lingering death rather than resort to this kind of appeasement, but I admit to some prejudice. Neutering supposedly reduces the incidence of spraying, particularly if undertaken before the cat reaches puberty, but as you can see it doesn’t always work. In any event it’s claimed that vinegar will neutralize the smell.

Another source of kitty odor is an infection of the anal sacs, yet another dubious feature of the cat physiology. If Mudhead has been skidding his little bottom over the carpet lately, you would be well advised to hie yourself (and him) over to the vet. Otherwise just pound on him with a rolled-up newspaper. It may not cure him, but it’s sure to have a tranquilizing effect on the owner.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.