Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We love dogs and cats equally, and reserve treats for questions about your turtle, guinea pig, bird, snake, fish, or other beast.
Dear Beast Mode,
Our 15-year-old kitty likes to sit out in the back garden and has a cat flap that responds to her chip. Recently my husband came home late to find that the battery in the cat flap had run out, leaving the cat stuck outside for hours—in the rain. This experience seems to have made her anxious, and she is now spraying both the back door (scene of the crime) and the front door, inside. She has never gone out the front door, though of course she knows it leads outside. We’ve covered everything with enzyme spray, mopped the floors with vinegar, and even put down aluminum foil, but she keeps peeing by the doors. She has no problem pooping in her litter, and she’s not peeing anywhere else in the house, so we don’t think it’s a medical problem. She has also seen a vet recently, and although she’s getting older, her kidney function is still in the normal range. Have we traumatized our kitty?
—On the Outside Peeing In
Dear On the Outside Peeing In,
Once, when I was a kid, I got locked outside my family’s hotel room in Florida. While wandering the sandy area by the parking lot to pass the time, I accidentally stepped on an anthill and the bugs swarmed my exposed foot. (I was wearing sandals.) It was terrifying, and, if memory serves me correctly, the ants chewed through my flesh and gnawed at the bones until nothing was left. Now that I think about it, though, I still have my foot. I may have embellished this story over time, but I nonetheless empathize with your cat. It’s no fun getting locked outside.
I’m happy to hear that your cat has a clean bill of health. You should tell your vet about the spraying in case you haven’t yet, but it’s great that you’ve been prudent and attentive with your care.
As for the question of how your cat’s evening in the yard may have sparked her spraying, I reached out to feline behaviorist Ingrid Johnson to learn more. “The most common reason for this to be happening is that the cat sees another cat outside as a territorial threat,” she tells me. It probably wasn’t the rain that upset your cat. It may have been the presence of a rival on her turf, which she now feels the need to mark with pee.
“If the cat goes out in the yard every day multiple times a day, and that’s what they’ve been doing for years, then one night outside is usually not going to be so incredibly traumatic that they can’t cope with it,” Johnson says, though she notes that all kitties are different. “Anything is possible, but I think a lot of cats would just be like, ‘I’m just gonna sit under the bushes here.’ I find it more likely that she had to cope with a scenario out there that she was previously able to remove herself from or never experienced because she is never out there at night.”
This is all an educated guess based on the information you’ve provided, but there are ways to check to see if other cats have made your yard their nighttime pied-à-terre. You could set up cameras, though I’d understand if you find video surveillance to be a little overboard in this situation. Johnson offers a cheaper option, which is to sprinkle baby powder on paths and other surfaces and then check for paw marks in the morning (à la the hedge maze at the Overlook Hotel).
As for solutions, you have a few options. “Normally, recommended in scenarios like this are humane outdoor deterrents that either shoot water or provide ultrasonic sound that make the yard an unpleasant place to be,” Johnson says. You don’t want these devices to activate in the presence of your own cat, obviously, so you will have to turn them off whenever the cat wants to go outside—thus negating the convenience of the cat door.
The mere sight of these feline invaders can trigger spraying, so try to shield your cat from their unwelcome presence. “Block visual access to the doors and windows so the cat can no longer see the outdoor cats, all the while setting up deterrents so those cats don’t want to come back,” Johnson says. You’ll need to keep your cat indoors for about four to six weeks, but the coast should be clear after that, and things will hopefully return to normal. (Johnson also mentions that there is medication to deter spraying, but it comes with some side effects. That’s another good thing to consult your vet about.)
In the meantime, make sure you’re keeping things clean. While you’ve taken care of the inside of your house, it could help to scrub the parts of the doors that face outside too. As Johnson puts it, “Those cats could be having a urine war.” That’s even less fun than it sounds.
Cats lead vibrant lives, but we only get to see a sliver of what they’re up to. Getting locked outside in the rain couldn’t have been an enjoyable experience, but her spraying is a hint that there may be more to her story. If it’s another cat (or multiple cats), then you can formulate a plan of action. Just be happy you don’t have any flesh-eating ants in your yard; those can leave a mark.