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What to Do If Your Cat Is Marking Territory

The Humane Society of the United States

  • iStockphoto

In the wild, animals are a lot like Gold Rush miners: They lay claim to their territory.

Your cat isn't that far removed from his wild roots. He feels an instinctive urge to stake his claim. 

How does he do that? By leaving his scent. Your cat marks his territory by rubbing, scratching and, unfortunately, sometimes urinating.

You can teach your cat not to use his urine to mark his territory. The best way to start is to understand why scent marking is so important to him.

The importance of scent

Scent is the primary way that cats communicate. Although they can't be in two places at once to monitor their territory, they have many ways to leave their calling card.

For example, when one cat comes home from the vet, the other cats may treat him like a stranger at first. He looks the same, but that doesn't matter to the cats at home. He smells different. He'll have to get a good sniffing-over before he's one of the gang again.

Marking by rubbing

Felines have scent glands on their cheeks and flanks, and when yours rubs against something—a door, a chair, you—he puts his own personal scent on that object. This leaves the message for the next cat that he's been there and laid claim. Rubbing against you is a way of marking you as his and telling other cats to back off.

In a multi-cat household, all this rubbing helps to establish territories (at least temporarily) and to create bonds between the cats. Frequently, when two cats in the house meet up, they'll sniff each other, and one will start rubbing and maybe even grooming the other. They may trade this activity back and forth for a while. This helps to reduce tension in the cat clan.

Marking by scratching

When your cat scratches something, he's doing more than sharpening his claws; he's leaving his scent as well.

Cats have scent glands on the pads of their feet, and scratching is another way of marking territory. In the wild, that's not a problem, but in your house, it can be. Don't punish your cat for doing what comes naturally—just train him to use a scratching post and leave the furniture alone.

Marking with urine

While miners used wooden pegs, string, and property deeds to stake their claims, wild animals usually use … urine. A lion will urinate on a tree to tell the next lion that comes along that the tree is taken, until the second lion pees on it. This instinct still lurks below the surface in your modern day housekitty, but if all goes well, you'll never see it.

Urine-marking takes two forms: 

  • Spraying urine on vertical surfaces
  • Urinating on horizontal surfaces

Spraying is when a cat backs up to a vertical surface with his tail erect and squirts urine. His tail often quivers while he's spraying. Regular urinating is when he squats to pee on the furniture, the floor, things lying on the floor or any other horizontal surface. Both males and females can (and do) spray and squat.

Marking with urine is not a litter box issue. Your cat has no problems with the litter box and uses it happily. Then why is he marking?

Why your cat is urine marking

There are several possible reasons your cat is urine marking:

He or she is unneutered or unspayed. The urge to spray is extremely strong in an intact cat, and the simplest solution is to get yours neutered or spayed by five months of age before there's even a problem. 

If you've adopted an unneutered adult cat, get him or her fixed as soon as possible. Neutering solves 90 percent of all marking issues, even in cats that have been doing it for a while. However, the longer you wait, the greater the risk you run of the surgery not doing the trick because the behavior is so ingrained

Stress is a major cause of spraying. Cats are creatures of habit and many react really badly to the slightest change in their environment. This can include a new pet or new baby in the house, a new roommate, someone's absence, new furniture, moving, a strange cat in the yard and so many other things we may never know about.

Marking territory with urine is your cat's way of dealing with stress.  He feels anxious and is trying to relieve his anxiety by staking out his boundaries. Leaving his urine scent is the most emphatic way to say, "I'm stressed."

Medical issues can be another cause of urine-marking. Particularly with male cats, a urinary tract infection—or much worse, a blockage—may be at fault if you cat suddenly stops using the litter box, or spends a lot of time trying to urinate and licking his genitals. Some cats will even urinate and cry right in front of you or try to urinate in the bathtub or sink to let you know something's wrong.

If you see signs of medical problems, get your cat to the vet immediately. Urinary tract problems are not only painful, they can be fatal. A cat whose urinary tract is blocked can die in hours or suffer irreversible organ damage from the buildup of toxins in his system. Don't wait around thinking it will clear up by itself or be fooled into thinking that your cat is constipated. It's most likely a urinary tract problem.

If your kitty gets a clean bill of health from the vet, his problem is all in his head.

If you have multiple cats: whodunnit?

If you have only one cat, it's obvious who's misbehaving. But what if you have more than one? You need to do some detective work.

It's a process of elimination, which means you will isolate one cat at a time to see if the inappropriate behavior stops while he's in isolation. This method isn't foolproof, however, because if the culprit's behavior is stress-induced, it may not occur if isolating him has removed him from the source of stress.

Another method is adding fluorescent dye to the cats' food (one cat at a time). The dye will glow in the cat's urine when a black light is held over it. You have your culprit.

Now that we know who it is, what do we do about it?

How to solve the problem

Resolving your cat's stress is critical and requires time and plenty of patience and understanding from you. We have lots of tips to help you get your cat through his crisis. Here are a few:

  • Clean soiled areas thoroughly. Don't use strong-smelling cleaners, because they may cause your pet to "over-mark" the spot.
  • Make previously soiled areas inaccessible or unattractive. If this isn't possible, try to change the significance of those areas to your pet. Feed, treat, and play with your pet in the areas he's inclined to mark.
  • Keep objects likely to cause marking out of reach. You should place items such as guests' belongings and new purchases in a closet or cabinet.
  • Restrict your pet's access to doors and windows through which he can observe animals outside. If this isn't possible, discourage the presence of other animals near your house.
  • Use a product like Feliway® to inhibit your cat's spraying.

If your pet's feeling anxious, you might consider talking to your veterinarian about putting him on a short course of anti-anxiety medication while you are using behavior modification techniques.

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