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What to Do If Your Cat Is Marking Territory

The Humane Society of the United States

  • iStockphoto

Your cat isn't that far removed from their wild roots. They feel an instinctive urge to stake their claim.

How do they do that? By leaving their scent. Your cat marks their territory by rubbing, scratching and, unfortunately, sometimes urinating. You can teach your cat not to use their urine to mark their territory. The best way to start is to understand why scent marking is so important to them.

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 them like a stranger at first. They look the same, but that doesn't matter to the cats at home. They smell different. They'll have to get a good sniffing-over before they're 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—they put their own personal scent on that object. This leaves the message for the next cat that they're been there and laid claim. Rubbing against you is a way of marking you as theirs 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, they're doing more than sharpening their claws; they're leaving their 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 them to use a scratching post and leave the furniture alone.

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 their tail erect and squirts urine. Their tail often quivers while they're spraying. Regular urinating is when they squat 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. Assuming your cat has no problems with the litter box and uses it happily, why are they marking?

Why your cat is urine marking

There are several possible reasons your cat is urine marking:

They are 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 them 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 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. They feel anxious and are trying to relieve their anxiety by staking out their boundaries. Leaving their 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 their 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 their 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, their problem is all in their head.

If you have multiple cats: whodunnit?

Isolate one cat at a time to see if the inappropriate behavior stops while they're in isolation. This method isn't foolproof, however, because if the culprit's behavior is stress-induced, it may not occur if isolation has removed them from the source of stress.

IAnother 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?

Ways to solve marking

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 their 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 they're 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 they 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.

Cat Training Items on Amazon.com»

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

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