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Territorial Marking in Cats

Date Published: 04/03/2019
Photo courtesy of Depositphotos

What is Territorial Marking?

Territorial marking, also known as urine marking or spraying in cats, is the act of purposefully urinating in an area as a way of communicating. This behavior is normal in cats and used commonly in the wild or in outdoor settings. Generally, these ‘messages’ are used to avoid unnecessary or unexpected meetings, e.g., “Welcome to this tree. A cat named Fluffy lives here.” Urine marking can also convey readiness to mate or provide a sense of safety and/or security to the marking cat.

It is important to understand that messages communicated in this manner are often not meant to be aggressive, intimidating or done spitefully. While humans may find urine puddles inappropriate, frustrating, or even rude, cats that find urine left by another cat typically will sniff casually and meander away, message received.

How does Territorial Marking Differ from other Types of Inappropriate Elimination?

Inappropriate elimination, also known as feline house soiling, is a term used for cats who urinate and/or defecate anywhere outside of the litterbox. Territorial marking is considered a type of inappropriate elimination and differs from other types by what causes it.

Inappropriate elimination can be due to medical issues, such as arthritis, kidney failure, or urinary tract infections. It can also be due to household stress on the cat. While territorial marking can be related to stress, marking is more purposeful and is only rarely associated with underlying illness or disease.

Why do Cats Mark?

Most scientific studies about territorial marking have determined it is most often associated with social/relationship problems between cats within or outside the household, such as social standing amongst inter-household cats or seeing new cats outside the window. In addition to this, marking can be associated with sexual attraction. As noted, cats sometimes mark as a reaction to stress or environmental changes.

Usually, urine marking associated with these factors is done in an area that is conspicuous, not hidden, and may also occur on or near the pet owner’s possessions, such as the laundry or bed. Cats that are marking typically prefer to urinate on vertical surfaces like the dishwasher as opposed to flat surfaces like rugs, although this is not always the case.

Marking due to reactionary causes or social problems is often used to create a sense of security in the marking cat and it’s not meant to be a display of frustration or a spiteful maneuver; it is not meant to punish the human. The cat feels anxiety about new changes or issues and is trying to surround himself with his own scent to provide a stronger feeling of security and confidence.

A Cat’s Territory

Cats break their home down into two areas: their core territory, where they eat, sleep and play; and then a broader area known as their hunting range. This is true for indoor cats too, even if they don’t actually hunt. Indoor cats still have that instinctive desire for roaming their hunting range.

In order to prevent a lot of territorial marking behaviors, the core territory of each individual cat needs to be protected and nurtured by the cat’s owner, especially in a household with multiple pets. This includes providing adequate sleeping spaces, bathroom areas, food and water, and play time.

Have your Cat Checked Out Medically

Have your cat checked out by your veterinarian. Make sure there aren’t any medical problems that could cause the behavior and confirm that urine marking is really what’s happening. Things your veterinarian may want to know include:

  •         How long has the problem been happening?
  •         How often does the marking occur?
  •         Where is your pet marking? Is your cat marking on a vertical surface (the wall) or horizontal surface (the floor)?
  •         How many litterboxes do you have?
  •         Is it urine or feces?
  •         How often and with what are you cleaning litterboxes, both scooping and washing?
  •         How many other pets are in the household and are there any new pets or humans in the house?
  •         What treatments or methods have you used to prevent or discourage the issue so far?

Suggestions to Prevent Urine Marking

Once your vet has established the diagnosis of territorial marking, recommendations can be provided, such as:

  • Spraying or urine marking is more common in intact/un-neutered cats, so neutering or spaying is highly recommended. This may not completely stop the problem but can significantly reduce marking behaviors in 90-95% of previously intact cats.

  • Do not punish your cat for marking. Punishment can create anxiety and decrease the cat’s sense of security within his home, which can lead to increased marking and/or new problem behaviors.

  • Minimize changes and stressors within the household.

  • Many cats will mark in the same area repeatedly. This is thought to be a need to freshen up the scent, so you need to completely eliminate the urine to prevent further marking. Remove or deep clean anything your cat has marked on. Use a blacklight in the dark to find spots. In some cases, both the carpet and underlying carpet pad may need to be replaced. Products with ammonia or chlorine can smell similar enough to urine that they will not deter a cat from continuing to mark in an area. Use pet-specific enzymatic cleaners and urine odor absorbers when cleaning.

  • If the area of marking remains the same, deterrents can help prevent it.  Cats prefer keeping their meal areas separate from their bathroom areas, so providing food in the area of marking may help dissuade your cat from marking that specific area, although normally it’s best to keep the litterbox separate from sleeping and eating/drinking areas. Make sure the deterrents or preventive methods you use, such as a spray bottle or loud noises, do not cause anxiety or the marking behavior may actually get worse.

  • Make certain litterboxes are cleaned regularly, placed in a safe place to be used without being disturbed, and easy for the cat to get to. Certain types of litter may be more attractive than others, so you may need to try a few options before finding the right one for your cat. A litter buffet can help your cat let you know what’s preferred.

  • Address the lack of appropriate space and/or resources and make sure each cat has a core territory. Unfortunately, in multi-pet and especially multi-cat households, this may require re-homing a pet or moving. Find ways to improve space, feeding schedules, and increase one-on-one attention among you and your pets. Make sure there are an appropriate number of litterboxes; bowls for food and water; and resting or hiding places (including high places) for each cat in your house.

  • When introducing new pets, especially cats, to your current cat, be mindful of the current cat’s territorial concerns and that his environment may feel threatened by this new animal. Introductions should be very slow, done over time, and not directly in the current cat’s core territory.

  • In multi-cat households, each cat should have one litterbox. In addition to one litterbox per cat, an additional box should be provided as well; if you have 3 cats, keep 4 litterboxes. Litterboxes should be separated and not placed within the same area as each other.

  • If marking is due to a new outside cat or threat, limiting visibility may help. Block windows or doors in which your cat might see other outdoor cats. Remove the outdoor cat if possible. Motion sensors or putting up a fence can be helpful in some cases. Keep the cat’s bathroom areas, resting areas, and eating/drinking bowls away from windows through which your cat could see a perceived threat.

  • Pheromone therapy can help minimize urine marking. Synthetic cat pheromones are available in a spray, diffuser or collar. Pheromones can help decrease some of the stress that causes marking and can promote calming and secure feelings in cats.

  • Medication can sometimes be used to help with urine marking, but they do not work well without the addition of many of the suggestions previously mentioned. Your veterinarian will be able to provide you with more information about medication options.

Remember that territorial marking is a natural behavior in cats, and that they are not doing it to spite you. Think of the world in their terms and find a way to give every cat what that cat wants. Your veterinarian is a good resource for any outside-the-box issues.



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