Territorial Marking Behavior in Cats

Marking may have evolved to minimize contact with other cats.

Experts believe that cats developed marking behaviors to minimize contact with other cats, thus enhancing their odds of survival. Marking their territory is their primary means of communicating with other cats and letting them know another cat is in the area. If you are finding feces or drops of urine in locations outside of the litter box, first make sure that your cat does not have urinary tract issues and is really “marking” territory. Consult our article in Cats: Health section (insert name of article?) for more information.

You also need to understand that urine marking is not the same thing as inappropriate elimination. Here’s how to tell the difference:

  • Cats that urine mark will urinate mostly on vertical surfaces, though they sometimes mark horizontal surfaces, too. They deposit small amounts of urine, and display a typical posture while marking, which includes backing up to the object, lifting and often quivering the tail, and treading with the back feet.
  • Inappropriately eliminating cats will urinate or defecate on horizontal surfaces only, with large amounts of urine deposited and with the definitive urinating posture of squatting to eliminate.

Once you are sure your cat is marking and you are not dealing with litter box or urinary tract problems, there are a few basics to understand about marking that can help ease your concerns:

  • Cats have scent glands in a variety of locations and can use them to mark territory. Spraying and head rubbing are two primary techniques cats use to lay down their scent.
  • People are usually marked by cats with their forehead, while furniture and other inanimate objects are marked by the sides of their cheeks and their chins.
  • Cats have scent glands in their paws. Scratching in a variety of areas is the sign of a cat marking and not just working to keep his claws clean and sharp.
  • Favorite places cats scratch to mark are commonly used entrances and exits to the home; the main front door entrance; favorite sleeping areas; and any boundary that they feel is being challenged in some way.
  • Spraying is the deposition of small amounts of urine on walls and other vertical surfaces. The spraying cat may be seen to back into the area, the tail may quiver, and with little or no crouching the urine is released.
  • Urine marking is typically the behavior of urinating on a horizontal surface from a squatting position.
  • Both male and female cats can mark with urine. Urine marking is most common in intact (non-neutered) male cats. When an intact male sprays urine, it has a strong, pungent, characteristic odor. Neutering will change the odor, and may reduce the cat’s motivation for spraying, but approximately 10 percent of neutered males and 5 percent of spayed females will continue to spray after altering.
  • Minimizing marking by your cat will mostly revolve around decreasing the motivation driving the behavior. Closing doors and windows to the outside will help keep the smell of neighborhood cats outside. Use of odor neutralizers also can prevent smelling the presence of other cats and help minimize the urge to mark territory.
  • Similarly, if you have multiple cats, understanding which ones are not getting along and keeping them in separate rooms will help alleviate the problem.
  • Providing common positive experiences with other cats can help break down some stress your cat is likely feeling from their presence. Work to develop positive play-times or common feeding times and locations. Work to get your cat comfortable around other cats.

Understanding why your cat is marking his territory and helping him to deal with those issues will help keep your house clean, him feeling secure and you happier with your cat.