Cat Behavior & Scent Communication: Marking Behavior
Marking is a behavior cats use to identify territory. Cats spray urine and defecate, scratch, and rub against objects to leave visual and scent cues. These signals not only indicate ownership, but also tell other cats who has been there before them, how long ago the mark was left, the sexual status of that cat, and other important information. In this way, cats can avoid confrontations by anticipating how fresh or old the mark is, and adjusting their paths accordingly. And, because the pungent scent tends to fade as soon as it contacts the air, markings must be constantly freshened with new markings on top or nearby the original.
MARKING WITH URINE
Cats, both males and females, normally urinate in a crouching position and release the urine over a flat surface such as the litter in a litter pan. Marking with urine, called territorial spraying, is done by using a slightly different technique. Rather than releasing urine downward while squatting, the cat stands erect and urine is sprayed outward against vertical surfaces such as walls or trees. The cat backs up to the target, tail held straight up with the tip quivering, and releases short bursts against the item.
Territorial spraying is a sign of dominance, and is a normal behavior for sexually intact cats, particularly males. Spraying marks the boundaries of the cat’s territory, as well as suppressing the sexual behavior of other less dominant cats that venture into that territory. Intact female cats that spray do so more often during breeding season to announce their availability to male Romeos.
This normal spraying behavior is a nuisance to humans particularly when the cat is an indoor pet. The unaltered male cat’s urine has a particularly strong odor that is difficult to eliminate from household furnishings. Neutering the cat stops territorial spraying in 80 to 90 percent of cases.
Altered cats of either sex that spray are usually experiencing stress. When feeling insecure, a cat attempts to assert control over his or her environment by aggressively marking territory with the comforting familiarity of personal scent.
MARKING WITH FECES
Middening is the deposition of feces most often in strategic and conspicuous open areas of the cat’s territory, as a way to mark the area as owned. Middening is the least common form of feline marking. The cats’ habit of covering waste is often attributed to instinctive behavior left over from a wild existence, and designed to protect cats living in the wild from a predator’s detection. But not all cats cover their feces. Cat owners have often experienced a cat using a bathroom deposit to express dissatisfaction with a situation.
Aggressive cats tend to leave their droppings uncovered and prominently displayed as a sign of their dominance and ownership of a particular territory. Cats less self-assured or who are “trespassing” in another cat’s “owned” territory cover their waste to avoid detection and, perhaps, as a sign of deference to the cat in control. It’s probable that housecats cover their waste in deference to living within a territory “owned” by a more dominant, potent creature—the human owner.
Cats that leave their waste uncovered may be expressing a dominant behavior and signaling that territory belongs to them. And, when something happens that ruffles Kitty’s whiskers, a bathroom deposit left in the middle of the floor or on the bed may be a way of saying, “I own this joint, get with the program!” However, inappropriate elimination also can be caused by health problems or emotional issues, and should never be ignored.
MARKING WITH SCRATCHING
That’s right, scratching behavior also signals territorial claims. The claw marks leave visual signals, but also spread scented warnings from the paws that virtually shout, “I own this place.”
Because scratching is tied to territorial claims, cats most typically claw objects in important areas of the home. These often are near lookouts (like windows), near food bowls, and near pathways the cat travels.
Cats also scratch as a greeting behavior, and to relieve stress. Providing cats with appropriate scratch objects in the areas they prefer—not hidden away in a back room—help enormously to entice them to scratch legal objects instead of the forbidden sofa.