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Leaving a Mark

The most common feline behavior problem reported by pet owners is inappropriate elimination, but many of these behaviors don’t have to do with litter box problems at all. These cats are urine marking, and urine marking isn’t a litter box problem—it’s a communication problem. Urine marking is a form of indirect communication used by cats.

Why Do Cats Urine Mark?

Cats have a somewhat unique social structure in that they do not hunt, eat or sleep in groups like dogs. Given the opportunity, cats go off on their own when they mature and claim certain areas or territories for themselves. They might share a territory with other cats, but they avoid each other whenever possible. Cats have no instinctive system for working out face-to-face disputes, so they avoid them by leaving “messages”.

Cats have numerous ways to leave messages for each other, and one way is through urine marking. By urine marking, a cat tells other cats of his presence and makes a statement about such things as what piece of property is his, how long ago he was in the area and, over time, when other cats can expect him to return. Cats can even advertise when they are looking for a mate. Cats who live in houses might not have to hunt for their food or find a mate, but they still look at their world in the same way as cats who must survive on their own. If their world is predictable and there are no conflicts, if they have been spayed or neutered, there is no reason to mark and probably they will not. But if they are stressed, they’ll deal with their distress by marking their territory, keeping unwanted individuals away and it creating an atmosphere of familiarity that makes them feel more secure.

How Can I Tell If My Cat Has a Litter Box Problem or a Communication Problem?

It takes a bit of detective work to determine whether your cat has a litter box problem or is urine marking. Cats who urine mark also use their litter boxes for voiding, so urine in the litter box does not rule out marking outside the box. But urine marking deposits are usually qualitatively different than inappropriate eliminations outside the box.

The following is a list of characteristics that indicate urine marking:

• Urine marks are usually “sprayed” on vertical surfaces – a cat usually backs up to a wall or a piece of furniture and sprays urine onto the surface. Often his tail and sometimes his entire body twitch while he’s spraying.

• Urine marks are usually smaller than voided deposits.

• The urine smells pungent – urine expressed during marking contains extra communication chemicals. Those chemicals smell pungent to people.

Here are a few ways to prevent urine marking:

Neuter or spay your cat. Neutering or spaying is a proven treatment for cats who mark as a reproductive advertisement.

Close windows, blinds and doors. Prevent your indoor cat from seeing other neighborhood cats.

Attach a motion-detection device to your lawn sprinkler. Set the sprinkler by windows to deter the presence of neighborhood cats.

For multi-cat households and problems created by other cats outdoors, read the ASPCA article about how to treat these issues.

What NOT to Do

Do not rub your cat’s nose in his urine.

Do not throw things at your cat.

Do not clean up accidents with an ammonia-based cleanser. Urine contains ammonia, so cleaning with ammonia can attract your cat that same spot to urinate again.

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